Afghanistan: Anatomy of an election disaster

It was, everybody agrees, a tawdry and inept attempt to rig an election. But are we in the west as much to blame as anyone?

By Jon Boone
The Guardian

Hamid Karzai raises his inked finger after voting in the election (Photograph: Getty Images.)
Hamid Karzai raises his inked finger after voting in the election (Photograph: Getty Images.)

For a couple of days last month at a cavernous warehouse in the bleak industrial zone of western Kabul, diplomats, UN officials and election monitors gathered to watch hundreds of ballot boxes being opened and turned out on to the floor.

The colleagues from Kabul's western missions rolled their eyes at each other as they witnessed not a chaotic assortment of marked and folded voting forms tumble out, but entire blocks of ballot papers that had not even been torn off from their book stubs. Others contained surprisingly uniform numbers of ballots all signed in the same hand and with the same pen, and overwhelmingly in favour of a single candidate.

One box did not contain any ballot papers at all; just a results slip with the final vote score showing a massive win for Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president many believe was all too aware of attempts to steal the country's second ever democratic attempt to choose a leader.

Everyone present could see a huge amount of cheating had taken place on 20 August, albeit rather ineptly. "Some of us joked with each other whether the Afghans, after all the billions that have gone in to trying to create a functioning government, also need to be taught how to rig an election properly," said one of the officials present, deeply cynical after weeks of revelations about Afghanistan's disastrous election.

It was a tawdry end to what had at times been an exciting, even uplifting, election campaign. In the big cities, including Afghanistan's mountaintop capital Kabul, the western boom town of Herat and even the insurgency-wracked southern city of Kandahar, candidates' banners had been stretched across the roads. Posters across the country showed the people their would-be presidents, many of whom hosted huge public rallies. But not all the candidates were that active. Karzai, the man who benefited most from staggering levels of fraud, only made five campaign stops, preferring instead to hold private conflabs with warlords and factional leaders.

"I've totally given up on this idea that Karzai is some sort of naive innocent surrounded by bad people," says one disillusioned western diplomat. "Why was he so confident? Why didn't he leave the palace? I think it was because people came to him and said, 'Don't worry, we've got it all under control.'"

But it would be wrong just to blame the shamelessness of Karzai's cronies for this fiasco, a fiasco which has torpedoed western hopes of the election of a legitimate partner to help turn round a failing war. The US and its allies that so dominate Afghanistan also have much to answer for, despite the staggering amount of resources they put into the exercise: $300m just to pay for the election, plus untold millions to pay for the thousands of extra foreign soldiers drafted in to try to secure the election.

"This was all predicted and predictable," says Ashraf Ghani, the former finance minister who polled fourth place. "The west has no excuse for not seeing what was going to happen."

At a recent interview at his house in southern Kabul, a clearly depressed Ghani explained how the election fiasco had been years in the making. But at every stage when decisive intervention by Afghanistan's international paymasters could have made a difference, the UN, the US, the UK and other major players all stood back. They wanted it to be an Afghan show, unlike the 2004 election where foreign officials had co-managed the election.

Three million fake ID cards

"Everyone was just determined to continue the fiction that this is a sovereign government," says one western diplomat, before going on to explain how it was that the western donors paid millions to Afghan authorities who then, by one account, spent the money on creating as many as 3m fake voting cards.

Although there was an electoral register left over from the 2004 election, it was deeply flawed and many people hoped that by combining a new register with a national ID card scheme that would include biometric safeguards, the potential for electoral fraud would be greatly reduced. But by August 2007, time was running out and the Independent Election Commission (IEC), the organisation running the election, was told by foreign experts that a decision needed to be taken immediately. They delayed for months, ran out of time and finally opted for a simple update of the flawed register. "They just ran the clock out," says one foreign official involved at the time. "They knew that a new register wasn't going to benefit Karzai."

Without it, applying for multiple voter cards was easy. In deeply conservative parts of the country, where women rarely leave the house without their husband's consent, there were apparently extraordinarily high levels of interest among women to assert their political rights. In fact, men were turning up to registration offices with long lists of women's names, claiming they were members of their extended family who could not be expected to come in person for cultural reasons. In Kandahar province some wit registered as Britney Jamilia Spears.

