Envoy says his firing will hurt U.N. mission in Afghanistan

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 30, 2009 

WASHINGTON -- A former U.S. ambassador said that his firing Wednesday as the deputy United Nations envoy to Afghanistan in a dispute over the country's fraud-tainted presidential election was a "mistake" that could erode Afghans' confidence in the U.N. and the election.

In a telephone interview with McClatchy from his home in Vermont, Peter Galbraith said that his dismissal could hurt the credibility of the U.N. mission and the election in the eyes of ordinary Afghans, many of whom already think the August election was rigged in favor of U.S.-backed President Hamid Karzai.

"This risks undermining confidence both in the U.N. and among Afghans in the election process," Galbraith said. "This was a long-running disagreement which related to whether the U.N. should take a role in reducing the risk of fraud, which I believed it should."

"I am disappointed," he said.

Galbraith's warning about Karzai's legitimacy came as President Barack Obama held the second of five scheduled meetings with his top advisers on Afghanistan as he tries to decide whether to send more American troops to battle the Taliban insurgency against Karzai's government. The next meeting is scheduled for Oct. 7.

Army Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, has sent Washington a request for as many as 40,000 additional troops as part of a broad counterinsurgency plan to improve security, bolster the Afghan National Army and defeat the Taliban.

Other officials, led by Vice President Joe Biden, are urging Obama to move to a more limited campaign to "disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaida and their extremist allies," which are based largely in neighboring Pakistan, not in Afghanistan.

These officials warn that even training Afghan forces is likely to be futile if the Afghan people continue to regard the Karzai regime as illegitimate, corrupt and incompetent.

Galbraith left Afghanistan two weeks ago after he tried and failed to stop the Independent Election Commission, whose members were appointed by Karzai, from deciding to count hundreds of thousands of suspect votes for Karzai after it determined that excluding them would force him into a runoff.

Karzai angrily accused Galbraith of "foreign interference" in the ballot counting, and the top U.N. envoy to Afghanistan, Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide, sided with the Afghan leader.

A statement issued by the U.N. on Wednesday said that Secretary General Ban Ki-moon "has decided to recall Mr. Peter Galbraith from Afghanistan and end his appointment."

"The secretary general has made this decision in the best interest of the (U.N.) mission (to Afghanistan)," the statement said, adding that Ban "reaffirms his full support for his special representative, Kai Eide."

"I think this was a mistake," said Galbraith, who served as the first U.S. ambassador to Croatia during the 1990-95 wars that dismantled the former Yugoslavia. "I think it is a mistake to recall a U.N. official because he was concerned about fraud in a U.N.-supported and -funded election."

The election was marred by some 2,000 complaints of fraud and ballot box stuffing, and 600 were deemed serious. In some polling stations, there were more votes cast than there were registered voters; in others, every vote went to Karzai.

The Independent Election Commission on Aug. 29 adopted tough standards to weed out suspect ballots. They included examining those from sites that registered unusually high turnouts of 600 voters or more.

The panel subsequently determined that applying the standards would deny hundreds of thousands of votes to Karzai, forcing him into a runoff against his chief rival and former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, McClatchy reported on Sept. 12, quoting commission and Western officials.

Galbraith learned that a majority of the panel planned to vote to abandon the standards on Sept. 7, allowing the suspect votes to go to Karzai, and he tried to head off the move.

"When I contacted the IEC as it was about to abandon its published safeguards against fraud, Karzai launched a furious protest. Parenthetically, he was the beneficiary of these fraudulent votes and Kai (Eide) sided with Karzai," Galbraith said Wednesday. "Karzai accused me of foreign interference . . . and Kai sided with Karzai."

A majority of panel members voted on Sept. 7 to abandon the standards, and the following day the commission announced that Karzai's share of the vote had climbed from 47 percent to 54 percent, enough to avoid a runoff and hand him a second five-year term.

On Sept. 9, however, the Election Complaints Commission cited "clear and convincing evidence of fraud" in the election, and ordered the Independent Election Commission to conduct an extensive audit and partial ballot recount.

The IEC subsequently announced that 10 percent of the ballots had to be recounted. Under a deal designed to speed up the process, the IEC is randomly sampling 10 percent of the suspect ballots.

Galbraith said he agreed with that method because the approaching winter is reducing the time that would be needed to hold a runoff.

Some experts said that Ban's decision to fire Galbraith would seriously hurt the U.N., the U.S. and other powers by bolstering the view among ordinary Afghans that the international community is endorsing an election tainted by massive vote-rigging and intimidation, mostly on Karzai's behalf.

"This is an awful sign that someone who has raised serious concerns about a process that was flawed was dismissed," said Brian Katsulis of the Center for American Progress, who monitored the Aug. 20 presidential election with an observer mission fielded by U.S.-based Democracy International.

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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