KABUL, Afghanistan – A U.N. watchdog group cited “clear and convincing evidence of fraud” as it ordered a partial recount Tuesday of Afghanistan’s deeply troubled presidential election, dealing another blow to the Obama administration’s hopes that the balloting would help stabilize the country.
The finding by the Electoral Complaints Commission rendered effectively meaningless the release of an almost complete tally hours later that for the first time put President Hamid Karzai over the 50 percent threshold he needs to achieve a first-round victory in the Aug. 20 vote.
Karzai said previously he would accept the commission’s verdict on the vote, but he also has complained that Western governments – in particular that of the United States – always had wanted to see a runoff election between him and his chief rival, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.
The president’s lieutenants had angered the Obama administration last month when they issued a virtual declaration of victory within hours of the vote, saying it appeared there would be no need for a runoff.
On Tuesday, the administration endorsed a rigorous investigation of reports of election fraud, even as it acknowledged the process would delay a claim to another term by Karzai, whose ties to the new administration have been marked by friction.
“A legitimate electoral process is vital to us, and vital to any kind of partnership that we would have with the government going forward,” State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said, identifying a believable outcome as vital, despite any effect it might have on U.S. relations with the Afghan government.
“That’s our bottom line: that we end up with a credible result at the end,” Kelly said.
Western diplomats expressed private concern that the coming weeks could be volatile now that hopes for a clear-cut outcome have been dashed.
“It’s not a worst-case scenario, but it could go in that direction,” said a Western diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity because of not being authorized to discuss the vote.
Many in the international community had hoped the balloting would be a major step toward creating a stable democracy in a country battered by decades of war. A widely accepted Afghan government is viewed, in turn, as a crucial bulwark against a Taliban-led insurgency that is honing its lethal effectiveness.
The allegation of extensive voting fraud has raised doubts about whether Karzai – should he win – would emerge with the necessary legitimacy. And the controversy might widen the gulf between Karzai, who increasingly has tried to position himself as an independent leader, and the U.S., which will have 68,000 troops in Afghanistan by the end of the year and has not ruled out sending more.
This year has been the war’s deadliest for U.S. forces. On Tuesday, the American military said four U.S. soldiers died in an attack in Kunar province, bordering Pakistan. Such clusters of troop fatalities, once highly unusual, are becoming a grim feature of the conflict, soon to enter its ninth year.
Despite insurgent threats, the vote itself passed relatively peacefully, but in the intervening weeks, the focus has shifted to mounting allegations of fraud, which sharpened Tuesday with word of the recount ordered by the Electoral Complaints Commission, the U.N.-backed body that ultimately will be responsible for certifying the vote.
“In the course of its investigations, the ECC has found clear and convincing evidence of fraud in a number of polling stations,” the group said in a statement.
It ordered an audit of all votes in polling stations where more than 600 people – considered the acceptable maximum – voted and for any polling locale where any candidate received more than 95 percent of the vote.
Later in the day, Afghan election officials reported that with almost 92 percent of the vote counted, Karzai was polling 54.1 percent, more than he would need to avoid a runoff. Abdullah, who had polled nearly even with the president in early returns, trailed with 28.3 percent.
The recount could take up to three months, election officials said. That set the stage for not only a lengthy bout of political paralysis but stoked fears of ethnically motivated violence by supporters of the two main contenders. Karzai is a Pashtun, the country’s largest ethnic group; Abdullah is identified with the Tajik minority of northern Afghanistan.
The commission’s order did not say how many suspect ballots would be re-examined, but some of the most serious fraud allegations come from the south and east, which are dominated by Pashtuns.
According to complainants, a number of polling stations in those areas reported 100 percent of the votes had been cast for the Afghan leader, often providing tallies in suspiciously round numbers such as 200 or 500.
The U.N. commission’s determination of fraud intensifies pressure on the Obama administration on other fronts, as it works to fine-tune its military strategy and bolster support for the Afghan mission among Americans and allies.
But the latest developments also highlight long-standing skepticism within the Obama administration toward the Karzai government.
Former President George W. Bush and his team handpicked Karzai as the one leader who could unite Afghanistan’s feuding tribes and disparate regions. But that goal never was reached, and Obama administration officials have never developed the kind of ties with Karzai that Bush had.