World News

Afghan Election Dispute Brews as U.S. Pushes for Peace Talks

Posted December 6, 2018 4:38 p.m. EST

KABUL, Afghanistan — An election complaints agency on Thursday invalidated all the votes cast in Kabul province in October’s parliamentary election, more than 1 million in all, over fraud allegations, pushing the country toward another political crisis just as a top U.S. diplomat arrived to build momentum for peace talks with the Taliban.

The ruling set up a stalemate with the agency administering the vote, the Independent Election Commission. The commission said it would ignore the decision invalidating the votes — which would ordinarily require a new election within seven days — and would certify the results of Kabul’s vote in the coming days.

It was unclear how the dispute would be resolved. The complaints agency did not describe the fraud accusations in detail, but it called for the firing of several Independent Election Commission staff members.

The chairman of the Independent Election Commission, Gulajan Abdul Bade Sayyad, denounced the ruling, saying that it would mean disregarding the wishes of people who overcame great risk to cast their votes.

The Independent Election Commission has already encountered delays in counting parliamentary votes in more than a dozen provinces. Those delays, in turn, are threatening the timing of presidential elections scheduled for April next year.

A delay in the presidential election would add pressure on the government of President Ashraf Ghani, already struggling in the face of a Taliban onslaught across the country.

Fazal Ahmad Manawi, a former chairman of the Independent Election Commission, said the election complaints body has the authority to invalidate votes if it has evidence of irregularities. He urged his former agency to abide by the ruling.

“The commission should implement their decision — otherwise they would be escaping the law,” Manawi said.

Baktash Siawash, a member of parliament from Kabul who was running for re-election, questioned the ruling, saying the complaints body had invalidated the vote before a preliminary tally was even announced.

The complaints body, Siawash said, appeared to single out Kabul despite similar complaints in other provinces. He said 1.2 million votes were cast in Kabul, the highest of any province.

“When they invalidate the votes in Kabul, it impacts the legitimacy of the whole election across the country,” Siawash said.

Political instability has hampered not only the government’s management of a difficult war against the Taliban, but also the reaching of a consensus position in peace talks. The United States is pushing for the talks with a sense of urgency, as President Donald Trump has lost patience with a war that remains unpopular at home.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. special envoy for Afghan reconciliation, landed Thursday for his third trip to the country since his appointment to the role in September. Khalilzad is on another regional tour to build consensus for the Taliban to finally meet face to with the Afghan government.

Khalilzad’s first stop on the trip was Pakistan, where the Taliban leadership is based and where the Trump administration is pressuring the government to deliver them to talks. In a sign of how complicated Afghan peace negotiations will be, Khalilzad left for Moscow after meeting Afghan leaders in Kabul to quell Russian concerns and encourage their cooperation.

“The discussion centered on his regional engagement and Afghan preparations for negotiations to reach a political settlement to the conflict,” the U.S. Embassy in Kabul said in a statement about Khalilzad’s meeting.

In a sign that political consensus was still lacking in Afghanistan on how to approach the Taliban, several major political parties announced Thursday that they did not have faith in the negotiating delegation named by Ghani, led by his chief of staff. The parties said they had appointed their own delegations to reach out to the Taliban, local news media reported.