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Karzai rails against foreign presence, accuses West of engineering voter fraud

By Joshua Partlow and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, April 2, 2010; A01

KABUL -- President Hamid Karzai on Thursday delivered one of his most stinging criticisms to date of the foreign presence in Afghanistan, accusing the West and the United Nations of wanting a "puppet government" and of orchestrating fraud in last year's election.

Karzai's comments come just five days after President Obama, in his first visit to Afghanistan as commander in chief, pushed the Afghan president hard in a tense exchange to crack down on his government's pervasive corruption, ensure independently monitored elections and draw up a clear plan for how to reintegrate defecting Taliban foot soldiers into Afghan society.

Karzai's criticism provides a new indication of the depth of suspicion and mistrust between the Afghan president and his Western partners, at a time when 30,000 new U.S. troops are flooding into Afghanistan to join the 100,000 foreign troops already there, and the Obama administration is depending on Karzai to help fend off the growing Taliban insurgency. U.S. officials have long been skeptical about his ability to be a reliable partner, and the first four months of his second term have provided little reason for encouragement.

His comments were directed at a vote Wednesday by the lower house of the Afghan parliament, which rejected a decree he signed in February to give him more power over the commission that investigates election fraud.

"We have our own national interest in the country," Karzai told a gathering of Afghan election officials in Kabul. "What the foreigners want, and what our national interest is, we have to balance those. If not, our national interests are undermined."

Responding to Karzai's comments, White House deputy press secretary Bill Burton said: "The president and this government have made clear that there are issues with governance in that country that could certainly be improved. We've been having conversations with them for months. I think that we've been able to make some progress. The president is glad for that progress, but there's obviously a lot more work to do, and we're going to continue to do it."

Karzai, who did not cite the United States directly, accused the United Nations and the international media of conspiring against him. He said the daily attacks on his character by foreigners are intended to marginalize him, to make him "psychologically smaller and smaller," and he accused former U.N. diplomat Peter W. Galbraith of orchestrating fraud and attempting to bribe election officials. Galbraith, the former deputy of the U.N. mission in Kabul, was fired in a dispute over the United Nations' handling of fraud in the Aug. 20 elections.

Tense talks with Obama

During Obama's visit to Kabul on Sunday night, he laid out five areas in which the United States wants to see more progress from Karzai, according to a senior U.S. official. Among them, the United States wanted Karzai to formulate stricter rules against corruption, to establish long-expected guidelines about how to proceed with persuading insurgents to switch sides, and to keep foreign members on the Electoral Complaints Commission, the body that investigates voting fraud, according to U.S. officials in Afghanistan.

Karzai signed a presidential decree on March 18 that gives more power to the High Office of Oversight and Anti-Corruption and makes government officials disclose personal assets. But he has not yet issued an expected executive order with further measures.

Karzai's outburst on Thursday seemed out of keeping with the sentiments of other senior Afghan officials, who praised Obama's visit and expressed faith in the United States' continued support.

"Generally, I think we were all very pleased with his visit and his statements of their continuation of support, that they will be behind us," Defense Minister Rahim Wardak said in an interview.

But the issue of the electoral law, especially the foreign-role aspect, seems to have elicited a particularly visceral reaction from Karzai. During the presidential election, the U.N.-led body stripped Karzai of nearly a million votes deemed fraudulent, threatening his victory. On Thursday, he rehashed that election uncertainty, laying the blame for the chaos on what he called "massive interference from foreigners."

"They wanted to have a puppet government. They wanted a servant government," he said.

Accusations of meddling

Foreigners, Karzai said, don't want the next parliamentary election, scheduled for September, to take place. "They also want the parliament to be like me, battered and wounded. They want me to be an illegitimate president. And they want the parliament to be illegitimate."

Karzai singled out Galbraith and Philippe Morillon, a former French general and the head of the European Union vote-monitoring mission.

"There was fraud in the presidential election and the provincial election; no doubt there was massive fraud," he said. "That was not done by the Afghans. The foreigners did that. That fraud was done by Galbraith. That fraud was done by Morillon. And that fraud was done by the embassies here."

Galbraith said that when he first heard that Karzai was accusing him of organizing voter fraud, he thought it "must be an April Fools' joke."

"Karzai is unhinged if he expects anyone to believe such a bizarre accusation," Galbraith wrote in an e-mail. "It underscores why he is not likely to reform and therefore cannot be a credible partner."

Burton, the White House deputy press secretary, said: "International observers and folks on the ground in Afghanistan took a look at the elections. There were charges made of fraud; there were a lot of ballots that were disqualified. And the end of the process ended up with a winner in that race, who is recognized both by the Afghan people and by the international community."

This is not the first time Karzai has accused foreigners of meddling in the election process. It was a regular theme during the tumultuous days after last year's vote, when the five-member Electoral Complaints Commission began documenting the widespread fraud. Their calculations deprived Karzai of his first-round majority, although his opponent dropped out before a runoff.

Wilson reported from Portland, Maine. Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.

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