This week, the most senior U.S. official working with the United Nations in Afghanistan went on "leave" out of frustration over the lack of response to fraud in the country's presidential election. The head of the European Union's election-monitoring commission said that as many as one-third of the votes President Hamid Karzai received were "suspect" and should be investigated. And Afghans themselves continue to criticize not just the controversial election, but also the government's response to it. If this continues, it will fatally undermine the next Afghan government and the efforts of its international supporters. Steps should be taken immediately to avert a potentially violent legitimacy crisis.
We observed Afghanistan's Aug. 20 presidential and provincial council elections in Kabul. Among us we have almost seven decades of experience in following Afghan politics, and we feel thoroughly alarmed by the lack of consensus on how to resolve the brewing crisis over the disputed elections. It is by now clear that there took place an industrial-scale effort to distort the election results and defraud the Afghan people. Should this effort succeed, the chance of the Barack Obama administration's stabilizing Afghanistan and the broader region will be grim indeed. No one should be in any doubt as to the gravity and explosiveness of the situation.
The international community knew going into these elections that they were going to be problematic. We could and should have done better. There was evidence of fraud months beforehand, with over-registration of voters in the insecure southern parts of Afghanistan and voter registration cards for sale at markets in Kabul. Although we did not personally witness any significant electoral fraud on election day in Kabul, reports from our colleagues and contacts in other parts of Afghanistan provided evidence of significant, state-supported fraud.
We also knew well in advance that a lack of institutional capacity would make a quick determination of the winner impossible. The Independent Election Commission is now perceived by many Afghans as partisan, having included thousands of manifestly suspect votes in its tally. Some 2,851 complaints, 751 of which were classed as serious, were filed with the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), which has limited organizational capacity to investigate them. It will likely take weeks to determine whether President Karzai, who has nominally surmounted the 50 percent hurdle, can avoid a runoff election. If the ECC invalidates enough votes to trigger a runoff, the onset of winter by late October and the resulting inaccessibility of remote areas would mean that such an election would have to wait until spring. This long delay, with Karzai continuing to hold the presidency, would trigger a constitutional crisis, and possibly an outbreak of serious violence in Kabul.