Sep 13, 2009

Our Troops Die So Karzai Can Cheat?

Unease Grows Over Afghan Election
Proposed Fraud Probe Meets Skepticism; U.S. Envoy Rules Out New Vote

By Pamela Constable, Washington Post Foreign Service
September 13, 2009

KABUL, Sept. 12 -- Just below the surface during this languid Ramadan month, as officials issue bland statements on the latest incremental tally from last month's presidential election, a political crisis is building that no one seems to know how to prevent.

With the election mired in charges of fraud, President Hamid Karzai and his main challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, both insist that the electoral review process now underway will vindicate their side and salvage the country's stumbling democratic experiment.

But the public is impatient for results, and Karzai has unofficially passed the 50 percent vote minimum he needs to win. On Saturday, election officials said Karzai was leading Abdullah 54 percent to 28 percent, with 92 percent of polling stations counted. Now, many Afghans and foreign officials say the fraud probe can only taint that result without offering a viable way to fix it.

If the U.N.-backed review panel concludes that Karzai legitimately won reelection in the Aug. 20 vote, analysts say that no one in Abdullah's camp would believe it, and that the country could erupt into factional violence. The panel could also conclude that enough votes were invalid, requiring a new election. Many people say a second poll would be too costly, dangerous, fraud-plagued and logistically impossible once winter w eather sets in.

"If anyone committed fraud, they should be punished, but this country has suffered too much to endure another election. They should spend the money on something useful like roads and jobs," said Syed Tamim, 45, a tailor, echoing a common sentiment. "Karzai and Abdullah should accept each other and shake hands and start working to rebuild the country."

Opinions are also shifting swiftly among Afghanistan's major foreign allies. Just two weeks ago, Karzai aides complained angrily that Richard C. Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, had privately pressed Karzai to accept a possible runoff with Abdullah to ensure that the election would have a credible outcome.

But Holbrooke told the BBC over the weekend that a rerun of the election "ain't going to happen" and was "out of the question." If the election review process were to take many weeks or even months, as election officials have suggested, "the beneficiary of that w! ould be the Taliban and al-Qaeda," Holbrooke said, noting that the insurgents could take advantage of an extended leadership vacuum.

On Saturday, insurgent attacks in several provinces killed about 50 people, including three U.S. troops, officials reported. The geographical diversity of the assaults was a fresh indication of the Taliban's widening reach, which now extends to about 80 percent of the country, according to the International Council on Security and Development, a London-based research organization.

Two bombs left 20 civilians dead in the Kandahar and Uruzgan provinces in the south, and a third bomb killed American troops in eastern Afghanistan. Suicide bombers also tried to attack an office of the national intelligence police in Kandahar, leaving two people dead in a shoot-out. On Friday, smaller attacks were reported in four other provinces.

Grant Kippen, the Canadian chairman of the U.N.-backed commission investigating more than 2,000 charges of election fraud, said his staff would not be rushed by political pressure or public impatience.

In the past several days, Kippen's panel has thrown out thousands of fraudulent votes from three provinces. It has also demanded a recount of all polling stations that appeared to have an excessive number of voters or where over 95 percent of votes went to one candidate.

"Nobody wants this to be dragged out, but our focus has to be on following the process and getting the job done right. We have no other agenda," he said in an interview. "We are trying to build democratic institutions here, and what matters most is for people to have confidence in them."

But many Afghans have already lost confidence in the election and are less concerned about who wins than whether the outcome leads to violence and instability. As this opinion spreads, foreign diplomats are scaling back their expectations and searching for an alternative, such as a power-sharing deal between Karzai and Abdullah or a nominal Karzai presidency with a strong team of foreign-backed aides.

So far, however, neither candidate has expressed any interest in a political deal. Abdullah said Saturday that he expects Kippen's panel to vindicate him and that he has no interest in making deals with a president whose administration is "corrupt, lawless and has just carried out the fraud of the century."

Karzai's aides, in turn, said that he is confident he has won and that Afghanistan's allies need to be more realistic about the country's political limits and accept Karzai's reelection as a fait accompli.

"Afghanistan needs a close strategic partnership with the West, but they must recognize our realities," Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta said in an interview, adding that it would be legally and logistically impossible to hold a new election.

"We ask the international community to help us," Spanta said, acknowledging that relations between Karzai and Washington have chilled considerably in recent months. "If bridges have been burned, we can rebuild them."

But international offic ials here said they are increasingly worried that the drifting election process will lead to a paralyzing political impasse or civil strife between Karzai's southern ethnic Pashtun supporters and Abdullah's northern ethnic Tajiks and other backers.

"Everyone realizes now that Karzai has won, but the fraud was so unpalatable that Abdullah will never accept the results," said a U.N. official here. "The only hope is to abandon the process and return to the backroom deal, but there is too much enmity between them for that. There is just no good option in sight."

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