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Fired UN Official Peter Galbraith Accuses the United Nations of Helping Cover Up Electoral Fraud Committed by Afghan President Hamid Karzai

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Last week, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon fired the top American diplomat at the United Nations in Afghanistan, Peter Galbraith. Galbraith had accused his boss at the UN mission in Afghanistan, Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide, of helping cover up electoral fraud and being biased in favor of Hamid Karzai. Galbraith has described the Afghan election as a “foreseeable train wreck” and says the election has “handed the Taliban its greatest strategic victory in eight years of fighting the United States and its Afghan partners.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

ANJALI KAMAT: While the Obama administration continues to discuss sending additional troops to Afghanistan, the country’s international election watchdog, the Electoral Complaints Commission, is expected to shortly begin an audit of suspicious ballots from the August 20th elections. Initial results gave the incumbent Afghan President Hamid Karzai nearly 55 percent of the vote, but allegations of widespread fraud have delayed the final results. Last month, the United Nations-backed commission ordered a recount of ten percent of ballot boxes after finding, quote, “clear and convincing evidence of fraud.”

But the UN’s legitimacy in Afghanistan has taken a serious beating. Last week, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon fired the top American diplomat at the UN shortly after the New York Times published excerpts of a scathing letter from Galbraith to Ban Ki-moon. Galbraith accused his boss at the UN mission in Afghanistan, Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide, of helping cover up electoral fraud and being biased in favor of Hamid Karzai.

Eide has denied the accusations, and the United Nations maintains that Galbraith was fired over a, quote, “personality clash” with Eide. Speaking to the UN Security Council last week, Eide admitted to some fraud but added that the expected audit would ultimately lead to a, quote, “credible and legitimate result.”

    KAI EIDE: Yes, there has been fraud. There has been irregularities committed by election officials, by candidates and their supporters, as well as government officials. When the final result has been certified, it must be respected by candidates and their supporters. What most Afghans, by far, now want is to see the process come to an end, a government formed, and their lives improved.

ANJALI KAMAT: The leading opposition candidate in Afghanistan, Abdullah Abdullah, alleges massive fraud and expressed his concern over Galbraith’s removal for speaking out against the fraud.

    ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: If the firing of Mr. Galbraith was on some technical issues, I’ll no say in it. If the issue was based on the fact that he was for vigorous look into the issue of fraud, he was — in that case, I will say that he has been talking on behalf of the people of Afghanistan, because it’s, first and foremost, in our interest to have a vigorous look into the issue of fraud, vigorous approach, and to preserve the credibility of the process.

AMY GOODMAN: In an op-ed published in the Washington Post Sunday, Peter Galbraith describes the Afghan elections as a, quote, “foreseeable train wreck” and says Kai Eide ordered him not to pursue the issue of fraud, fraud that he says has, quote, “handed the Taliban its greatest strategic victory in eight years of fighting the United States and its Afghan partners.”

We go now to Bergen, Norway, and we’re joined by Ambassador Peter Galbraith there.

Peter Galbraith, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you explain why you believe you were fired?

PETER GALBRAITH: Well, I was fired because of a — as a result of a longstanding disagreement with Kai Eide, the head of the mission, over — not over how to handle electoral fraud, but over whether the UN should handle it.

Let me first correct a couple of things in your introduction. My recall — that’s the diplomatic term for it — took place before, or the decision to do it took place before I wrote the letter to Ban Ki-moon. So the letter was not what triggered the recall. And it appeared — it was leaked by someone to the New York Times only after my recall had been announced. So it really was — it was not the factor. But having learned that I was going to be recalled, I wanted the Secretary-General to understand very clearly what the issues were. And as I said at the beginning of that letter, I was — I thought it was astonishing that the United Nations should dismiss the official who was responsible for the elections because he was concerned about fraud in the elections.

Now, I outlined, both in the letter and in the piece I wrote yesterday for the Washington Post outlook section, what exactly the issues that I was concerned about. First, the fraud was — it wasn’t entirely preventable, but it could have been very substantially reduced. And this is important, because these elections have been a disaster for Afghanistan, they’ve been a disaster for the international effort. If Karzai emerges as president at the end of this process, his credibility is going to be much reduced for the large part of the country. It clearly has undermined international support for the Afghan effort. When I’m home in Vermont, people are saying, “Well, what are we fighting for in Afghanistan?” Before, you could answer, “Well, September 11th.” Now people say we’re fighting to hold a corrupt government that has done this sort of thing in power. So, the elections — the issue of fraud is hugely important.

