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Disputed Afghan Election Leads to U.N. Staff Shake-up

October 1, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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A top U.S. official at the U.N. mission to Afghanistan has been dismissed after he accused his boss of hiding evidence of election fraud. The ousted diplomat, Peter Galbraith, and a U.N. official discuss the dispute.

MARGARET WARNER: Exactly six weeks have passed since Afghanistan’s presidential election, and the outcome is still unresolved. Last month, Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission reported preliminary results showing incumbent President Hamid Karzai had won 54.6 percent of the vote.

But amid allegations of ballot box stuffing and fraud, a higher body, the United Nations-backed Electoral Complaints Commission, ordered a partial recount. Now the U.N.’s lead entity in Kabul, the U.S. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, has also become embroiled in the election dispute.

Yesterday, the U.N. dismissed the top U.S. official at the mission, former Ambassador Peter Galbraith, after a falling-out with his boss, U.N. Special Representative Kai Eide, over how to deal with the widespread charges.

In a letter to U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon Monday, Galbraith charged that Eide had shown partiality to the Karzai government, refusing to take steps to prevent the fraud, and trying to conceal it afterwards. He said Eide “blocked me and other U.N. staff from taking effective action that might have limited the fraud or enabled the Afghan electoral institutions to address it more effectively.”

But Ban fired Galbraith from the Kabul post and issued a statement reaffirming his full support for Eide. He said he “made this decision in the best interest of the mission.”

Last night, Eide defended his handling of the election controversy to the New York Times: “I completely reject that I have been more favorable to one candidate than to any other,” he said. “The disagreement was whether to respect the Afghan constitution and respect the process in place.”

Now, to debate Galbraith’s charges on how the U.N. dealt with the election fraud, we have Peter Galbraith. He’s held a number of U.S. and U.N. diplomatic posts, including as U.S. ambassador to Croatia in the Clinton administration.

From the United Nations, we have Edmond Mulet, assistant secretary general for peacekeeping operations. His department oversees the U.N. mission in Kabul.

And welcome to you both. Thank you both for being with us.

Mr. Galbraith, beginning with you, these are very serious charges. Let’s start with the run-up to the elections. You say that the U.N. special representative failed and blocked you from taking steps that could have prevented or limited the fraud. What could the U.N. have done?

Voting problems at 'ghost stations'

Peter Galbraith
Former U.S. Diplomat
I came to the realization that the key problem was going to come from ghost polling stations, that is to say, polling stations which were located on maps that were in areas that were either too insecure to open or even controlled by the Taliban.

PETER GALBRAITH, former U.S. Diplomat: In July, before the elections, I came to the realization that the key problem was going to come from ghost polling stations, that is to say, polling stations which were located on maps that were in areas that were either too insecure to open or even controlled by the Taliban.

And so these, of course, would be places that no observers could go, no candidate agents could go, and, in fact, no voters would go. But the materials would go out. They wouldn't, of course, go to these locations. There would be an opportunity to rig them, and they would come back.

I pushed the Afghan ministers of defense and interior and the Independent Election Commission to eliminate these from the roster. They then complained to the chief of the mission, and he ordered me not to do anything further on this matter.

Now, it wasn't a matter of the U.N. making the decision. It was simply advice and urging of the election commission of the Afghans to make this decision.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Mulet, what's your response to that?

EDMOND MULET, assistant secretary general, United Nations: Well, I think that it is -- the role of the United Nations mission in Afghanistan right now is to support and to provide all the technical assistance to the electoral bodies and institutions in Afghanistan, the electoral independent commission and the Electoral Complaints Commission, independent bodies, and that is our role. These elections belong to the Afghan people, and then we cannot meddle and we cannot judge the way these institutions are working.

There is now ongoing an audit that Mr. Galbraith has been supportive of that will determine the fraud allegations, and this audit will be completed some time in the next days and will determine if there's a need for a second round of run-off election or not.

Indeed, there was a fraud. It was determined that way. But less claims of fraud this time conducted by the Afghans themselves, this election, than in previous elections, so we have to give time to these institutions to do their job and to deliver the outcome. I mean, we cannot be judged and we cannot meddle into their own internal affairs.

MARGARET WARNER: Ambassador Galbraith, what about that point, that it would have been meddling to try to at least preemptively prevent, say, a lot of polling stations from opening on the part of the U.N., at least?

PETER GALBRAITH: Well, first, Margaret, while these are Afghan-run elections, they are paid for by the international community to the tune of $300 million, mostly from U.S. taxpayers, and the United Nations has a mandate to support free, fair and transparent elections.

Now, these ghost polling stations produced hundreds of thousands of votes that were never actually cost by voters. And, of course, the people who objected to U.N. interference were ministers whose continued tenure in office was to, in fact, to turn out to be benefited by the fraud that took place.

So I think it was correct for the United Nations to engage in its role as supporting these elections with the Afghan institutions to push them to deal with the problem. Incidentally, there was no question of closing any polling station. These were polling centers that were never going to open. These were in places that had never been visited by the Afghan army, by the Afghan police, or the Afghan election officials.

Response from the U.N.

