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Election Concerns Threaten Future Stability in Afghanistan

September 8, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Judy Woodruff reports on new allegations of fraud in last month's Afghan presidential election and talks to experts about implications for the future.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Since millions of Afghans cast their ballots on August 20, there have been numerous charges that fraud was committed. But, today, a United Nations-backed election commission issued its first official public condemnation, citing — quote — “clear and convincing evidence of fraud.”

That group, headed by a Canadian, called for a partial recount. Meanwhile, Afghanistan’s own election commission issued its own incomplete vote count today. With almost 92 percent of polling stations counted, the Afghan body said that President Karzai had won 54.1 percent, and that his closest challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, had garnered 28.3 percent. Karzai needs 50 percent to avoid a runoff.

For more on the troubled election, we turn to Zalmay Khalilzad. He served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan during the Bush administration. He was born in Afghanistan and came to the U.S. as a student in the mid-1960s. And Alexander Thier, he is the director for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the United States Institute of Peace, a nonpartisan institute funded by Congress that promotes conflict resolution. He served as a U.N. humanitarian official in Afghanistan during the 1990s, and then as a legal adviser from 2002 to 2004. Thank you, gentlemen, both, for being with us. Alex Thier, I’m going to start with you first because you talked just today with an official of the U.N.-backed election commission. What exactly are they saying?

J. ALEXANDER THIER, U.S. Institute Of Peace: Well, they’re saying that they went to several provinces to start looking into the allegations of fraud that have come in. They have received over 2,000 complaints, 700 of which they have prioritized as potentially affecting the outcome of the election. So, they actually went to some of the provinces to look at the ballot boxes. And what they saw wasn’t pretty. They saw, as you said, clear and convincing evidence of fraud, either because there were too many ballots in the boxes, more than what they expected, because the ballot boxes were filled with ballots that were all for one candidate, or almost exclusively for one candidate, and other telltale signs, ballots that had all been marked in exactly the same way by the same pen, ballots that hadn’t been folded and obviously not put properly into the ballot boxes. And, so, what they saw gave them pause that they needed to look much more broadly into ballot boxes across the country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, so, what are they saying as of now, Alex Thier, that — that should be done?

J. ALEXANDER THIER: They’re going to do an inspection of ballot boxes according to two criteria. They’re going to look at all ballot boxes in the country where one candidate has garnered more than 95 percent of the vote. And they’re going to look at all the ballot boxes in the country that have received more than 600 ballots per box, because the estimated number of votes maximum per box was 100, which would represent 100 percent turnout, whereas we know from the figures that — that turnout was roughly in the 30 percent to 40 percent category. And, so, a box with that many ballots looks fishy.

Karzai government's response

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ambassador Khalilzad, you're talking to people in Afghanistan all the time. What are the Karzai people saying? I mean, who are they explaining all this?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan: Well, they say that the level of fraud is not as high as has been alleged, that some degree of fraud was to be expected, given the level of development and institutionalization of the country, but that they have won the election, and there is some effort by some people in the international community to get rid of Karzai, and there's all kinds of conspiracy theories flying around Kabul. But what is important is that this -- to recognize that this election in Afghanistan, its ultimate outcome will have a decisive effect for the future of Afghanistan. And, therefore, it's very important that one gets to a point where the legitimacy of the outcome is not broadly questioned in Afghanistan and around the world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But -- but, for now, are they prepared to go along with whatever this U.N.-backed commission is suggesting or saying should be done?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: I think, at this point, they are. I think the way to proceed, to deal with the problem -- and the commission is doing its work. It's part of the Afghan law. It is both Afghan and international. And, so, it's important to -- for everyone to support the commission. There is, of course, a possibility that, if they move in a direction and that is to the dislike of the -- some people in Afghanistan, it could be accused, because it has international -- a majority of international participants -- five-member commission, three of them are non-Afghan -- that it could be seen as interference by foreigners. But I think it's very important to work with the commission, strengthen the commission, encourage everyone, all Afghan candidates, to work with it and cooperate with it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Alex Thier, as of now, how does the commission view the Karzai government? Do they feel they're able to work with the Karzai government to get done what they think ought to be done?