As I said, it was — it could have been significantly prevented. In July, I was in charge, as Kai Eide, the head of the mission, was away, as he often was, and I was working with the Election Commission and the Afghan ministers of defense and interior to reduce the number of polling centers that were going to be on the rolls on election day. And that’s because I became aware that if there were about 1,500 polling centers out of 7,000 that were located in areas that the Taliban controlled or were so insecure that they in fact — nobody from the security services or the Election Commission had ever visited those places. These polling centers were never going to open. But as long as they remained on the rolls, they provided an excellent opportunity for fraud, because the people perpetrating the fraud, which, as it turned out, included the Election Commission’s staff, would be able to take the materials, report that they had been open, and then report returns. And, of course, no observer, no candidate agent and no voter could go to the location to see whether in fact the center had opened. So there were about 1,500 ghost polling centers. I was making progress, with support from the US, the UK, European Union, NATO. But, of course, the Afghan ministers complained about what I was doing to the head of the mission. He sided with them, ordered me not to do anything further. So that would have been the best opportunity to address the issue of fraud.

After it took place, the UN had collected — we had run a twenty-four-hour election control center through the election period and the initial counting. We collected hundreds of incidents of fraud. And more importantly, we collected information, extensive information, on turnout. And what our information on turnout showed was that in key provinces in southern Afghanistan, there was a tiny turnout, less than ten percent in a number of cases, and yet a large number of votes recorded. That was very good evidence of fraud. We wanted to provide this information to the Election Complaints Commission. This is the UN-backed watchdog that, under Afghan law, is supposed to investigate complaints against the election process. Kai Eide, the head of the mission, said no. He didn’t want this information shared at all.

And finally, there was a third incident, but there were many others, but these were the most important. In September, in early September, I was again in charge, and the Independent Election Commission, which actually was not an independent commission — it was appointed by Karzai and very much operated on his behalf through this election process — I got word that they were planning to abandon published safeguards, their own published safeguards, to exclude fraudulent ballots from the final tally. And I got in touch with them, and I said that we would object to that. This produced — within two hours, the president of the country called in the American ambassador to protest it. I was called in by the foreign minister. This was deemed to be improper foreign interference. And instead of backing me up, Kai Eide sided with Karzai.

And the result was where we are now. There is an electoral crisis in Afghanistan, and the ability of the United Nations to deal with it is much diminished. You heard the presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah, who’s the second place contender, but what was the message to him and to the opposition when the United Nations dismisses the individual who was responsible for supporting these elections because of concern over fraud? How could he have confidence in the role of the UN as an impartial arbiter at this stage?

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Ambassador Peter Galbraith. He was just fired by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as the top American diplomat at the United Nations in Afghanistan. We’re speaking to him in Bergen, Norway, and we’re going to come back to our discussion, including his feelings about a surge of US troops in Afghanistan. Ambassador Peter Galbraith with us. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Ambassador Peter Galbraith in Bergen, Norway. He was the top US diplomat at the UN in Afghanistan, number two in the mission there, just fired by the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Anjali?

ANJALI KAMAT: Ambassador Galbraith, in your piece for the Washington Post this Sunday, you write that your former boss, Kai Eide, ordered you not to pursue the issue of fraud. Can you explain exactly how he did this?

PETER GALBRAITH: Well, Anjali, I covered that. I’d be happy to go over it again. First, in advance of the election, he — when I was trying to reduce the number of the ghost polling stations, he ordered me to stop doing that, after the Afghan ministers complained about it, although, of course, they were working for President Karzai, who would turn out to be the beneficiary of the fraud.

At another stage in the process, we had collected very substantial data on fraud and turnout. This was done by the UN staff at considerable personal risk. Afghanistan is a dangerous place to operate. And then, we wanted to do what our mandate is, which is to support the Afghan institutions, turn this evidence over to the Election Complaints Commission. He ordered the mission not to turn over the evidence, to sit on it. And then, when the Independent Election Commission, which was really a pro-Karzai body, decided to abandon its safeguards, he objected when I intervened with them to try to get them to keep the safeguards.

His argument is that this is — that the UN Security Council resolution says that the United Nations should support Afghan institutions in a Afghan-run election, and therefore we shouldn’t intervene. But, in fact, of course, the mandate is to support a — not just elections, but free, fair and transparent elections, not a fraudulent one.

And it’s, in my view, absurd to say that the international community doesn’t have an interest in how these elections are conducted. First, taxpayers from the wealthy countries, and particularly the United States, paid for these elections. They cost over $300 million. So — and there’s an obvious interest. But second, and even more important, these elections were a critical part of the political process in Afghanistan. The hope was that they would bring greater stability. They have now brought much greater instability. They have been the biggest strategic triumph for the Taliban since 2001. And with 100,000 troops there, of course, the United States and its NATO allies had a huge interest in — that these elections be done properly. And frankly, the United Nations mission failed to do its job.

ANJALI KAMAT: Ambassador Galbraith, I want to ask you about the audit that’s going to begin shortly. I want to turn to an excerpt of an interview on Al Jazeera with Grant Kippen. He’s the head of the UN-backed Electoral Complaints Commission, and he’s explaining why the audit will only look at ten percent of the suspect polling boxes.

    GRANT KIPPEN: We have two processes in place at the moment. One is the — are the investigations with respect to the complaints that we’ve received to date, and there are some 2,300 complaints that we’ve received since polling day. The other is the process I just mentioned, the audit and the recount process. And we’ve — you know, this audit and recount will look at those polling stations there, where we believe more information needs to be gathered in terms of the manner in which the process was conducted. So, at this point in time, we will continue to work through these two different processes and make decisions based on the information we collect.

