KABUL -- A U.N.-backed commission Tuesday ordered a recount of tainted ballots from the Afghan presidential vote, saying it had "convincing evidence of fraud," even as President Hamid Karzai for the first time surpassed the threshold needed to avoid a run-off and win re-election.
Doubts are growing about the Aug. 20 election's credibility, a key step in U.S. and European efforts to strengthen the Afghan government and bolster declining support for the almost eight-year war against a spreading Taliban insurgency.
The U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission, an independent body with the power to investigate and nullify fraudulent votes, ordered a recount Tuesday at polling stations where it had found "clear and convincing evidence of fraud."
That means that Karzai could still have votes taken away from him. More than 720 major fraud charges have been lodged with the complaints commission.
Daoud Ali Najafi, chief electoral officer of the Afghan-run Independent Election Commission which organized the vote, said that recounting votes could take "two months or three months," suggesting the already overextended election is likely far from over. Officially certified results were due by late September.
With results in from almost 92 percent of the country's polling sites, Karzai has 54.1 percent of the votes, pushing him over the threshold that would allow him to declare victory outright and avoid a run-off with his main challenger. Abdullah Abdullah.
As more results have come in from the south, where Karzai's support is strong, former foreign minister Abdullah's standing has slipped. He now has 28.3 percent of the vote.
But the credibility of the election is increasingly in question. The Afghan-run election commission has already quarantined ballots from more than 600 polling stations ruled to have been suspected of fraud, out of more than 26,000 stations. The results announced Tuesday do not include those ballots, Najafi said. The U.N.-backed complaint commission will investigate and determine whether they can be counted or be discarded.
So far about 5.7 million votes have been tallied, including 250,000 ballots discarded either because the presidential candidate had officially withdrawn or because of problems with the ballot, such as a vote cast for two candidates.
Accounts from Western officials suggest widespread fraud. They say ballots have been submitted from hundreds of fake voting sites, especially in southern Afghanistan. The election commission has tallied dozens of voting sites where Karzai won neatly rounded blocks of ballots -- 200, 300 and 500 votes -- results that one Western official labeled "illogical."
Afghanistan's electoral law gives the Election Complaints Commission broad authorities. The commission can nullify any votes it deems fraudulent, order a re-count of votes or order a new vote entirely. The ECC is comprised of one American, one Canadian and one Dutch national -- all appointed by the U.N. -- as well as two Afghans appointed by an Afghan human rights organization and the Supreme Court.
The commission did not say how many polling stations would require re-counts, but it noted that it had so far identified some with questionable results in Ghazni, Paktika and Kandahar provinces, and that it is launching investigations in other provinces.
Stations showing 100 percent turnout or with a presidential candidate receiving more than 95 percent of the vote will need to be audited and recounted, the commission said in a statement. Stations with fewer than 100 ballots will be exempt from the process.
Grant Kippen, a Canadian and the chairman of the Electoral Complaints Commission, said the irregularities found include ballots not being folded -- meaning they would not fit in a ballot box slot -- identically marked ballots and overly large counts at polling stations.
Kippen said he saw a ballot box with 1,700 ballots in Kandahar, even though the maximum should be 600. He stressed that the commission is making its decisions without considering the impact on the election.
"We just take this on a complaint-by-complaint basis, and how that pans out, we really don't know and in many respects don't care, because it's not material to the work that we're doing," Kippen said.
Najafi, of the Afghan-run Independent Election Commission, said some vote numbers were "suspicious" and that the results "did not match with the reconciliation form" used to double-check results.
"In some areas the turnout was higher than the number of ballots we sent to the polling station," Najafi added. He said the ballots have been sent to the U.N.-backed complaint commission, which will decide if any can eventually be included in the official count.
The top U.N. representative in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, called on Afghan election officials to exclude ballots from the vote count that have "evidence of irregularities."
U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry met with Karzai on Monday and talked about the election, said U.S. Embassy spokeswoman, Caitlin Hayden. She declined to provide further details.
Najafi said he did not have a regional breakdown of the discarded results, but said investigation teams have been sent to Ghazni, Paktika and Kandahar provinces.
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. Others have said there have been as many as 800 fake polling sites from which tallies came in.
Najafi said it was unlikely that 800 polling stations were faked, and said the most recent number of fraud-annulled stations he had was the 447 announced Sunday.