The reports of massive fraud forced the IEC to acknowledge the problem and reassure people that there were enough safeguards in place to ensure the fake cards would never be used. But the problem with the IEC was that it was not independent at all, with most of the top officials appointed by Karzai. Francesc Vendrell, the former EU special representative in Kabul between 2002 and 2008, said everyone knew that the IEC was going to be a problem. "I warned the Afghan opposition at the time of the appointments that they should protest about all these Karzai people being given jobs, because by the time everything goes wrong it will too late to complain."

Determined to make the best of a bad job, the international community launched a massive security operation to try to create enough security to stop the Taliban wrecking the polling and to allow election monitors to deter fraud. Operation Panther's Claw, the huge UK clear-and-hold mission in one of Helmand's ultimate badlands, was launched in mid-June to try to create enough security to ensure people could get to the polls.

But with huge amounts of territory under Taliban control, there were never going to be enough foreign forces to create secure polling environments where election monitors would be able to stop the deployment of all the fraudulent voter cards — particularly in the south, which also happened to be where most of Karzai's fellow Pashtuns and natural supporters live.

At the UN headquarters in Kabul staff members were looking at some of those southern areas in horror, knowing full well they could never be secured properly. "They were areas like Bagram where troops had never been. It was just blindingly obvious that those stations should never open," says one UN official.

Some 1,500 polling centres (out of around 7,000) were termed "ghost polling stations" by Peter Galbraith, a former US ambassador who was appointed earlier this year as deputy head of the UN mission. He correctly predicted that in such places local power-brokers would be able to stuff ballot boxes with impunity, with no one around to stop them or even to report on what they were doing.

Galbraith called for all the ghost polling stations to be closed — which infuriated the Afghan government. The government formally complained about Galbraith's behaviour and hinted that he could be expelled from the country. Kai Eide, the head of the UN mission, backed the Karzai government, subsequently saying that he preferred to run the risk of fraud than disenfranchise Pashtun voters.

In the end Galbraith, the only senior international figure to stick his neck out to stop electoral fraud, was fired last month by the UN. "The UN sacked the wrong man. Eide has acted as if he were Karzai's lawyer, " says Rufus Philips, an independent US observer of the elections who wrote an analysis of how damaging the effect of fraudulent elections in South Vietnam were on American and local public support for the war there.

"The international community had every right to interfere, to insist that Afghan law be followed and the rights of the Afghan people to a fair and free election be observed. It failed to do so," says Philips.

Polling day was fast approaching — with an electoral register grossly inflated by millions of fake votes, thousands of polling stations set to open in insecure areas, a partisan Afghan election commission running the show and an international community anxious not to upset the president.

A few days before the vote I phoned Zekria Barakzai, the IEC's deputy chief electoral officer, to ask what was going to stop double voting. He acknowledged the problem of the electoral roll, but said it would not matter. "It will not be possible because all voters will have to come in person and we will stain their fingers with ink once they have voted. Any irregularities will be obvious to election observers."

The indelible ink was more psychologically important than a real anti-fraud measure — the discovery during the 2006 election that it could be washed off outraged many people. So this time Eide had even gone to the trouble of organising a press conference for the Afghan media months before polling day, in which he demonstrated the new ink and unsuccessfully tried to clean it off with a variety of household detergents.

But the very first thing to fail was the ink. Just 20 minutes after polling had begun, outside a high school in Kabul where Karzai's presidential rival Dr Abdullah Abdullah was voting, people were seen cleaning the ink off their fingers with a popular brand of toilet cleaner.

Taliban intimidation

In much of Kabul and the secure provinces to the capital's north, election day went smoothly. In many polling stations, there was actually a slightly ridiculous oversupply of election monitors scrutinising a very small number of voters. It was common to find rooms crammed full of polling centre staff wearing IEC-branded bibs, people from independent election groups and a couple of observers each from the main campaigns.

