Afghan President Hamid Karzai has unilaterally taken over the country’s Electoral Complaints Commission, declaring himself the right to appoint all five panel members. The move comes four months after the commission ordered a rerun of last August’s presidential election in the wake of widespread electoral fraud, with estimates that Karzai had received around one million unsubstantiated votes in order to claim victory against rival Abdullah Abdullah.[i]
This run-off, however, did not materialise, with Abdullah Abdullah withdrawing days before the vote, leading to the second round of voting being abruptly cancelled. Abdullah stated that his “demands for a fraud-free election had not been met”, and that a repeat of the August debacle “might not restore the faith of the people in (the) democratic process.”[ii] The August elections had been marked by voter intimidation and ballot stuffing in Karzai’s favour on the part of election monitors. The governor and other election officials in the northern state of Balkh, for example, noted “voter coercion” and intimidation, “particularly” on the part of election monitors.[iii]
Ballot-stuffing was also a common complaint, with both Karzai and Abdullah facing accusations over huge voting irregularities. The BBC uncovered election cards being sold openly in some cities, and candidates offering thousands of dollars worth of bribes in exchange for votes. The Bareez tribe in the southern city of Kandahar alleged that nearly 30,000 votes had been switched from Abdullah to Karzai, with the president’s brother Ahmed Wali maintaining that the claim was “baseless”.[iv] Ahmed Wali Karzai is himself a controversial figure who does little to bolster the reputation of his brother’s regime internationally, with voluminous evidence linking him to the heroin trade in the war-torn nation.[v]
Prior to Hamid Karzai’s overhaul, the ECC had been dominated by the United Nations, with three of its panel being directly appointed by the UN. Western diplomats were quick to register their outrage at the Afghan President’s decision. The head of the United Nations in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, reportedly struck a deal in private with the Afghan head of state prior to the announcement that the President would determine the five-strong commission, to the effect that at least two foreigners would be part of the panel. This would still leave Karzai-appointees in a dominant position, holding the remaining three out of five seats. The President already controls Afghanistan’s Independent Elections Commission, which was considered to have favoured the incumbent during the August election and was accordingly criticised by Abdullah Abdullah.
Karzai’s announcement comes during a parliamentary recess, with the Afghan parliament not due to reconvene until Saturday 27 February. Abdullah Abdullah was critical of the move to seize power of the ECC, calling it a “step backwards”, and affirming that Karzai’s actions “could seriously jeopardise the efforts being made on the military front”. President Obama announced the deployment of an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan in December of 2009[vi], following the deployment of an extra 17,000 troops in February of last year.[vii]
This significant increase in foreign troops comes at a time when confidence in Afghanistan’s fledgling government is dwindling, with the Karzai regime perceived by many both in and outside of the devastated nation to be riddled with corruption and showing no sign of improvement. Consequently, public opinion in the United States, the United Kingdom and other countries which have troops stationed in Afghanistan has turned sharply against the war, with rising death tolls both among the Afghan civilian population and foreign occupying forces and the obvious shortcomings of Karzai’s government. The number of British troops killed in Afghanistan reached 256 in early February 2010, surpassing the number of dead in the Falklands’ war of 1982, as three British troops were killed by an improvised explosive device (IED) in Helmand province.[viii]
Meanwhile, the Afghan cabinet voiced its condemnation of the killing of 27 civilians in the south of the country following a NATO airstrike in an area under Dutch military control in the border region between the provinces of Uruzgan and Dai Kondi.[ix] A cabinet statement affirmed that “The repeated killing of civilians by NATO forces is unjustifiable… We strongly condemn it.”[x]
Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary stated that the victims of the airstrike were all civilians. He said that two Land Cruisers and a pickup truck containing a total of 42 people came under attack from the air as they approached the Khotal Chowza mountain pass that connects the two provinces.
[i] Hamid Karzai takes control of Afghanistan election watchdog, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/feb/22/karzai-afghanistan-electoral-complaints-commission
[iii] Accusations Of Vote Fraud Multiply in Afghanistan, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/27/AR2009082704199.html
[v][v] Reports link Karzai’s brother to heroin trade, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/10/04/world/asia/04iht-05afghan.16689186.html
[vi] Barack Obama’s war: the final push in Afghanistan, http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/dec/01/barack-obama-speech-afghanistan-war
[vii] Obama approves Afghanistan troop increase, http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/02/17/obama.troops/index.html
[viii] Afghanistan death toll exceeds Falklands as three UK soldiers die, http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/feb/08/uk-soldiers-killed-afghanistan
[ix] Afghanistan slams US-led forces over civilian deaths, http://www.presstv.com/detail.aspx?id=119233§ionid=351020403
[x] NATO Airstrike Kills Afghan Civilians, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/23/world/asia/23afghan.html