Signs of systemic fraud cast doubt on many votes in Afghan election

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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 can­di­date Ashraf Ghani Ah­madzai.

Beaten and pre­vented from us­ing their video equip­ment and cell phones, his team mem­bers, work­ing for 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. Ah­madzai, 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 U.S. 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 the of­fi­cials in­sisted might be needed to head off vi­o­lence.

Mr. Ah­madzai 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. Ah­madzai, 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 2 mil­lion bal­lots out of roughly 8 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 the 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’s name 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 dur­ing the elec­tion dis­pute, Ab­dul­lah cam­paign of­fi­cials of­fered a se­ries of au­dio re­cord­ings in which they say Mr. Amark­hail, other elec­tion of­fi­cials and Ah­madzai cam­paign work­ers can 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 re­cord­ings are from di­rect in­ter­cepts of tele­phone calls.


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