Preliminary results for last Thursday's election in Afghanistan have been released by election officials. While initial results put Afghan President Hamid Karzai with a slight 2 percent lead over Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, his nearest rival, results released on Wednesday showed Karzai pulling ahead with 44.8 percent of the vote compared to Abdullah's 35.1 percent based on returns from 17 percent of the nation's polling stations.
After the polls closed, the New York Times reported the Afghan election was called a success despite Taliban attacks. "American officials were quick to declare the poll a success — worth the expanding commitment of troops and money to an increasingly unpopular and corruption-plagued government."
Before the election, Western officials feared the Taliban would completely disrupt the election with violence. The Guardian noted that US and NATO officials were quick to proclaim poll a success despite violence, low turnout, and fears of electoral fraud.
After the vote last Thursday, U.S. special envoy Richard Holbrooke said the Taliban "utterly failed to disrupt these elections", which even at the time seemed optimistic in light of the reports of low voter turnout. The Taliban made 73 attacks across the country in 15 provinces on election day.
But now the quick assessments seem even more to he projections of hope than recognition of reality. "What was billed as a pivotal summer for the Western war effort in Afghanistan has become a season of drift and disappointment", reported the Los Angeles Times. "The country's second direct presidential election -- a vote that was intended to be unifying, even uplifting -- has taken an uncertain and ugly turn."
That ugly turn is alleged widespread fraud and low voter turnout, especially in southern Afghanistan where U.S. Marines have been fighting, in part, to increase security this summer in time for the election last Thursday.
The NY Times reported that "accumulating charges of widespread fraud" benefiting Karzai has "cast new doubts on the credibility of the election".
"Even as election officials announced the first glimpse of returns, presidential candidates presented a growing bank of evidence of vote rigging. Most of it appeared to favor President Karzai, and in some cases, to have taken place with the complicity of election or security officials."
What was presented included sheaves of ballots stamped and marked for one candidate, cell-phone video of poll workers and others marking off ballots and stuffing boxes in front of local police officers and security personnel, and votes said to have been thrown out of ballot boxes and discarded.
At a news briefing in his home in Kabul, Mr. Abdullah, the president’s main challenger, held a whole book of ballots and flicked through the pages to show that every one of them had been marked and stamped, apparently in advance of election day, for Mr. Karzai. Supporters had seized the ballots and brought them to him, he said.
He also displayed a series of photos showing a man whom he said he knew voting several times, and video of the local election chief stuffing ballot boxes himself.
Meanwhile, Holbrooke seems to be trying walk back any suggestion of fraud based on the preliminary vote counts and yet-unexamined allegations of election fraud, saying despite his earlier description of it being a successful election as any interpretation would be premature. "Ten percent of the vote is in... Imagine an American election with 10 percent in. You don't call it with 10 percent," he said.
The Christian Science Monitor also reported on the mounting fraud allegations as Karzai lead widens. "Afghan investigators say they're scrutinizing all complaints, but since electoral observers weren't present at many polling places, much fraud could have taken place out of view. Aside from a negligible contingent of international monitors, independent Afghan monitors only covered 60 percent of the polling centers."
Even with partial coverage of the election by observers, at least 1,461 complaints have already been filed with the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC). More than 150 of these, if found true, could change the final election tallies. The ECC includes international experts, but its mandate is merely to investigate specific irregularities – not analyze patterns to judge the entirety of the election.
The ECC is mostly run by non-Afghans and the software being used by the commission is "designed to detect unusual voting patterns that could indicate fraud" and "suspect" polling stations will be set aside and "if proved fraudulent will be excluded from the count". But the NY Times reported there is some opposed to Karzai who question the sincerity of some of the people running the election in pursuing allegations of fraud and honesty of their election audits.
The evidence of fraud presented by Mr. Abdullah’s campaign also raised suspicion of some election officials themselves. In one video clip, which appeared to be recorded with a cellphone, local police and election officials were stuffing ballot boxes as someone could be heard joking, "at least put two for Bashardost," a reference to the presidential candidate Ramazan Bashardost, who is now in third place with about 10 percent.
At least one United Nations offical, according to The Guardian suggests that as much as one in five Afghan ballots may be illegal.
One UN official predicted that anywhere between 10% and 20% of the votes cast were illegal, and that negotiations would have to be made to "massage down" Karzai's victory margin. Independent election monitors said almost 700 complaints had been received, around 50 of which were earmarked for immediate investigation because of the risk they could change the outcome.
Even the software being used to count the votes is under suspicion by some Afghans.
Mirwais Yaseni, the deputy speaker of Afghanistan's lower house of parliament, and a presidential candidate, claims thousands of votes cast for him where removed from ballot boxes and earmarked for destruction before being discovered by his supporters. He said the only option available was to "abolish the election".
