Three short weeks from tomorrow marks the date on which Afghanistan’s new president is to be sworn in. The problem, though, is that Abdullah Abdullah refuses to believe that he could have beaten Ashraf Ghani by a million votes in the first round and then lost to him by a million votes in the runoff a few weeks later. Both US Secretary of State John Kerry and the UN have tried to defuse the crisis, but neither effort has had any effect whatsoever.
No words are needed to describe Kerry’s failure. In their story on Kerry’s visit to Kabul today, Reuters carried photos of Ghani and Abdullah with Kerry in front of the same backdrop of US and Afghan flags. The photo of Ghani and Kerry could pass as a propaganda photo handed out jointly by the two governments to promote a continued relationship between the US and Afghanistan with Ghani as the new president. The photo with Abdullah, on the other hand, shows a deeply distrustful Abdullah casting a sideways glance at Kerry, who seems not to have the courage to look Abdullah in the eye, let alone shake hands as he did with Ghani. Perhaps Abdullah and Kerry did shake hands, but photographer Jim Bourg seems to have captured the essence of the crisis perfectly.
Meanwhile, the UN proposal for additional auditing has fallen flat. From the New York Times:
The United Nations proposal centered on a special audit of suspected fraudulent votes, and it appeared to be a winner when the office of President Hamid Karzai called reporters shortly after midnight Friday, the beginning of the Afghan weekend, to spread the news of the new plan.
Aimal Faizi, the spokesman for Mr. Karzai, said the president was backing the proposal, which involved a deeper audit of votes from 8,000 polling stations, or about 43 percent of the 8.1 million ballots cast. The plan had been presented to Mr. Karzai on Thursday evening by Jan Kubis, the special United Nations envoy for Afghanistan, who was to brief Mr. Abdullah and Mr. Ghani about it later on Friday, Mr. Faizi said.
But within minutes, Mr. Abdullah’s campaign said it had already made clear to United Nations officials that the plan was not acceptable during discussions on Thursday about possible ways out of the crisis. A senior aide to Mr. Abdullah said the campaign had its own plan, which would entail audits of votes from about 11,000 of the roughly 22,000 polling stations.
Western reports on the election crisis that I have read have danced around a very important central issue without ever addressing it. The huge problem that Afghanistan faces is that there is no real way to audit this election after the fact. Elections in Afghanistan do not take place in the way that elections in the West are conducted. Once outside of Kabul, Afghan society is structured around village life and women often live their entire lives without going outside the walls of the family compound. Village elders carry huge influence for all residents of the village.
In his book No Good Men Among the Living, Anand Gopal provided a couple of very informative vignettes of previous presidential elections. On page 156, we have this from the 2004 election: Continue reading
A few numbers will serve to highlight both the rage of Abdullah Abdullah’s supporters and the extent of the fraud which they believe to have been perpetrated on behalf of Ashraf Ghani in Afghanistan’s presidential election. In the first round of the election, there were 7,018,049 votes cast and Abdullah fell just short of winning outright (which would have occurred had he topped 50% of the vote) with 45% of the vote. Ghani finished well behind him, at 31.6%. Yesterday, the preliminary results of the June 14 runoff were announced. This time, there were 8,109,403 votes cast, an increase of just over 15% from the first round. It should also be noted that turnout in the first round represented about a 50% increase from the 2009 election. Ghani somehow surged to 54% of the vote this time, leading Abdullah by 1,024,249 votes.
In yesterday’s announcement, we learned that some votes have been thrown out over suspected fraud:
In Monday’s announcement, Mr. Nuristani said that the Independent Election Commission, while tallying the preliminary results, had already thrown out more than 11,000 votes from 1,930 polling stations. About 60 percent of the disqualified votes had been cast in favor of Mr. Ghani, with the reminder cast for Mr. Abdullah.
