Afghan vote helps widen rift with U.S.


POSTED: Saturday, August 29, 2009

OAK BLUFFS, MASS. — A little more than 24 hours after the polls closed, President Barack Obama stepped out on the White House South Lawn last week to pronounce the Afghanistan presidential elections something of a success.

“;This was an important step forward in the Afghan people's effort to take control of their future, even as violent extremists are trying to stand in their way,”; Obama said. “;I want to congratulate the Afghanistan people on carrying out this historic election.”;

But now, as reports mount of widespread fraud in the balloting, including allegations that supporters of the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, illegally stuffed ballot boxes in the south and ripped up ballots cast for his opponents, Obama's early praise for the Afghan elections may soon comeback to haunt him.

Afghanistan's Electoral Complaints Commission said Friday that it had received more than 2,000 complaints of fraud or abuse in last week's election, with 270 of them serious enough to potentially change the outcome. Karzai's biggest rival, Abdullah Abdullah, showed reporters video of a local election chief in one polling station stuffing ballot boxes himself.

The vote count has progressed slowly in Afghanistan—as of Friday, preliminary results with 17 percent of the vote in gave Karzai 44 percent and Abdullah 35 percent. If no candidate wins 50 percent of the vote, a runoff must be held between the two top candidates.

For Obama, who is on vacation in Martha's Vineyard, and his administration, it is, in many ways, the worst of all possible outcomes. Administration officials have made no secret of their growing disenchantment with Karzai, who is viewed by the West as having so compromised himself to try to get elected—including striking deals with accused drug dealers and warlords for political gain—that he will be a hindrance to international efforts to get the country on track after the election.

But Karzai, in a feat of political shrewdness which has surprised some in the Obama administration, has managed to turn that disenchantment to an advantage, painting himself at home as the only political candidate willing to stand up to the dictates of the United States, according to Western officials.

Case in point: an exchange the day after the elections last week between Karzai and Richard C. Holbrooke, Obama's special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, at Karzai's presidential palace in Kabul.

A person familiar with the meeting, which also included Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, and the deputy ambassador, Francis J. Ricciardone Jr., said that the three Americans went in to see Karzai and discussed two things: How Karzai would govern if he was re-elected, and how the elections had gone.

The three Americans told Karzai, the person said, that the United States was maintaining a neutral position in the elections, and would leave decisions about whether there needed to be a runoff to the Afghan elections commission and the electoral complaints commission.

Karzai told the Americans, according to this account, that he believed that he had won. Holbrooke, administration officials said, did not demand a runoff during the meeting, but did express concern about the complaints about fraud and ballot-box stuffing. The Americans left the meeting and described it as routine.

A few days after, reports surfaced in international and Afghan news outlets that Holbrooke had demanded a runoff election in what one report characterized as the “;explosive”; meeting with Karzai, a charge which the Americans deny vociferously.

The administration officials accused Karzai's agents of leaking to the news media select portions of the exchange between the two men to make it look like the Obama administration was trying to force the rightful winner of the Afghan presidential elections—Karzai—into holding a runoff to satisfy American demands.

Karzai, a senior administration official said, “;has a long-standing pattern of creating a straw man of America's positions, and rallying people around that. But contrary to those reports, no one shouted, no one walked out”; of the meeting, he said.

Whatever the case, the atmosphere may now have become so poisoned between the United States and Karzai that the Obama administration will be hampered no matter what course it takes.

Administration officials said that initial characterizations of the success of the elections referred solely to the fact that they took place at all, despite threats by the Taliban and more than 200 rocket attacks in southern Afghanistan on election day.

“;Those comments about the relative success of the elections were coming at a time when there was the fear that the Taliban would disrupt the process,”; another senior administration official said. The Taliban, the official said, “;launched hundreds of rocket attacks, and Afghans still voted.”;

Publicly, the administration line remains that Obama is waiting for the Afghan complaints commission to rule on the validity of the vote tallies and on less numerous fraud allegations lodged against Abdullah. The process may take weeks.

Asked if Obama regretted his initial assessment that the elections appeared to have been successful, a White House spokesman, Bill Burton, said that “;the president's view is we're all waiting for the results to trickle in just like everybody else.”;

Burton added: “;We think that, with the mechanisms in place to address any allegations of fraud, that they will work. And we're just waiting out the process just like everybody else.”;

That may not be enough for Afghans.

“;The allegations of fraud are very serious, throughout the country, and the international community has an obligation to ensure that the complaints commission investigates all of these complaints,”; said Saad Mohseni, head of the Moby media group of radio and television stations based in Kabul.

“;We had rockets raining on some towns, suicide bombers in the cities, gunfire, and yet people turned out to vote,”; Mohseni said. “;People took their lives in their hands, and therefore they deserve better.”;