Edmond Mulet
Assistant Secretary General, U.N,
We are trusting that the Afghan institutions, independent institutions are doing their job.

MARGARET WARNER: So are you suggesting -- and just give me a brief answer, because I want to go to Mr. Mulet to answer -- are you suggesting that members at the highest level of the Karzai government were deliberately engaged in aiding, abetting the fraud, or did they just not want interference?

PETER GALBRAITH: They did not want interference that would have prevented the fraud or reduced the risk of fraud. And then later in the process, when the Independent Election Commission -- which really isn't independent. It's appointed by Karzai. It's been backing him up.

They made a decision on September 6th of this year to abandon previously published safeguards which would have excluded fraudulent ballots from the count. They made the decision to abandon it, because they discovered that, if they had excluded those ballots, then Karzai would be below 50 percent.

So, in fact, on one day, the 6th of September, they affirmed their previous guidelines. They discovered Karzai -- by doing so would put Karzai under 50 percent. And the next day, they miraculously discovered on the Afghan electoral law that they had no legal authority to exclude fraudulent ballots, and they left that then to the election complaints commission.

MARGARET WARNER: OK. So, Mr. Mulet, what about these charges? What is your view of whether the Karzai government officials at the highest level were doing everything they could to ensure a free and fair election or were, in fact, participating in some sort of putting their thumb on the scale here?

EDMOND MULET: Well, we do believe that fraud was committed. I don't know exactly at what level, but this is clearly the case, and the secretary general has presented to the Security Council in his latest report that indication.

Mr. Kai Eide, also, in his briefing to the Security Council mentioned this issue, which is of great concern for the secretary general.

But fraud was detected. And the Afghan institutions are dealing with that. They have the authority and they have the equipment and they have the mandate to detect that fraud. And they're dealing with it.

And this is why this audit is being conducted right now, under international standards, under international supervision. I must mention, also, that the Electoral Complaints Commission is integrated by five respected personalities...

MARGARET WARNER: That's a separate body, yes.

EDMOND MULET: That's a separate independent body. And three of the five are international officials. So they cannot be really accused of not doing their job.

And what we are only asking is for these institutions, these Afghan-led institutions to do their job, and we will see in the next days if the recount and this audit, I mean, will determine, I mean, the amount of fraud, if this was enough to force a second election, a run-off election, or not.

But we are trusting that the Afghan institutions, independent institutions are doing their job.

Allegations of witholding evidence

Peter Galbraith
Former U,S. Diplomat
We had evidence that could have helped them in their investigations. But the head of the mission ordered us not to do anything with this material.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Mr. Galbraith, you had another whole set of charges which had to do with after the election, and you say again that the U.N. special representative, Mr. Eide, actively blocked efforts to expose the fraud. And, in fact, your letter suggests he tried to help conceal it. What's the basis of that?

PETER GALBRAITH: The UNAMA set up an election center that ran for a day before the election through the voting and through the initial tabulation period.

MARGARET WARNER: That's the U.N. mission you're talking about?

PETER GALBRAITH: It was manned 24 hours, the U.N. mission. And we collected hundreds of cases of fraud. We also collected extensive information on turnout, because this was key to detecting fraud. We knew that in key southern provinces the turnout was minuscule, less than 10 percent in some cases, and yet large numbers of votes were reported from those provinces.

Now, we wanted to make use of this information by turning it over both to the Independent Election Commission, this Afghan body, and to the election complaints commission, an investigative body which is both Afghan and international, set up under Afghan law.

These are investigative bodies. We had evidence that could have helped them in their investigations. But the head of the mission ordered us not to do anything with this material. He has subsequently said that, of course, this wasn't proven, but we are not investigators. We're not a court of law in Afghanistan. We had collected evidence that could have helped the investigators.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, let me go to Mr. Mulet. What about that, Mr. Mulet? This was data collected by your own staff.

EDMOND MULET: Well, I don't want to dwell into this personality dispute between Mr. Eide and Mr. Galbraith, which is...

PETER GALBRAITH: It's a policy dispute, policy dispute.

EDMOND MULET: ... and then the difference here is, do we support the electoral institutions and allow the process to follow its due course or not?

And the Electoral Complaints Commission has been very happy, I must insist that, with the cooperation they have been receiving from UNAMA. And they've been working extremely well, and we have been working with them and supporting them as much as we can within our mandate.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Mulet, though, are you saying that you think that your office in Kabul, though, was, in retrospect, as aggressive as it should have been to make sure that, if there was widespread fraud, that the evidence come out and come out publicly and get to the right authorities?

EDMOND MULET: Absolutely. And this was done repeatedly all the time. Kai Eide and all our colleagues in UNAMA were doing that all the time and assisting, also, the Independent Electoral Commission and the complaints commission to do their job. So we were very much in touch with them all the time, but also supporting them and doing their job.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. We have to leave it there. Peter Galbraith and Edmond Mulet, thank you very much.

EDMOND MULET: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: We have more about Afghanistan on our Web site, You can preview "Obama's War" on "Frontline," as well. It includes footage of battles with the Taliban and an interview with the commander of coalition forces, General McChrystal.