ACCUSATIONS OF VOTE FRAUD MULTIPLY IN AFGHANISTAN
By Joshua Partlow and Pamela Constable
August 28, 2009
MAZAR-E SHARIF, Afghanistan -- One week after Afghanistan's presidential election, with the winner still undeclared, increasing accusations of fraud and voter coercion threaten to undermine the validity of the results, deepen dangerous regional divisions and hamper the Obama administration's goals in this volatile country.
With U.S. popular support for the war in Afghanistan wavering [TRANSLATION FROM MAINSTREAM MEDIA-ESE: A majority of Americans oppose the war. --H.A.], an election viewed as illegitimate by many Afghans would be a major setback for President Obama, who has increased U.S. military and economic efforts in a conflict central to his foreign policy. Officials worry that a Kabul government tainted by allegations of election-stealing or destabilized by a potentially violent backlash could derail U.S. efforts to beat back a resurgent Taliban and build Afghan security forces.
In interviews here in the capital of Balkh province in northern Afghanistan, the governor, election officials, and residents described incidents of ballot-box stuffing and voter intimidation, particularly by election monitors. The many allegations of fraud add to the chorus of doubts from candidates and observers in other parts of the country about the fairness of the election process.
In a jailhouse interview, election monitor Abdul Hakim Ghafurzai, bruised and bloodied and slumped in his cell, said he knows how it feels to challenge election fraud in Afghanistan. "I am in pain," said Ghafurzai, who alleged he was beaten and arrested after complaining that police outside this northern city shut down polling places because people were voting for President Hamid Karzai.
"Fraud has taken place by the Independent Election Commission, and there were also many threats," said Atta Mohammad Noor, the governor of Balkh, who broke with Karzai before the election and backed his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, who is very popular in the north. "If this government wins through fraud, I won't be with this government."
All five leading candidates have filed complaints of ballot-box stuffing or destruction, intimidation, and pressure on voters at polling stations, and ballots cast by phantom voters. One candidate, former anti-drug official Mirwais Yasini, personally delivered boxes full of shredded ballots to the foreign-led Election Complaints Commission. Yasini and five other candidates issued a joint statement this week saying the election was marred by "widespread fraud and intimidation" that threatened to "increase tension and violence in the country."
Because the complaint process is slow and cumbersome, officials at the complaints commission office in Kabul said they do not expect to finish their investigations until mid-September, at least two weeks after the official election results are announced. That could create public tension and possible unrest, especially if Karzai is announced as the winner before the numerous complaints have been resolved.
Karzai and Abdullah have denied allegations that their followers committed systematic fraud.
In the past week, Abdullah has held two news conferences to allege "widespread rigging" by the Karzai administration, its campaign aides and employees of the Independent Election Commission. He has shown reporters thick blocks of ballots with identical check marks next to Karzai's name and photograph, and shown videos of people sitting on the floor in closed polling stations and systematically marking ballot after ballot.
Legislators and other leaders in a number of provinces, especially those threatened by insurgent violence such as Kandahar, Khost, and Wardak, have complained that at polling stations where very few people were able to vote because of insecurity, sealed ballot boxes inexplicably full of hundreds of ballots were sent to Kabul.
Election observers have described northern Afghanistan as a place where the election proceeded relatively peacefully, with as many as half of registered voters going to the polls -- far more than in some Taliban strongholds in the south. But interviews with those monitoring the election here and looking into allegations of irregularities painted a bleaker portrait that implicated the followers of both Karzai and Abdullah.
"I was a witness to fraud, and I couldn't do anything to stop it," said a female election monitor at a voting site in Barga village, in this province, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. She said her fellow staff members voted at least 100 times for Abdullah and forced other residents to make the same choice. "I was really upset. The voting system was not good. People didn't have the right to choose," she said.
At least one polling center was set ablaze, destroying all records, and an election supervisor was gunned down while driving with boxes of ballots, said the top provincial election official, Dur Mohammad.
"Some candidates bought off the election officials. I think there were several cases," said Mahgul Yamam, the head of the Election Complaints Commission in Balkh. "The system is not great in Afghanistan."
In a jailhouse interview, Ghafurzai, 47, the top election monitor in the Chimtal district outside Mazar-e Sharif, said he received a phone call about 3:30 p.m. on election day that police were shutting down polling centers in his district because too many people were voting for Karzai.
"Police interfered with the counting. They didn't let people vote; they locked the boxes," he said.
Ghafurzai said that he alerted his provincial superiors about the problem, and that the next day, while counting votes at the Wali Asr High School, he was visited by the local police commander and three of his guards.