While 11,000 fraudulent votes sounds like a lot, note that Abdullah’s camp was already suspicious of the huge increase in turnout for the runoff compared to the first round. While there still is additional review of the voting planned which could eliminate more votes, the 11,000 votes discarded falls far short of the 2009 election and the first round this year:
In contrast to 2009, when more than 1.2 million votes were found to be fraudulent and were discarded, the two commissions threw out only 375,000 votes this time.
In the eyes of Abdullah supporters, it is easy to question how Ghani could have more than doubled the number of votes he received in the runoff (going from about 2.2 million votes to over 4.4 million) while Abdullah, who had been far ahead, only added about three hundred thousand votes (going from 3.2 million to 3.5 millon). Somehow, we are supposed to believe that Abdullah has the support of only 44-45% of the Afghan electorate, no matter how many show up and that Ghani was able to magically obtain the vote of every Afghan who voted for someone other than Ghani or Abdullah in the first round while also getting 56% of those new more than one million voters who turned up for the runoff.
It is little wonder, then, that Adbullah’s supporters completely reject the results announced yesterday:
Presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah’s team said it would reject preliminary results from the runoff election unless fraudulent votes were excluded from the count, his running mate Mohammad Mohaqeq said in an interview with TOLOnews on Monday evening.
Mohaqeq warned that if their team denounces the results, so to will people in various provinces, and then the government and the election commission will be responsible for the consequences.
“We want to say to the people of Afghanistan that if our conditions aren’t accepted and the assigned commission doesn’t reach an outcome and our condition that invalid votes be distinguished from genuine votes is not accepted, we will not accept the results and consequences will follow and responsibility will be on the government, the rigging commission and rigging team,” Mohaqeq said.
Abdullah has declared himself the victor, but for now is holding off on announcing a parallel government:
Embattled Afghan presidential contender Abdullah Abdullah defiantly mobilized thousands of his supporters in the heart of the capital Tuesday, vowing to challenge preliminary election results that show him trailing his rival, amid accusations of massive fraud.
“You are the victorious; you have won the vote — there is no question,” Abdullah shouted to a cheering crowd at a spacious conference hall in western Kabul. “We would rather be torn into pieces than accept this fraud,” he said. “We reject these results . . . and justice will prevail.” The former foreign minister alleges election officials rigged the vote in favor of his opponent, former finance minister Ashraf Ghani, in a June 14 presidential runoff.
There were fears that Abdullah and his team would use the rally to declare a parallel government, which would have aggravated Afghanistan’s political crisis and raised the risk of bloodshed. But Abdullah stopped short of announcing his own cabinet Tuesday, drawing jeers from the audience, which urged him to declare himself president.
“Long live Abdullah!” his supporters cried. “Announce your government!”
John Kerry is slated to visit Kabul on Friday and is warning that the US will withdraw support for Afghanistan if a parallel government is announced. Given the speed at which events seem to be unfolding, Friday could well be too late for Kerry to have any impact (if that ever had been possible anyway). Does Kerry’s announcement signal that the US will only accept Ghani as the winner?
With no catastrophic attacks taking place and reports of over 7 million people voting, on first impressions it would appear that Afghanistan’s presidential election on Saturday was a resounding success. Digging a bit deeper, though, reveals disturbing evidence of hundreds of violent incidents that received little attention and large areas of the country where the electorate was too scared of the Taliban to vote. Another large cautionary note is that the slow rate of vote counting means that it will be a long time before there can be any meaningful analysis of the extent of vote-stuffing. Further, the US goal of a new president clearing the way to a signed Bilateral Security Agreement is likely to be put off further, as any runoff will not happen until late May, which could well be past the point at which the US will have to decide if it will invoke the zero option and withdraw all troops from the country at the end of the year.
The New York Times gives us the rosy version of the voting:
After enduring months of Taliban attacks and days of security clampdowns, Afghans reveled Sunday in the apparent success of the weekend’s presidential election, as officials offered the first solid indications that the vote had far exceeded expectations.
