If the Electoral Complaints Commission in Afghanistan is likely to decide that Karzai won 47% of the ballots and Abdullah won 28% in the first round elections on August 20, why is Karzai fighting so hard to avoid a second round?

Could it be that the ECC’s very limited statistical sampling of the August 20 election results–examining only polling stations representing the most egregious cases of fraud–vastly understates the real extent of the fraud, and hence the likelihood that Karzai can actually beat Abdullah in a second round?

If this were true, it would explain Karzai’s fierce opposition to holding a second round of voting, because a run-off could actually give a majority of votes and the Presidency to Abdullah. That would produce a wrenching handover of power, and concomitant loss of jobs, influence, and patronage for Karzai and his supporters.

How the U.S., NATO and the United Nations manage the crisis which will erupt if Karzai balks at the ECC’s findings will have a fateful impact on the legitimacy of the next government. This week Karzai’s appointee on the ECC resigned, claiming improper foreign pressures on the Commission. Statements by Karzai’s Ambassador to the U.S. saying a second round was likely were interpreted as a sign Karzai would accept a second round. Yet later statements by officials in Kabul suggest that Karzai’s response is still up in the air.

The strategy of the U.S. seems to be to pressure Abdullah into an agreement to join a coalition government in which Karzai will remain at the helm. Otherwise, why would it be necessary for NATO members to declare as they did recently that they believed Karzai would be the winner in a second round, and why would Secretary of State Clinton feel moved to state, on Friday, that Karzai would be the likely winner in a runoff? The U.S. has apparently been pressuring Abdullah since days after the August 20 elections. U.S. officials have hardly been operating in the dark, for U.S. intelligence surely has a more accurate picture of the extent of the fraud than even the reported ECC figures, expected to be published within a day or two.

Moreover, what is former U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad doing in Kabul? U.S. Ambassador to Kabul from 2003-2005, Khalilzad was a candidate for a conjured-up position of “prime minister” of Afghanistan under Karzai in the run-up to the elections, a prospect which proved illusory. Is he acting on his own now? If he is acting for the Obama administration, it would be interesting to know his brief. Is it to pull the iron out of the fire for Karzai, or something else? Hopefully there is more to it than desperate improvisation, and hopefully it reflects something more than U.S. policy disarray in Washington at a highly critical juncture in our relations with Afghanistan.

Why isn’t the press digging into all of this, instead of simply summarizing the views of different U.S. and NATO officials, with those of an occasional academic thrown in for good measure?

In a television news report last week, a man on the street in Kabul observed that NATO was against Abdullah, so he couldn’t win the presidency. His statement had the ring of truth. Such statements should be disquieting to those concerned that the U.S. may be perceived by Afghans as an occupying force and as imposing its will on the people of Afghanistan. Isn’t it time now for an emergency revision in our policy towards the Karzai government, with a view toward decisive action in the coming days? During the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, it is worth recalling, President John F. Kennedy was not engaged in a wide-ranging policy review, but rather using his Executive Committee to help him decide how to deal with missile-laden Soviet ships bearing down first on Cuba, and then directly on U.S. navy warships blocking their path.

President Obama’s policy review is valuable and should continue, but he needs to focus now on the ships bearing down on us and Afghanistan in the next few days.

The Trenchant Observer

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About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas, and who has also been a visiting professor at the University of Costa Rica Law Faculty in San José. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, the Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.) from Stanford University, and a Doctor of Juridical Science (S.J.D.) in International Law from Harvard University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree from Stanford University, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, the Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.


  1. Good insights here…I hope you’re sending copies to the appropriate editorial staffs.

    Keep up the good work.

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