The guards "punched me and kicked me," he said, showing his bruised arms and back and blood-speckled scarf. "I said, 'Why are you arresting me? You have no documents.' They didn't say anything. They just handcuffed me and took me away."
Ghafurzai is accused of assaulting the police commander, a charge he denies. Noor, the governor, described the matter as unrelated to politics and as a personal dispute between the police commander and the official, but he said he had formed a team to investigate the incident. Noor said Abdullah won 3,988 votes in the Chimtal district, compared with 2,287 for Karzai.
One tribal elder from Chimtal, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Abdullah supporters collected registration cards from poor villagers and cast votes themselves. He said these supporters offered food -- taken from Red Crescent aid supplies delivered to the area this year after a flood -- in exchange for the voting cards.
"I am the elder of the tribe. People share their problems with me. I know this was going on," he said.
Palwa Shah, a 20-year-old university student, said that the polling site she attended was decorated with posters of Abdullah and that the election staff members and police there told people to vote for him.
"That voting center was not free. People could not choose their own candidate. They were being forced; they were not happy," said Shah, who voted in the Dehdadi district of Balkh. "They said, 'If you don't vote for Abdullah, the security situation could get worse, and you won't be able to live here anymore.' "
At the Election Complaints Commission office in Kabul this week, teams of workers began sorting through thousands of brown envelopes filled with complaint forms. More than 80 percent were blank, officials said, suggesting that there were few problems with fraud or, more likely, that many people were reluctant to file complaints for fear of retaliation or because they were illiterate. Few forms have been received from the southern regions, where fraud is generally thought to have been the most widespread.
"One reason so few forms were filled in may be because people didn't trust them," said Nellika Little, a public information official at the commission. "They do have to be in writing. If someone is being intimidated at a polling station, are they really going to complain to the officials there?"
Little said the commission had received nearly 1,500 formal complaints, including 150 that it considers potentially serious enough to affect the result of the election. Those 150 cases are being investigated by teams of professionals, including some who are traveling to the districts where they originated to question witnesses and officials.
Commission officials said many complaints would be difficult to investigate because they are vague and contain little or no evidence.
"I'm really worried about the result of the election. All the candidates are complaining, and they are feeling there were many problems," said Farid Muttaqi, a human rights worker in Mazar-e Sharif. "For sure the people will not cooperate with the government or feel they are a part of this government. And this could give a chance for the Taliban to come and do their work here."
--Constable reported from Kabul.
One-minute world news
NATO ATTACK ON AFGHANISTAN CLINIC
August 27, 2009
U.S. and Afghan forces attacked a clinic in eastern Afghanistan where a Taliban leader was being treated for injuries he sustained last week, NATO has said.
They were fired upon when they neared the clinic in the Sar Hawza district of Paktika province, and responded by ordering helicopter strikes.
The troops first made sure there were no civilians inside, NATO added.
NATO said one soldier was killed and seven gunmen were arrested, but local officials said 12 militants had died.
Hamidullah Zhwak, a spokesman for Paktika's governor, said the Taliban commander had been wounded in clashes last Thursday, when Afghans voted in presidential and provincial elections.
He and three other wounded Taliban had been brought to the clinic at noon on Wednesday, shortly after which the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) was tipped off, he said.
Mr. Zhwak said militants in a tower near the clinic had opened fired as the troops approached and that the gun battle had lasted five hours.
"After ensuring the clinic was cleared of civilians, an AH64 Apache helicopter fired rounds at the building, ending the direct threat and injuring the targeted insurgent in the building," NATO said on Thursday, adding that there were no civilian casualties.
A blast in Kandahar on Wednesday night which set a wood shop on fire caused no casualties, the AP news agency reported.
The explosion came one day after a massive explosion in Kandahar killed 43 people in Afghanistan's deadliest bombing for a year.
U.S. MILITARY DEATHS IN AFGHANISTAN REGION AT 726
August 27, 2009
-- As of Thursday, Aug. 27, 2009, at least 726 members of the U.S. military had died in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan as a result of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, according to the Defense Department. The department last updated its figures Thursday at 10 a.m. EDT.
Of those, the military reports 550 were killed by hostile action.
Outside the Afghan region, the Defense Department reports 69 more members of the U.S. military died in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Of those, three were the result of hostile action. The military lists these other locations as Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Cuba; Djibouti; Eritrea; Ethiopia; Jordan; Kenya; Kyrgyzstan; Philippines; Seychelles; Sudan; Tajikistan; Turkey; and Yemen.
There were also four CIA officer deaths and one military civilian death.
The latest deaths reported by the military:
-- A soldier died Thursday from a roadside bomb and gunfire attack in southern Afghanistan.
The latest identifications reported by the military:
-- Marine Lance Cpl. Donald J. Hogan, 20, San Clemente, Calif.; died Wednesday while supporting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan; assigned to the 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division, I Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Pendleton, Calif.
-- Four Army soldiers died Tuesday in southern Afghanistan after enemy forces attacked their vehicle with an improvised explosive. All were assigned to the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, Fort Lewis, Wash. Killed were Capt. John L. Hallett III, 30, California; Capt. Cory J. Jenkins, 30, Arizona; Sgt. 1st Class Ronald W. Sawyer, 38, Trenton, Mo.; and Pfc. Dennis M. Williams, 24, Federal Way, Wash.
FOUR FORT LEWIS SOLDIERS DIE IN AFGHANISTAN
By Scott Fontaine
News Tribune (Tacoma)
August 27, 2009
[PHOTO CAPTION: Dennis Williams in 2002, as a junior at Federal Way High School.]
A 24-year-old Federal Way native was among four Fort Lewis soldiers killed when a bomb detonated near their vehicle in southern Afghanistan on Tuesday
The soldiers were serving with 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division, which is fighting the Taliban throughout southeastern Afghanistan. The Department of Defense, which announced the deaths Thursday, has not released any additional information about the attack.
The slain were identified as:
-- Pfc. Dennis M. Williams of Federal Way
-- Capt. John L. Hallett III, of California
-- Capt. Cory J. Jenkins of Arizona
-- Sgt. 1st Class Ronald W. Sawyer of Trenton, Mo.
The four were assigned to 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, from which all six of the brigade’s fatalities have come.
The 3,900-member brigade assumed responsibilities for large sections of Kandahar and Zabul provinces -- long strongholds of the Taliban -- earlier this month. Two soldiers from 1st Battalion were killed last week when a bomb exploded near their unit.
Forty-four American service members have died this month, making August tied for July as the deadliest months of the eight-year war. Part of the reason for the spike in violence is because the United States has deployed more than 60,000 troops to fight the insurgency, the largest number so far in the war.
Williams, a 2003 graduate of Federal Way High School, joined the Army in October 2007 and was reported to Fort Lewis on March 10, 2008. He was on his first deployment.
Hallett, 30, earned his commission after graduating from the U.S. Military Academy in 2001. He previously deployed to Iraq in 2005-06 with a Stryker brigade from Hawaii. Hallett reported to Fort Lewis in 2007 and served as a battalion personnel officer, assistant operations officer and company commander.
Jenkins, 30, has served in the Army since 2007 and arrived at Fort Lewis on March 7, 2008. He was serving with the battalion as a physician assistant.
Sawyer, 38, enlisted in 1992 and reported to Fort Lewis after postings in Colorado, Texas, Germany, California, and South Korea. He has deployed to Kosovo and Cuba.
Family members of the soldiers couldn’t be reached Thursday afternoon.
The deaths push the number of Washington service members killed in military operations since 2001 to 323. The attack was the deadliest incident for a Fort Lewis unit since four soldiers assigned to 4th Squadron, 6th Air Cavalry Regiment died during a helicopter crash on Aug. 22, 2007 near Kirkuk, Iraq.
FEDERAL WAY SOLDIER KILLED IN AFGHANISTAN
KOMO News (Seattle, WA)
August 27, 2009
FORT LEWIS, Wash. -- A soldier from Federal Way was one of four troops killed in southern Afghanistan when their vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device.
Army officials said Pfc. Dennis M. Williams, 24, of Federal Way, was on his first deployment when he was killed Tuesday in the attack by enemy forces.
The other three soldiers killed were identified as Capt. John L. Hallett III, 30, of California; Capt. Cory J. Jenkins, 30, of Arizona; and Sgt. 1st Class Ronald W. Sawyer, 38, of Trenton, Mo.
All four were assigned to the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division at Fort Lewis.
Six soldiers have now died in the 5th Stryker Brigade since they deployed to Afghanistan this summer. Two soldiers were killed last week.
Williams enlisted in the Army Oct. 25, 2007, in Seattle and reported to Fort Benning, Ga., for initial entry training on Nov. 9, 2007.
He reported to Fort Lewis on March 10, 2008, where he was assigned to the 1st Battalion, 17th Infantry Regiment, 5th Stryker Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division. This was his first deployment.
Family friends say Williams was married with two children. He was a 2003 graduate of Federal Way High School.
His awards and decorations include the National Defense Service Medal and Army Service Ribbon.
The deaths of Williams and the three other soldiers bring to 41 the number of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan this month -- the second deadliest month in the country since the 2001 U.S. invasion. Last month a record 44 U.S. troops died.
This year has been the deadliest of the war for U.S. troops. Including the latest deaths, at least 172 American forces have died in the Afghan war this year, according to an Associated Press count.