by Joyce Marcel
American Reporter Correspondent
October 1, 2009
DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- It seems pretty clear that the Aug. 20 presidential election in Afghanistan was not on the level.
The top American official in the United Nations mission in Afghanistan, Peter Galbraith, has been vocal about the allegations of voting fraud that apparently gave incumbent President Hamid Karzai a victory.
Galbraith wanted the Afghan Independent Election Commission, the body overseeing the election, to annul results from 1,000 of a total of about 6,500 polling stations and to recount results from another 5,000.
Galbraith's boss, Kai Eide of Norway, apparently disagreed about how best to respond to the fraud allegations. He opposed the annulments, because he said it would have virtually ensured a second runoff election.
The disagreement between Eide and Galbraith ended on Wednesday with Galbraith being removed from his U.N. post by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Galbraith, the son of the late economist and U.S. Ambassador to India John Kenneth Galbraith, is no foreign policy neophyte. He worked for the U.N. in East Timor in 2000-2001 and as the U.S. ambassador to Croatia from 1993 to 1998. He is close to Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, who reportedly got the U.N. to appoint Galbraith over the objections of Eide.
But in the eyes of the U.N., Galbraith's insistence on taking a much harder line against the apparent election rigging was inconsistent with what Ban said Wednesday was "in the best interest of the mission."
According to preliminary results, Karzai won a majority of 54.6 percent, while his top challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, had slightly more than 28 percent. Galbraith's proposal would have likely taken enough votes away from Karzai to push him below the 50-percent threshold needed to claim victory outright and force a runoff election. European Union observers say as many as 1.5 million votes, about a quarter of all ballots, could be fraudulent.
Eide supported a much more modest recount. He admits that there was fraud but said "what most Afghans - by far - now want is to see the election process end, a government formed and their lives improved." While Eide reportedly urged his staff not to speak out against election fraud because he fears that it will destabilize efforts to build a democracy, Galbraith rightly pointed out that unless the Afghan elections are seen as free and fair by the international community, niot to mention the Afghan people, it will be difficult for anyone to accept Karzai as a legitimately elected leader.
Of course, telling the truth in a situation like this gets you sacked by the people whose jobs depend on not acknowledging the truth. After all, Galbraith was equally outspoken in his criticism of the conduct of the U.S. war in Iraq during the Bush Administration, and he eventually resigned from government service to write "The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End."
In an interview with The Times of London on Wednesday, Galbraith rejected suggestions that he was backing one candidate over another in the election, saying he only wanted the votes of the Afghan electorate to be counted in an honest way.
"I think it's astonishing that the United Nations would dismiss an official because he was concerned about fraud in a U.N.-funded and U.N.-supported election," Galbraith said. "I want to emphasize that my position was not for or against any candidate. It was simply that the votes should be honestly counted. I was not prepared to be complicit in a cover-up or in an effort to downplay the fraud that took place. I felt we had to face squarely the fraud that took place. Kai downplayed the fraud."
It goes without saying that Galbraith firing would have required the agreement of the Obama Administration. If so, that seems to be a backtrack from the earlier demand by Holbrooke that Karzai respect the proper election process. Just the same, the leaked confidential report prepared by the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, warns that corruption within the Karzai government is as big a threat as the Taliban.
As the debate over an expanded U.S. role in Afghanistan begins to heat up, will the Obama Administration keep supporting Karzai despite the growing evidence of fraud and corruption? Do we want to send more of our soldiers to prop up a government that has little popular support among ordinary Afghans? Is it even possible to bring democracy to a nation that has never known it, and is extremely skeptical about its alleged benefits?
That's why the Eide/Galbraith battle is not just a power struggle between two diplomats. It's a battle over what kind of nation the U.S. and its allies are trying to build in Afghanistan.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for nearly 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com. For extra added thrills, read his ongoing daily blog on The Harvard Classics.