WASHINGTON - Afghanistan's
presidential election has long been viewed by U.S. officials as a key
to conferring legitimacy on the Afghan government, but Afghan President
Hamid Karzai and his powerful warlord allies have planned to commit
large-scale electoral fraud that could have the opposite effect.
U.S.-financed polls published during the past week showed support for
Karzai falls well short of the 51 percent of the vote necessary to
avoid a runoff election. A poll by Glevum Associates showed Karzai at
36 percent, and a survey by the International Republican Institute had
him at 44 percent of the vote.
Those polls suggest that Karzai might have to pad his
legitimate vote total by much as 40 percent to be certain of being
elected in the first round.
But Karzai has been laying the groundwork for just such a
contingency for many months. By all accounts, he has forged political
alliances with leading Afghan warlords who control informal militias
and tribal networks in the provinces to carry out a vote fraud scheme
accounting for a very large proportion of the votes.
Karzai chose Muhammad Qasim Fahim, the ethnic Tajik warlord
who had been vice-president and defence minister in his government
until the 2004 elections, as his running mate. In return for their
support, he promised Hazara warlords Haji Muhammad Moheqiq and Karim
Khalili that new provinces would be carved out from largely Hazara
districts in Ghazni and Wardak provinces, as reported by Richard Oppel
of the New York Times.
The socio-political structure of Afghanistan remains so hierarchical
that warlords can deliver very large blocs of votes to Karzai by
telling their followers to vote for him, and in some provinces -
especially in the Pashtun south - by forcing local tribal elders to
cooperate in voter fraud schemes.
The system in which warlords pressure tribal elders to deliver the vote
for Karzai was illustrated by a village elder in Herat province who
said he had been threatened by a local commander with "very unpleasant
consequences" if the residents of his village did not vote for Karzai,
according to the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.
As early as last May, the country's independent election monitoring
organisation, the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan
(FEFA), had documented a suite of voter registration practices that
laid the groundwork for massive voter fraud.
FEFA observers, who observed voter registration in 194 of 400 voting
registration centres in four provinces during one stage of the process,
found that nearly 20 percent of the voters registered, on average, were
under age – in many cases as young as 12 years old.
It is now estimated that 17 million voter registration cards
have been issued, which means that nearly 3.5 million cards may have
been issued to children.
FEFA observers also found rampant distribution of multiple voting
cards. During the third phase of registration, they observed at least
four incidents of such abuses in 85 percent of the centres. The voter
registration staff was seen handing out cards even before applicants
had been registered.
In one case, the FEFA observers saw about 500 voting cards being given to a single individual.
Another element in the Karzai scheme involves the registration
of women without their actually being physically present, often on the
basis of lists of names given to the registration officials. The list
system for registering women was found in 99 percent of registration
stations in Paktika province and 90 percent of those in Zabul and Khost
During the final phase of the registration, many centres were
found to be allowing males to take the registration books home, where
they supposedly obtained the fingerprints of the women.
In some of the most insecure and traditional provinces, such as Logar
and in Nuristan, more than twice as many cards were issued to women as
to men in 2009, and in Paktika, Paktia and Khost, 30 percent more women
were registered than were men.
In Kandahar women represent 44 percent of those with voting cards. The
young female MP Fawzia Koofi told The Australian that such levels of
women registered could not be genuine.
The result has been to create a vast pool of voting cards, very few of which will be used by women to vote.
Reports by journalists about the acquisition of voting cards by the
local strongmen indicate that this distribution of voting cards to
people who would not vote was part of a plan to stuff the ballot boxes
to increase the vote for Karzai.
The Times of London quoted a tribal elder in Marja district of Helmand
province last week as saying that the warlord and former governor Sher
Mohammad Akhudzada was organising the vote for Karzai in the province,
and that he and other tribal elders were responsible for buying voting
cards from voters who had registered.
Independent analyst Alex Strick van Linschoten, who is based in
Kandahar, has reported schemes using police to purchase voter
registration cards in several districts in the province.
Writing in the New York Times magazine Aug. 9, Elizabeth Rubin
reported that an unnamed political figure in Kandahar told her in June
he had manufactured 8,000 voter "fake" registration cards that had sold
for 20 dollars each.
Some observers believe that various factors may constrain Karzai's
effort to use warlords to swing the election. Former U.S. Ambassador to
Afghanistan Ronald E. Neumann told IPS he is counting on the use of
indelible ink on the voters' fingers to make it impossible for people
to vote more than once.
He recalls, however, that the "indelible" ink used in the 2005 election turned out to be washable after all.
Neumann also hopes the existence of the Election Complaints Commission,
an independent body with three international members nominated by the
United Nations, will be a check on massive vote fraud.
That body investigates complaints of voter fraud and has the right
under Afghan election law to order the invalidation or recounting of
votes or even the conducting of new polling where it finds evidence of
fraud. But it has no sub-national presence and will be heavily
dependent on the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), which handles
all the documentary evidence pertaining to such complaints.
More problematic is the fact that the IEC is not "independent" of the
Karzai regime at all. Its seven members were all appointed by Karzai,
and its chairman has made no secret of his partisan support for the
The IEC will likely seek to cover up complaints of major fraud, and the complaints body may not be able to do much about it.
Neumann put the odds of an election that would be "good enough" in the eyes of the Afghans at "50-50".
But counterinsurgency specialists are more pessimistic. Larry
Goodson of the U.S. Army College, who was on the U.S. Central Command
team that worked on a detailed plan for Afghanistan and Pakistan
earlier this year, told IPS, "The reality is there is going to be a lot
of cheating and fraud."
Goodson said the danger for the United States in the Karzai election
plan is that it "could be perceived by Afghans as promoting the
legitimisation of someone who is widely perceived as illegitimate."
Australian counterinsurgency specialist David Kilcullen, who
will shortly become a senior adviser to Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the
commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, declared at the U.S.
Institute of Peace Aug. 6, "The biggest fear is Karzai ends up as an
incredibly illegitimate figure, and we end up owning Afghanistan and
propping up an illegitimate government."