    So, in terms of the other 90 percent, at this point, we’ve not received complaints that affect the other 90 percent, maybe a little bit less, but, you know, by and large, the complaints that we deal with come from the — from different candidates and individuals, and we’ll be focusing on that.

ANJALI KAMAT: Ambassador Galbraith, your response? And can you explain if these ten percent of suspect ballot boxes, if they include the 1,500 polling stations that you mentioned, the ghost polling stations?

PETER GALBRAITH: They include many of the ghost polling stations. The Independent Election Commission published guidelines, the ones that I tried to keep in place, that they chose to abandon, because they, in fact, would have harmed Karzai, those guidelines said that they would quarantine for further examination polling places in certain categories — for example, if it had more than 600 votes. Why? Because 600 ballots was all any polling station got. If it reported more than 90 percent of the vote for a single candidate, if the polling station was closed, these results would all be excluded. The IEC included those results. And now the — and that created about 3,500 polling stations in that category.

What the Election Complaints Commission is doing is doing a sample of those 3,500, looking at them — I think it’ll be about 350 of these polling stations. They’ll do an audit. That means they’ll open the ballot box, look, for example, to see if the ballots were all marked the same way; look to see if there were any ballots in the ballot box to begin with; were the ballot papers folded, because if they weren’t folded, that means they weren’t put into the ballot box by a voter, because you could only get them in through the slot by voting. Anyhow, there are a number of audit techniques that they have. If it turns out that that random sample shows that almost all of it’s fraudulent, they will then exclude the full 3,000, and then we’ll see whether that leads to a runoff.

I have confidence in this process, which incidentally was only started after the disagreement between the head of the mission and myself became public. But there is a problem with it, which is not in any way the fault of the Election Complaints Commission. And the problem is that the fraud was committed on a massive scale. Up to a third of the votes for President Karzai were not actually cast by voters. This process will catch some of the fraud, hopefully a lot of the fraud, but a lot of the fraud will remain undetected. And so, that’s what makes it — is going to make it so hard for Afghans, and particularly those who support the opposition, to have confidence in the final outcome.

AMY GOODMAN: Ambassador Peter Galbraith, have you been pressured by the United Nations not to speak to the press? And then I want to ask you about the latest attack over the weekend. Eight US troops, two Afghan police officers died. Do you support a military surge in Afghanistan?

PETER GALBRAITH: Well, to answer your first question, I want to emphasize that this disagreement between myself and the head of the mission, it was longstanding, it was serious, and it was private. I did not choose to speak out. I did not speak out as long as I was working for the United Nations. Unfortunately, somebody else, a third party, leaked the news of this dispute in mid-September, and it became a worldwide story, unfortunately. For my employment prospects, almost all the print coverage was favorable to me and highly critical of my boss.

At the time that I was being recalled, the Secretary-General sent word to me that I should not talk to the press. I agreed, provided that the United Nations gave an accurate description of what was at issue, which nobody disputed, namely that this was a result of a disagreement over how to handle electoral fraud. Even that wasn’t quite right, because it was really a disagreement about whether the United Nations should handle electoral fraud. But I went along with the how to handle electoral fraud. That was language proposed, incidentally, by the United Nations, not by me. That was all agreed.

And then, when my recall was announced, that wasn’t the language that was used, and immediately, UN press officials began to background the story, that this was a personality clash. Well, that’s not true. Kai Eide and I had been friends since 1994. We worked together in the Balkans. He actually introduced me to my wife, who is Norwegian, which is why I’m speaking to you from Bergen, Norway. And this was a serious policy disagreement, and this effort to minimize it was a great disservice to the staff of the United Nations, who worked so hard on the election issues, all of whom — there’s no disagreement within the UN mission. Everybody disagrees with the head of the mission. It was a disservice to them, and frankly, it was a disservice to the Afghan people to cover up, in a final effort to cover up, the issues here.

Now, to turn to your question on whether there should be an additional surge of US troops, I’m against that at this time, for the simple reason that for the counterinsurgency strategy that is being proposed to President Obama, for that to work, you need to have an Afghan partner, a government, which is capable of establishing a reasonably efficient and honest administration in the areas that the US troops then have — first have cleared. And we don’t have an Afghan government that’s a credible partner. Given this election mess, a large part of the country is not going to accept Karzai, if he in fact emerges from this as the legitimate leader. And so, under those circumstances, the counterinsurgency strategy can’t work, and therefore, in my view, it really makes no sense to put in additional troops.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Ambassador Peter Galbraith, we want to thank you very much for joining us, joining us from Bergen, Norway. He was the top American diplomat at the UN, number two man at the UN in Afghanistan, just fired by the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. His books include The End of Iraq: How American Incompetence Created a War Without End and also the book Unintended Consequences: How War in Iraq Strengthened America’s Enemies.

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