The South Asia Channel

Fraud and Folly in Afghanistan

The  runoff round of the Afghan presidential election on June 14 was massively rigged, and the ensuing election audit was "unsatisfactory," a result of Afghan government-orchestrated fraud on a scale exceeding two million fake votes, completely subverting the will of the Afghan people. That is the watered-down conclusion of the press release of the European ...

WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images
WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images

The  runoff round of the Afghan presidential election on June 14 was massively rigged, and the ensuing election audit was "unsatisfactory," a result of Afghan government-orchestrated fraud on a scale exceeding two million fake votes, completely subverting the will of the Afghan people. That is the watered-down conclusion of the press release of the European Union’s yet-to-be-released report detailing its thorough and non-partisan investigation of the entire Afghan election. The report was completed last week, according to sources in Kabul who have seen it, but political pressure has so far resulted in heavy redaction and kept it from public release.

The key point is this: Ashraf Ghani did not win the election. The U.S. Center for Naval Analysis (CNA) concluded in July that it was mathematically impossible for Ghani to win, given Afghan demographics and the initial 46 percent to 32 percent first-round vote spread, according to sources familiar with the analysis. According to sources who reviewed the private report, the top experts in statistical analysis in the United States used every known computer model of election balloting and concluded that a Ghani victory was scientifically impossible. In simple terms, there is no mathematical doubt that Abdullah Abdullah won.

The fraud perpetrated on the Afghan people this time was on an epic scale. In 2009, Abdullah bowed out of a runoff election against outgoing President Hamid Karzai after a heavily rigged first round, with the explicit promise he would be given a fair chance to win in 2014. During the 2014 campaign, he barely escaped assassination. It was not the Taliban who tried to kill him; there was no customary claim of responsibility by any anti-government group.

On the night of June 14, 2014, after all polling places had closed, European Union observers estimated that no more than six million Afghans had voted. Within hours, Karzai’s hand-picked Independent Election Commission (IEC) officials jumped the number to eight million votes, adding more than two million votes to that total — all of them for Ghani. (Two million just happens to be, by sheer coincidence, the number of votes required to overcome a purely ethnic voting split in the outcome given a 30 percent turnout.)  The European Union report notes that "the audit procedures … have been at times inconsistently and hastily applied under high political pressure." Caught on audiotapes conspiring to stuff ballot boxes across the south of the country, the head of the IEC, Zia-ul-Haq Amarkhil, soon resigned. Ghani originally claimed he had never met with Amarkhil, but Abdullah’s campaign announced it had a video of Ghani and Amarkhil meeting at a house in Kabul owned by a Ghani supporter, according to sources with access to the video. The Afghan people, for their part, are more disillusioned than ever with the notion of democracy.

In this debacle, the United Nations Assistance Mission to Afghanistan (UNAMA) consistently supported IEC decisions. Half a dozen foreign diplomats in Kabul I spoke with privately admitted UNAMA clearly favored fellow technocrat Ghani. The UNAMA "100 percent" audit was a complete misnomer. In no way were "all votes" audited — only full ballot boxes were considered. Either side could only challenge full boxes and the great majority of those challenges were rejected by the Karzai-appointed IEC. In fact, less than one percent of the actual paper votes were even touched by anyone during the process, according to multiple sources who observed the process. Abdullah’s observers called the audit a "sham."  "The audit did not catch the industrial-scale fraud that plagued the runoff elections," an American official who was among the senior observers of the audit told the New York Times, adding: "It’s hard because we’re going to say that in our final report, which is not going to be released publicly." There were no complaints about IEC and UNAMA decisions from the Ghani camp.  Res ipsa loquitur.   

Seldom has the moral high ground been so clear. Instead of taking it, however, and supporting the will of the majority of the Afghan people, the United States again took the easy path of expediency and quick fix. Instead of upholding democracy, diplomats kicked the can down the road a few weeks or months by creating the bizarre, extra-constitutional position of Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and forcing an unworkable "unity government." A unity government, however, is in many ways the worst possible outcome. At best, it is magical thinking. Recent Afghan history is sadly overcrowded with examples of catastrophically failed unity governments, several of them involving many of the very same actors on the stage today. Among the most recent of these are the Islamabad and Peshawar Accords, attended by Abdullah, Ghani’s vice president Abdul Rashid Dostum, Tajik leader Mohammed Atta, and many others in both camps (Ghani himself sat out the last 30 years of Afghan horror in the United States, Lebanon and Europe). This muddling, unprincipled path was followed even though senior U.S. leaders know that Afghanistan, as CIA analyst Paul Pillar recently noted, lacks the necessary social underpinnings to make such an agreement work. In fact, no unity government in Afghanistan has ever resulted in anything other than assassination, civil war, and chaos.

The real problem here is Ghani, who maintains a narcissistic belief that he alone can save Afghanistan. If Ghani was an honorable man, he would have withdrawn in the best interests of Afghanistan after the staggering scale of the fraud perpetrated in his name became obvious. When that didn’t happen, the United States should have pushed the European Union to release its original election report, taken the moral high ground, and announced its support for Abdullah’s presidency. Abdullah, whatever his faults as a leader are — and no one would suggest he is perfect — was nevertheless the rightful winner. The United States forced Western democracy on the Afghan people in 2002 and then subverted it three times: at the emergency loya jirga in 2002 to prevent King Zahir Shah’s return, and subsequently allowing the results of two massively rigged elections in 2009 and 2014 to stand.

In pragmatic terms, doing the right thing, as is usually the case, would have been vastly better for long-term U.S. strategic interests in the region. Ghani not only lost the presidential election, he has no strategically important support base in Afghanistan. Accepting the European Commission Observer Team’s estimate of six million legitimate votes cast and the CNA’s analysis, no more than 2.7 million Afghans voted for Ghani — virtually all of them Pashtuns. Using the best available statistics, Pashtuns comprise roughly 42 percent of the Afghan population, and there are about 8.4 million Pashtuns of voting age. That means Ghani, at best, has the support of 12 percent of the voting age population of Afghanistan — all of them from the same ethnic group that wholly comprises the Taliban. In other words, Ghani has less support than the Taliban. (Last year the Asia Foundation found that a third of Afghans had sympathy for armed opposition groups, primarily the Taliban.) 

When things go sideways in Afghanistan in the coming months and years — and they will — the United States will need a group of Afghans to assume the role of the Kurdish peshmerga in Iraq today: a well-organized and reliable group who our special forces can work with. When the Taliban inevitably takes control of the southern half of the country after the withdrawal of U.S. forces (the Afghan National Army is 1/9 the size of the Army of the Republic of South Vietnam (ARVN), has four times as much territory to defend, and has no more faith in its national government than the ARVN had), we are going to need secure territory from which to operate against the Taliban and fly drones against terrorist bases in northern Pakistan and southern Afghanistan.  

In 2001 in Afghanistan, that group was the Northern Alliance of Abdullah, who has the support of 55 percent of the Afghan population, the entire Ministry of Defense, and more than 85 percent of Afghan National Army officers at the battalion commander level and above, according to senior U.S. government analysts I spoke to. Our future Afghan peshmerga will certainly not be Ghani’s scattered Pashtun supporters in dangerous and virtually inaccessible bits of southern Afghanistan. In five years, at most, the United States is again going to need a secure base from which to operate and a partner in Afghanistan to keep terrorists at bay in South-Central Asia. As Winston Churchill once noted, "America will always do the right thing, but only after exhausting all other options." We can only hope we haven’t completely alienated our vital allies when that time comes.

Chris Mason is a retired State Department foreign service officer with long experience in Afghanistan. He holds a PhD in Central Asian history from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

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