Two senior officials from the Independent Election Commission said the authorities supervising the collection of ballots in tallying centers had counted between seven million and 7.5 million total ballots, indicating that about 60 percent of the 12 million eligible voters had taken part in the election. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because results will not be released for weeks.
Even this report, though, cautions that fraud could still be a problem and will take time to detect:
Afghan election observers backed up the numbers offered by election officials, as did Western diplomats, though the latter struck a more cautious tone. But both said that some votes would invariably be thrown out because of fraud.
The question was how many, and whether Afghanistan would see a repeat of the 2009 election, which was marred by widespread ballot stuffing and other fraud. Turnout that year was about 38 percent, though some estimates put it lower. The memory of what happened that year still hovers here, giving many reason to hesitate before declaring this weekend’s vote an unqualified success.
It took days for the full extent of the problems with the 2009 election to emerge, and the ensuing political crisis lasted months, souring relations between President Karzai and the United States, embittering many Afghans and helping fuel a Taliban insurgency that was gaining momentum.
But the claims of no large attacks overshadowed the news that there were actually hundreds of attacks aimed at the voting:
The anti-government armed militants carried out 690 attacks across the country during the presidential and provincial council elections on Saturday.
Defense ministry spokesman, Gen. Zahir Azimi said Saturday that the attacks by militants included direct fire, rocket attacks, improvised explosive device (IED) attacks and suicide attacks.
Azimi also added that 164 militants were killed and 82 others were injured during the attacks while Afghan army soldiers seized various types of weapons belonging to the assailant militants.
He said at least 7 Afghan national army soldiers were martyred and 45 others were injured during these attacks.
The background for Staff Sergeant Robert Bales, the suspect in the mass killing of civilians in Afghanistan last week, became much murkier with the revelation that his career as an investment manager ended in a judgment of $1.4 million against him for fraud. He was accused of “churning” a client’s retirement account, selling off holdings in safer investments to purchase more volatile penny stocks. In the meantime, the fallout from the attack continues, as the US continues its effort to reach a SOFA agreement with Afghanistan ahead of the NATO summit in Chicago scheduled for May. The latest offering appears to be establishment of a system in which Afghan judges would be put into position to approve “warrants” before night raids take place. Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough took to the airwaves on NPR this morning to hold up the US FISA court as the shining example on which the Afghan system should be modeled.
In this morning’s Washington Post, we get quite a few details on the fraud case against Bales. The former client, Gary Liebschner, had employed the firm Bales worked for to manage his retirement account:
That is not the man that Liebschner said he dealt with when Bales was much younger and listed as the “investment executive” on his retirement account. The fund held stock that Liebschner had inherited and earned during his AT&T days, as well as other investments.
A severe reaction to medication left Liebschner hospitalized and in a rehabilitation center from November 1998 until June 1999. At the time, his wife, Janet, who took time off from her nursing job, was pressed for money to cover car and mortgage payments, as well as the cost of renovations to their home to make it wheelchair-accessible, she said.
She hadn’t previously been in charge of the couple’s finances, she said, but after she began to examine account statements, she realized that the fund had been severely depleted.
Her husband’s retirement account had nearly $700,000 in 1998, his statements show. By early 2000, the fund had about $30,000 in it.
That is an appallingly bad job of investment management, and it is easy to see how a finding of fraud was found against Bales and the firm for which he worked. A big caveat here, though, is whether Janet Liebschner withdrew funds to cover the home renovation and other expenses listed, and if so, how much was withdrawn. We don’t have the exact dates of when the account sat at about $700,000 or when it was found to be depleted, but the period of 1998 through 2000 was fairly robust for investments. Below is a chart of the Dow Jones Industrial Average from the beginning of 1998 through the end of 2000. There was a dip in mid-1998 that gave up the gains from earlier that year, but then from the fall of 1998 through the end of 2000, the market advanced by roughly 33%, from about 7500 to about 10,000: Continue reading