(Manish Swarup ~ Associated Press)
Allegations of ballot box stuffing, voter intimidation and other fraud have been lodged from all corners of the country following last month's presidential contest. An Associated Press examination of returns shows what officials said Monday appear to be highly suspicious -- and improbable -- results.
Stations across Afghanistan's south gave Karzai 200, 250 or 500 votes, according to figures compiled by the Independent Election Commission. Observers say these neatly rounded numbers show patterns of fraud consistent with allegations that large-scale vote rigging took place in dangerous regions that observers couldn't reach.
A senior Western diplomat alleged Monday that a majority of the votes in three provinces -- Kandahar, Paktika and Khost -- are fraudulent. Partial returns from each of those provinces heavily favor Karzai. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of his work.
At the Zoor District Center in Paktika province, Karzai got 300, 250, 200 and 200 votes at four of the center's six polling stations. As of Monday, the votes were still listed as part of the overall tally.
A Western elections expert in Kabul called such returns "illogical." He also spoke on condition he wasn't identified because of the nature of his work.
Afghan and international officials had predicted that vote fraud would occur, but hoped the election would be credible overall. Instead, the scale of the accusations and the questionable returns has thrown the ballot process in doubt.
The Western diplomat said several people had advised Karzai before the election "not to pull a Nixon. That is, don't steal an election you've already won."
The elections expert, meanwhile, said many of the suspicious results came from voting stations that didn't exist, supposedly located in remote parts of the country that Afghan tribal chiefs knew observers couldn't reach and where security forces would not be posted.
He said there were likely as many as 800 such fake polling sites.
Another expert here conceded the credibility of the election is in question.
"The amount of allegations indicate that there has been massive fraud, but we need to wait for the Election Complaints Commission to do its investigations," said Haroun Mir, the director of Afghanistan's Center for Research and Policy Studies.
A U.S. Embassy spokeswoman, Caitlin Hayden, said Monday that the U.S. is looking for election officials to count all votes and then "exclude all fraudulent votes."
"Anything less than rigorous vetting would call into question the credibility of the announced results," she said. "A legitimate electoral process is vital to the ability of the international community to partner with a newly elected Afghan government."
The Independent Election Commission on Monday took down results it had previously posted on its Web site that showed Karzai won 4,085 and 4,049 of votes cast at two polling stations in Kandahar province.
These were among about 12,000 votes once counted for Karzai that the IEC has withdrawn, according to an Associated Press review of voting data.
The country's election commission has slowly been releasing results from the Aug. 20 vote. With results from 74 percent of polling stations, Karzai has 48.6 percent, while top challenger Abdullah Abdullah has 31.7 percent.
The commission is expected to release its completed count Tuesday. Once it does, the separate U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission will investigate about 650 allegations of serious fraud.
Only after the complaints panel's investigations are over can the results be finalized.
If Karzai has less than 50 percent of ballots cast, a two-man run-off will be held with Abdullah.
Spokeswoman Nellika Little said the Electoral Complaints Commission has received complaints questioning the tallies at stations where Karzai won 100 percent of votes.
She said the panel is also studying allegations that election officials have received returns from polling stations that were never approved to open, or shut down by violence or closed for other reasons on election day.
Should Karzai win a second term, a tainted election could significantly affect his standing in the West.
The Western diplomat noted that U.S. and European support for the Afghan mission is already eroding because of growing troop casualties. After adding high levels of vote fraud, "you have to ask what are our sons and daughters dying for. It's hard to make the case it's for democracy."
Karzai says the allegations of electoral fraud are part of a U.S. campaign of intimidation.
In an interview published Monday in the French newspaper Le Figaro, Karzai said "the Americans" were attacking him secretly because they would like him to be more docile, but that "nobody has an interest in the Afghan president becoming an American puppet."
It is not unusual for candidates in Afghanistan to win by overwhelming margins in given districts, because voters tend to cast ballots for candidates endorsed by their tribal leadership.
But the senior Western diplomat likened appearances of fraud to a U.S. Supreme Court judge's definition of obscenity: You know it when you see it.
One government official, the diplomat said, told him tribal voting patterns explained the overwhelming margin of victory Karzai had in some voting centers. The diplomat responded: "Is it also true that you always organize yourself into groups of 500?"
Among the 12,000 Karzai votes withdrawn on Monday were 950 votes from the Hasti village mosque in Paktika province. Karzai had received 350, 350 and 250 votes at the mosque's three polling sites -- 100 percent of votes cast.
Mir said Karzai's supporters in the south stuffed ballot boxes because they were afraid he might lose. Because the president appears to have gotten many votes in northern areas, he said, such cheating wasn't needed.
"It turned out to be a mistake by his supporters," Mir said. "It will have a negative effect on the legitimacy of Karzai's next five years."
Associated Press reporters Douglas Birch and Heidi Vogt contributed to this report from Kabul.
On the Net:
IEC Web site: http://www.iec.org.af/results
Karzai votes the IEC at first posted and have since recalled: