The New York Times

In Afghan Election, Signs of Systemic Fraud Cast Doubt on Many Votes



KABUL, Afghanistan — When the campaign team led by Manawar Shah came under threat on the day of the Afghan presidential runoff, it was not from the Taliban, he said, but from the people who were supposed to be keeping order: an alliance of government officials, security forces and supporters of the candidate Ashraf Ghani.

Beaten and prevented from using their video equipment and cellphones, Mr. Shah’s team members, working for the candidate Abdullah Abdullah in Khost Province, spent June 14 watching fraud but unable to document it. In one polling center, Mr. Shah said, they saw just 500 voters and election officials casting multiple ballots, for a total of 10,531 votes.

That episode and others like it led Mr. Abdullah to level accusations of a conspiracy by Mr. Ghani, election officials and President Hamid Karzai to rig the vote, plunging the country into crisis and creating a new threat of factional violence. After years of Western aid spent building it, the Afghan state is suddenly at risk of collapsing just as American troops are leaving.

The impasse grew so grave that some senior Afghan officials considered imposing an interim government — a move tantamount to a coup, but one that the officials insisted might be needed to head off violence.

Mr. Ghani and Mr. Karzai have denied Mr. Abdullah’s accusations. But interviews with Afghan and international officials support some of the most serious of Mr. Abdullah’s claims, offering new details of a broad effort to push the runoff to Mr. Ghani, including a pressure campaign by election and palace officials and ballot-box stuffing orchestrated by an ally of Mr. Karzai. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid offending senior Afghan officials.

The huge scale of the fraud — involving perhaps more than two million ballots out of roughly eight million reported cast, according to independent international estimates — has stymied efforts to achieve a democratic transition. Secretary of State John Kerry has intervened twice to keep the campaigns in agreement on a unity government and a complete audit of the vote, but the process has repeatedly broken down in disputes.

Despite the hopes that drove millions of Afghans to cast legitimate votes to choose a president, the extent of the fraud has ensured that even if the process comes to a peaceful conclusion, the result will look less like an election correction than a brokered result. And in recent days, officials have quietly expressed worries that even keeping the peace may be difficult.

The warning signs have been there since the 2009 presidential election between Mr. Karzai and Mr. Abdullah, when 1.3 million fraudulent ballots were thrown out. Deeply angered by Western handling of that election, Mr. Karzai pushed changes to the election commissions and the electoral law, removing international delegates from the complaints commission, appointing new commissioners and outlawing a statistical method used for identifying fraud.

As the election approached, Mr. Karzai avoided public statements for or against any specific candidate and insisted he was staying out of the process. The president did, however, make an important introduction.

Early on, Mr. Karzai referred an operations officer to the Independent Election Commission, describing him as his “nephew” — an expression of his favor rather than of actual kinship. The official was Zia ul-Haq Amarkhail, an energetic young officer who had worked in the field operations of the commission for two years and knew his way around the system.

He was promptly appointed head of the secretariat of the commission, putting him in charge of electoral operations. One official who works inside the election commission said Mr. Amarkhail met frequently with senior aides to the president at the palace, though election officials were supposed to guard their independence.

Early in the election dispute, Abdullah campaign officials offered a series of audio recordings in which they said Mr. Amarkhail, other election officials and Ghani campaign workers could be heard directing various officials in ballot-box stuffing. That identification has been supported by a number of Western and Afghan officials who say the tapes are from direct intercepts of telephone calls.

Mr. Amarkhail insisted that the recordings were faked but resigned from his post. Mr. Abdullah and his aides have refused to explain how they gained possession of the recordings.

The Abdullah campaign also had an energetic election operator on its side, Fazil Ahmad Manawi, a former election commissioner and Supreme Court judge who is now a senior adviser to Mr. Abdullah. Like Mr. Amarkhail, Mr. Manawi has been accused of orchestrating fraud in both rounds of this election.

Mr. Manawi had a front-row seat as an election commissioner during the 2009 presidential election and then served three years as the chairman of the commission, overseeing the parliamentary elections, which were also riddled with accusations of corruption. As the current dispute unfolded, he was on the front lines of Mr. Abdullah’s fight with the commission.

“It was different from 2009; then it was the original warlords that committed the fraud. This time it was the Independent Election Commission that did it,” Mr. Manawi said. “This time the ballot stuffing even went on inside the provincial election offices.”

