The sheer scale and brazen nature of vote rigging in Afghanistan’s elections has left the US Administration scrambling for a “least-worst” option, according to officials haunted by the spectre of a failed government in Kabul.
The widespread evidence of fraud followed a decision by Washington to remain completely neutral in the run-up to the election. It was a position that had been strongly argued by Richard Holbrooke, President Obama’s “AfPak” envoy, who said any appearance of interference might backfire.
As President Karzai edges towards a first-round victory — preliminary results have him on 46 per cent, against 33 per cent for his nearest rival, Abdullah Abdullah — the White House faces the prospect of backing a man whose regime is seen widely as ineffective and corrupt and who may have stolen the election.
The Times understands that emergency discussions are taking place in Washington to come up with an alternative. One option is to try to engineer a second-round run-off in an attempt to give the election greater legitimacy.
However, when Mr Holbrooke suggested the idea to Mr Karzai over dinner in Kabul last week the Afghan leader reacted with fury. Some US officials think the account was deliberately leaked by the Karzai camp to make him look like the only man willing to stand up to Washington.
Western officials are trying to put a brave face on matters as the reports of vote rigging flood in. A Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokeswoman said: “Speculating on turnout figures or likely results would be premature. The important thing is that the outcome of the elections represents the will of the Afghan people.”
But it is precisely this that is worrying the US. While most parties appear to have indulged in some ballot-box stuffing, intimidation or bribery, Mr Karzai’s supporters have appeared most culpable. Much of the vote rigging appears to have happened in the violence-ridden southern provinces, where heavy British losses in recent weeks failed to stop Taleban intimidation of voters, causing a low turnout.
Only 150 Afghan voters went to the polls in the former Taleban stronghold of Babaji, north of Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand, when several thousand could have voted. Four of the ten troops who died in Operation Panther’s Claw, the offensive to clear out the Taleban before the election, were killed in or around Babaji.
One election observer told The Times yesterday that in Paktia province, about 100 miles south of Kabul, witnesses reported that groups of 40 to 50 men had been seen using the voting cards of women who had not dared venture out of their homes, and were casting hundreds of votes each. This was sometimes done in collusion with officials from the Independent Electoral Commission, he alleged.
The Election Complaints Committee is now considering almost 700 serious allegations and the number is rising daily. Last month The Times reported several instances, including one when more than 5,500 people had apparently cast their ballots in the first hour of the election on August 20.
Some fear that Afghanistan might revert to civil war if the election results are contested. Haroun Mir, a political analyst, said: “We can either move forward to democracy or back to the 1990s, where conflict is based on ethnicity.”
Dr Abdullah, a Tajik, has promised to protest against any fraudulent victory by his Pashtun rival. But Mr Mir said that if he did not concede defeat, “we move towards a crisis. Then what could prevent us from falling again into the same disaster that we witnessed in the 1990s?”
Bruce Reidel, chosen to head Mr Obama’s Afghanistan policy review, said: “If the Government of Afghanistan goes into free fall, all the troops in the world aren’t going to matter. If we don’t have a government that has some basis of legitimacy in the country, the best generals, the best strategy, isn’t going to help turn it around.
•More than 17 million Afghans registered to vote, although the number of eligible voters is estimated at 12 million to 15 million
•Abdul Hadee, the local election commission head in Helmand, told The Times on August 20 that fewer than 50,000 people had voted in the province; by August 23 he changed the figure to 110,000. In Garmsir his estimate rose from nought to 20,000
•The election commission is investigating claims that up to 70,000 illegal votes were cast in centres around the Haji Janat Gul polling centre east of Kabul
•Witness reports in Jawji Aryub district of Paktia province claim that some individual men voted with hundreds of women’s cards at female polling stations
•The Times arrived at Pul-e-Charki polling station an hour after it opened to find the station empty but 5,530 votes already cast
•Tribal leaders in Helmand told The Times in early August that Karzai supporters were buying voting cards from local residents
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