Will we ever learn? In 2009, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who will meet with President Obama in Washington this week, ripped off American taxpayers for about $200 million. This is what the United States contributed to support presidential elections that Karzai himself admits were massively fraudulent. Now, the United Nations and the Obama administration propose to fund Afghanistan's parliamentary elections in September, even though new rules pushed through by Karzai — over the opposition of parliament — make fraud even more likely this time.
Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission, or IEC, a body appointed by Karzai and subservient to his wishes, was deeply implicated in the 2009 fraud. The commission and its staff either produced the phony tallies — which gave Karzai more than 1 million of his 3 million votes — or collaborated with those who did. In many instances, the commission reported pro-Karzai results from polling centers that never existed.
Fortunately, Afghanistan also had in place a truly independent body, the Electoral Complaints Commission, which was empowered to investigate fraud. Three members of that commission were appointed by the United Nations, and none of its members was chosen by Karzai. After investigating the election, the group tossed out enough phony Karzai votes to force the president into a runoff with the second-highest vote-getter, Abdullah Abdullah. In the end, that second election wasn't held because Abdullah withdrew after the IEC adopted procedures that made fraud even more likely in the runoff.
The fact that Karzai retained the presidency didn't mollify him. Angered by the complaint commission's actions after the first round of last year's vote, and determined to gain full control over Afghanistan's election machinery, Karzai issued a decree in February giving himself the authority to appoint all five members of the Electoral Complaints Commission. He also stripped the group of its power to initiate reviews of suspicious ballots on its own. In the parliamentary elections, the group will be allowed to act only on complaints referred to it by members of the provincial election commissions, all of whom are appointed by Karzai.
The United Nations, which is supposed to help the Afghans hold honest elections, and the United States, which will pick up most of the tab for them, have responded far too meekly to Karzai's power grab. Staffan de Mistura, the new head of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, negotiated a deal with Karzai under which two U.N.-nominated international election experts were appointed to the complaints commission, and one of them will have veto power. Because of this compromise, De Mistura is recommending that Western donors proceed with funding the election. The Obama administration, wishing to move beyond a recent harsh exchange of words with Karzai (during which Karzai bizarrely alleged that foreigners, including the U.S. and the U.N., were responsible for fraud in the last election), seems inclined to agree.
But the proposed compromise is a sham. Karzai's three appointees can outvote the two U.N. choices, and the compromise does not restore the Electoral Complaints Commission's power to initiate independently reviews of suspicious votes.
There is only one positive note I've seen in the whole mess, and that is that Karzai unexpectedly appointed Fazel Ahmad Manawi as the new head of the IEC, replacing a chairman deeply implicated in the fraud. This was a pleasant surprise. I met Manawi, a respected Islamic scholar from the Panjshir Valley, an opposition stronghold, when I was deputy head of the U.N. mission in 2009. At the time, he was one of seven members of the IEC, and he was clearly a person of integrity, casting the sole vote against the decision to ratify Karzai's fraudulent election. But Manawi remains only one vote on a commission stacked with Karzai loyalists, and the leading candidate for the position of chief electoral officer is Zekria Barakzai, a smooth-talking IEC official who was a public apologist for the fraud.
Much more is at stake in Afghanistan's elections than the waste of millions more U.S. dollars. Our counterinsurgency strategy depends on an honest and competent Afghan government that can win the loyalty of the population. During eight years in office, the Karzai administration has been ineffective and corrupt. Since Karzai's disputed reelection, many Afghans also question his legitimacy.
If September's parliamentary elections are fraudulent, it could lead to an ethnically based civil war. Afghanistan's opposition dominates the parliament and has come out strongly against the new electoral procedures. The parliament is the one national institution that effectively represents Afghanistan's non-Pashtun minorities; the speaker of the lower house is an ethnic Tajik who was the runner-up to Karzai in the 2004 elections.
The Obama administration, now that it has tenuously patched up relations with Karzai after his anti-American tirades last month, is reluctant to confront the Afghan president over electoral procedures. This reluctance is shortsighted. Insisting on procedures for honest elections now will be far less costly, both in lives and money, than having another crooked election that ends up with U.S. troops mired in even greater chaos and a broadening civil war. The Taliban will be the only true winner of yet another phony election in Afghanistan.
Peter W. Galbraith was deputy special representative of the secretary-general of the United Nations to Afghanistan from June to September 2009.