J. ALEXANDER THIER: Yes, I think that they have been thus far very successful. We're about 18 days past the election. They have been receiving complaints from all over the country. And I have not heard any specific complaints about their ability to get their work done and to pursue the investigation. It's unique in some ways in Afghanistan that the Afghan election commission is not allowed to certify the results of the election until the electoral complaints commission is finished with its work.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is -- when you say the Afghan commission, this is the -- the government-chosen body.

J. ALEXANDER THIER: There's a government-selected independent elections commission, which is ultimately responsible for implementing the elections and for certifying the result. The electoral complaints commission is responsible for investigating the complaints.

Potential for delays

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, even -- even if they are working well together, Ambassador Khalilzad, this is still -- this has the potential to -- to be an enormous delay. I think the State Department said today something like months, it could take to sort this out.

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: I don't know how long it will take. I think we ought to look at the U.S. international community, the Afghans, how they could assist the commission to accelerate this work, because, if it takes a long time, there could tension between those who say let's resolve these issues quickly, Karzai has won, let's accept that, and those who would say, no, we really need a lot more time. And there could be an authority vacuum in Kabul, which is not what the Afghans or the international community needs. But I think it's very important, even more important, for there to be an outcome whose legitimacy is not questioned, because, if you get to an outcome that is broadly questioned as not being legitimate, it will impact Afghanistan in ways that will complicate, not only the lives of the Afghans, but also be a big problem for the international community, including the United States.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, are the folks on this U.N.-sponsored commission, are they confident that that can happen, that there could be a set of results that people can -- can view as legitimate?

J. ALEXANDER THIER: Well, I think they're confident that they can fulfill their objective. They have a very specific and somewhat technical mandate to investigate the complaints. But I think that the bigger question that Ambassador Khalilzad is touching on is whether the political process can bear the time that it's going to take. I personally think that we have moved beyond the technical process into a political process now, not because the electoral complaints commission is political, but I think that a political process needs to be undertaken to resolve this dispute. I think that the...

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you mean? I mean, explain what you mean.

Moving beyond the election

J. ALEXANDER THIER: Well, I -- I already believe that due to the number of allegations of fraud, some of them quite dramatic, in terms of thousands and potentially hundreds of thousands of votes having been falsified, that the election is tainted. And I think that the result, if it comes out in a week or in a month, and simply declares that Karzai won in the first round, I think there will be resistance to that. And, so, I think we need to think about how to move beyond this election. And -- and my strong belief is that the best thing for Afghanistan now would be to have a runoff election between President Karzai and Dr. Abdullah that could clear the air of some of these problems in the first round.

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: I think we have to be very careful that whatever is done, at least as far as official U.S. position is concerned, that it comes through a process. If the -- this complaint commission says that enough fraud had been detected that President Karzai has not won in the first round in a way that is legitimate and broadly accepted by them, then it can go to a second round. But if we, before the process is completed...

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you're saying we're not there yet.

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: We're not there yet. If we say that there are allegations that some officials have even proposed to the Afghans and others that there should be, regardless of what the process says, a runoff, that raises all kinds of questions about the -- the motives of the -- of the international community and will, I think, have difficulty being accepted in Afghanistan. So, I believe that the thing to do is to help the process make decisions as expeditiously as possible, and if it leads to invalidation of the election as a whole, which is unlikely, but -- or partial validation, a second round of confirmation of a winner, we have to work with that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But that's walking a fine line?

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: A very fine line.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Making sure it's expeditious, but not interfering.

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Exactly, a logistical support, they will -- if they need to move people to provinces, number of staff, those are areas in which we ought to do what we can to help.

J. ALEXANDER THIER: But I think there's a -- I think there's a bigger picture here that the ambassador touched on before, which is the stability of Afghanistan in a very difficult year for us and for them. And I think that the most important thing to come out of this is going to be a legitimate government that the people and that the primary opposition and -- and the government are all in agreement is the -- is the right path. And, in many ways, I think that that means a political solution is going to need to take place here, and not just a technical result from the elections commission.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We will continue to watch it. Alex Thier, Ambassador Khalilzad, thank you both.

ZALMAY KHALILZAD: Thank you. Thank you.

J. ALEXANDER THIER: Thank you.