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U.S. officials eye hanging chads -- in Afghanistan

'From Dade County to Kabul, man,' said a bemused Richard C. Holbrooke, U.S. envoy for the region. But such problems are unlikely to influence the outcome, officials said.

August 21, 2009|Paul Richter

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — Poll workers at a Kabul school didn't seem too alarmed Thursday to see voters struggling to mark their ballots by punching out the tiny paper circle called a chad.

For a group of U.S. officials, however, the snag summoned disconcerting memories of ballot failures in Florida in 2000 that threw the American presidential election into turmoil.

"From Dade County to Kabul, man," a bemused Richard C. Holbrooke, U.S. envoy for the region, said as he examined a ballot.

His comment was one of the lighter signs of the anxiety U.S. officials felt as they watched an election that could be a turning point in the massive effort to stabilize Afghanistan.

The Obama administration has spent $250 million to help Afghans organize the election and choose a government that it hopes the people will consider legitimate, officials said.

It was "a very important election under very difficult circumstances," Holbrooke said, and will "determine the legitimacy of the government for five years."

The election also has come at a time of intensifying debate in Washington about the wisdom of a continued U.S. commitment in Afghanistan.

U.S. officials saw positive signs in the fact that the election took place, but they also expressed some concerns about the process.

Holbrooke said the provincial ballots, which had tiny pictures of dozens of candidates, were difficult to read. At one of four polling centers visited by the group, some voters were clearly struggling to figure out which candidate they wanted to choose.

Chad problems probably will not influence the outcome, officials said; the Afghan Independent Election Commission ruled that poll officials could use scissors to cut out the circles.

U.S. officials, who set up a round-the-clock center to monitor the election, were watching for signs of fraud. The first important moment of risk, they said, will come when polling center officials mail out sealed envelopes with results.

There has been widespread voting fraud in previous elections in the country's south.

One U.S. official said that it was unlikely that individual attempts to cast faulty ballots -- known as "retail" vote fraud -- would have much cumulative effect. But he said that "wholesale fraud," where results are falsified for entire polling sites, could have a substantial effect.

Some of the officials and other observers spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the election.

Several countries have expressed concern about Afghan President Hamid Karzai inviting ethnic Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum to campaign for him. The move was generally interpreted as a sign of Karzai's concern that his leading challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, was gaining on him.

One Western observer said that Karzai "hurt himself in the eyes of the international community by doing this." Dostum has been accused of human rights abuses, including the death of 2,000 Taliban prisoners early in the Afghan war.

U.S. officials say they have no preference in the election.

Military officials said they expected early returns and reports to favor Abdullah, in part because there were more international monitors and journalists in northern Afghanistan, where Karzai's rival has his political base. But as vote totals from the east and south trickle in, some military officials expect Karzai to capture more votes without garnering the majority needed to avoid a runoff.

Holbrooke said that whereas U.S. officials have been focusing for months on helping organize the election, the United States would turn its attention to trying to rid the Afghan government of its corruption, which has undermined its popular support.

After the election, corruption is "the most important subject that needs to be focused on," he said.

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paul.richter@latimes.com

Times staff writer Julian E. Barnes in Washington contributed to this report.

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