Mr. Manawi’s accusations resonate with details from current and former Afghan officials in Kabul and several other provinces. Some of these officials are critics of Mr. Karzai and Mr. Ghani, but others witnessed or even had a hand in the fraud.

Those officials said that the fraud had been directed by a coterie of presidential aides and ministers and managed in each province by government, election and security officials.

“It was fraud. The governor, the police chief and election commission all did it together,” Malik Muhammad Hasham, a tribal elder in the eastern district of Orgun, said within earshot of those officials. Orgun is in Paktika Province, where results were hugely in favor of Mr. Ghani.

Mr. Karzai’s aides have adamantly rejected accusations that he has been involved in fraud or intervened on Mr. Ghani’s behalf. Many of the president’s critics, unable to provide evidence of Mr. Karzai’s involvement, have focused on his role in changing the electoral system.

“What caused the electoral fraud? Who did the fraud? The commission,” said Ahmed Wali Massoud, a longtime opposition figure and outspoken critic of the president. “Who put the commission there? Karzai.”

Some officials and tribal elders in the provinces, however, say that after the first election round, Mr. Karzai issued instructions to support Mr. Ghani’s campaign. Their claims line up with reports by diplomats and officials within the election commission who described heavy pressure emanating from top officials at various times during the election crisis.

There is also independent evidence of large-scale fraud, mostly on Mr. Ghani’s behalf. The most credible local election observer organization, the Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan, has submitted 2,684 files of cases of major irregularities and fraud, including blatant ballot stuffing, to the Electoral Complaints Commission. “We have videos of I.E.C. officials doing it for both sides,” said Nader Nadery, the head of the observer group.

Another factor is complicating efforts to sort fraud from fact: Election analysts say that in the second round, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns — faced with a choice between Mr. Ghani, a fellow Pashtun, and Mr. Adbullah, who is closely linked to the Tajik-based Northern Alliance — were galvanized to vote for Mr. Ghani in larger numbers.

In an interview, Mr. Ghani insisted that a huge campaign push to mobilize the Pashtun vote made the difference that, according to preliminary results in July, put him ahead of Mr. Abdullah by more than a million votes.

“When you run a campaign through networks — I don’t know how many hundreds of thousands of volunteers have worked on this campaign, I don’t know what singly each one of them does — that’s the whole point: A convergence was brought to propel us,” Mr. Ghani said.

Mr. Abdullah was the clear leader in the first round, with a 900,000-vote margin over Mr. Ghani. But the preliminary results of the runoff showed a gigantic improvement for Mr. Ghani — an “impossible” one, according to one Western official — of 1.9 million votes.

Mr. Ghani saw huge gains in some of the most insecure Afghan provinces, many of them where the Taliban insurgency made travel for election monitors prohibitively dangerous. Results from polling stations in such places were counted in the runoff, despite local reports that the turnout was actually very low.

Now, hopes for salvaging the election have come down to the audit, a vast operation supervised by professional election observers spread out across several warehouses in Kabul.

One time-tested way to reject fraud is to throw out any ballot box that shows an overwhelming percentage for one candidate — 95 percent, for example.

If applied to the runoff, a trigger of 93 percent of votes in a polling station in favor of one candidate, which was advocated by the Abdullah team, would have removed one-third of the ballots, more than two million, from the count, according to a diplomat in Kabul.

Two Western analysts independently studying the numbers gave even higher estimates: as many as 2.2 million fraudulent ballots favoring Mr. Ghani and 800,000 favoring Mr. Abdullah. If these votes were excluded, Mr. Abdullah would emerge the winner.

Mr. Ghani’s team has not produced figures, but a senior politician who has supported Mr. Ghani said that fraud, once eliminated, would not change the preliminary results by much — Mr. Ghani would still win.

Some other Western officials have hewed closer to that view, putting their estimates of fraud far lower than their colleagues’ and expressing confidence that the most blatant fraud could be weeded out without using broad percentage filters.

But it is the exact triggers for fraud elimination that have been the hardest-fought issues between the campaigns.

“Both campaigns cannot guarantee that their supporters were clean,” the diplomat in Kabul said. “Both of them know there might be something unpleasant coming out of it.”



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