In the south, it was a different story. Most voters and election observers stayed away from the polls due to outbreaks of violence, with more than 400 security incidents by some estimates. Rockets rained down on major cities and militants appeared to mount a wholesale invasion of the northern town of Baghlan. While the presence of extra soldiers might have prevented some direct attacks on polling stations, the Taliban intimidation campaign against would-be voters had paid off.

In Babaji, one of the main villages in the area of Panther's Claw, just 150 people reportedly voted after a military operation that cost 10 British lives. In the neighbouring province of Urzgan things were so bad that a European election monitoring team did not dare leave the Nato base they were staying on.

Alex Strick van Linschoten, a Dutch independent researcher who lives in Kandahar, toured the city and found election officials openly selling votes. They did not think the tall westerner could understand their Pashtu as they negotiated prices — in one case $400 for 1,000 votes. Where observers did manage to get out, they reported trivial numbers of people daring to vote.

But that was not what the official voter returns showed. In spreadsheet after spreadsheet, the official IEC data shows Karzai romping home with high numbers of ballots, many of which come to nice round numbers. Why? Because each book of blank ballot papers has 100 sheets of paper which fraudsters simply allocated in their entirety to a single candidate.

Videos that later emerged from the day showed people casually wandering off with ballot boxes to take to their homes to stuff; individuals filling out entire books of ballot papers; local officials blatantly overseeing massive fraud. One despairing international election expert described the mess as the very worst they had seen in a long career of sorting out messy elections. In the days immediately after polling, senior western diplomats rushed to declare the day a great success, as the levels of violence could have been even higher.

Eide refused to reveal evidence of low turnout in the south, on the basis that it could not be verified. Karzai refused to acknowledge there was a problem, maintaining in a series of US television interviews that the level of fraud was small and "normal by international standards".

In late August the IEC began announcing results in small increments. At the first press conference they announced different numbers in Dari than they did in English. There were also discrepancies between what officials were saying, and the charts and figures projected on to a screen. It did not inspire confidence. And the first announcement of 10 per cent of the voters, which gave Karzai 41 per cent and Abdullah 39 per cent, was met with widespread cynicism.

A few days later, at another press conference, I bumped into a western official, usually given to sober analysis of the political situation in Afghanistan. He said the IEC was deliberately releasing results in small increments so the scale of Karzai's "win" would only be gradually revealed.

The final result came in at 55 per cent, defying all opinion poll predictions. It gave the president an absolute majority, ensuring he would not have to fight a second round against Abdullah, who was awarded 28 per cent by the IEC. But that was only possible by the IEC ignoring its own published rules on "quarantining" ballot boxes that had been flagged as suspicious by its own triggers — anywhere that 600 or more people had turned out to vote or where 95 per cent of all the votes went to a single candidate.

Eide dithered in his response, only putting his name to a statement written by his press officers calling for the rules to be respected after the US ambassador had made a similar statement. Galbraith, his former friend and colleague, denounced him.

Against this backdrop of corrupt Afghan officials running rings around half-hearted western attempts to ensure a credible election, it is remarkable that Karzai has been defied by the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), an organisation once widely regarded as a weak, under-resourced institution that was never intended to deal with industrial scale fraud. Because its board is dominated by a majority of three non-Afghan commissioners it could not be controlled by Karzai, and was assailed by the president's supporters and the government-owned media which claimed foreigners were meddling in the election.

It is remarkable that the lightly staffed ECC has managed to cut Karzai's lead down to a point where a second round should be called. Such foreign interference will not be allowed to happen in future elections — a new law on the parliamentary schedule is set to strip the ECC of its majority of international commissioners.

But for the time being, the ECC remains in place. it will be there for the second round of voting, which should happen in the next couple of weeks, if it ever happens at all. But a run-off is likely to suffer from many of the same problems as the first vote. The western election observers may yet have to assemble once again in a warehouse west of Kabul to pore over a new batch of ballot papers, and find out whether the Afghans have got any better at rigging elections.

October 20, 2009 — Return to cover.