"They have stolen it already. They are doing it electronically – it is just a matter of picking a number. At first, they were saying it would be 90% for Karzai, but now they are trying to bring it back down to 60%."
Still, days since the election, many non-governmental agencies are now taking a more cautious, wait-and-see approach to the Afghan elections. The CS Monitor explains that while reports of fraud and intimidation make the fairness of the election doubtful, a full picture of what happened on election day remains incomplete.
"The main reason why you haven't seen a strong international reaction yet is that it is unclear what kind of results are going to be presented," says Martine van Bijlert, codirector of the Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul. "We don't know yet whether we are going to be asked to believe the implausible." ...
"The standard line in this kind of cases is that there were irregularities, but that they didn't affect the outcome of the elections. Reports from the provinces suggest otherwise. They suggest that these irregularities were actually designed to affect the outcome of the elections and that they probably did," says Bijlert.
Not only do the allegations of fraud mar the election's legitimacy, but the voter turnout was estimated to be around 40 percent lower than the 2004 Afghan presidential election, according to an Afghan official on election day. On election day, Bloomberg News reported voter turnout was likely hampered by the Taliban, which also "raised speculation Karzai would fail to win 50 percent of the vote".
"The streets were eerily quiet" in the southern city of Kandahar, where drummers and dancers performed outside polling places in 2004, said Hardin Lang, a monitor with Democracy International Inc., a Washington-based elections organization.
"The turnout appeared rather low in comparison to the last time," said Lang. "There was no anecdotal evidence of enthusiasm."
The Associated Press reported the elections "appear to have been more of a setback than a step forward for Afghan women. Voter turnout by women "fell more sharply" than did for men. In addition to Taliban attacks, there was "a dearth of female election workers and hundreds of closed women's voting sites."
"At least 650 polling stations for women did not open, according to the Free and Fair Elections Foundation of Afghanistan, the country's top independent vote monitoring group. In the southern province of Uruzgan, only 6 of 36 women's polling stations opened," said the Free and Fair Elections Foundation of Afghanistan.
According to European Union observers, the lack of security on election day combined with Taliban attacks also contributed to women having a more difficult time voting. "The lack of personal security... disproportionately affected women and consolidated the opinions of many families and communities that it was not appropriate for women to be active outside the home," said an EU statement.
"The rockets started coming from the early morning and, until night, the rockets still came... The government hasn't done anything for women, and there were a lot of security problems. That's why I didn't cast my vote," said Kulsoom Bibi, explaining why she did not vote in Kandahar.
Kandahar is the "spiritual home" of the Taliban and is the capital of Kandahar province, the province where Karzai was born. On Tuesday night, just days after the Taliban shelled the city on election day keeping most of its citizens from voting, a massive bomb explosion destroyed an entire city block, "gutting shops and homes and reducing many of the structures to mounds of rubble". The explosion killed 41 people and wounded 60.
The bomb attack is the city's deadliest, reported the NY Times, and "may have done more than any other to deepen Kandahar’s sense of isolation and tip its people into despair that someone, anyone, has the power to halt the mayhem that surrounds them."
"We don’t know what the Taliban wants from Afghanistan, and we don’t know why the coalition forces are here, but things are getting worse day by day," said Niamatullah, 30, a high school teacher, who like many Afghans uses only one name.
"Sometimes rockets are fired and sometimes it is suicide bombers and sometimes car bombs, and the victims are civilians," he said. "And even sometimes bombing by coalition forces. It looks like Afghans are created by God to be killed by human machines. We don’t feel safe anywhere, even at home."
The target of the bombing was international aid agencies and United Nations offices operating out of Kandahar. "The explosion flattened the headquarters of Saita, a Japanese company engaged in reconstruction efforts".
Meanwhile, McClatchy reported U.S. deaths in Afghanistan are headed for another record. More American soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan this year "than in all of 2008, and August is on track to be the deadliest month for American troops there since U.S. operations began nearly eight years ago."
In July, 45 U.S. troops died in Afghanistan, the highest monthly toll this year. So far in August, 40 Americans have died, many in the south, and Pentagon officials say privately that with nearly a week left in the month, they expect August to exceed July's number. Americans make up the majority of the 63 coalition troops killed so far this month; 75 coalition soldiers died in July. In 2008, total coalition deaths were 294, 155 of whom were Americans; the 2009 total through Tuesday was 295, of whom 172 were Americans.
And yesterday, BBC News reported four U.S. soldiers were killed in Afghanistan. According to Brig. General Eric Tremblay, the four soldiers were killed by a bomb "while patrolling in one of the most violent areas of Afghanistan".