In nearly every report about the firing last week of American Peter Galbraith as deputy head of the United Nations Mission in Kabul, there is a mention of his friendship to Richard Holbrooke, U.S Special Envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan and Democratic super-diplomat. But nowhere is there a comment from Mr. Holbrooke about his friend’s very public firing, nor one supportive remark from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, supposedly another old friend and ally. She only managed an icy, “it’s a United Nation’s matter” when asked by reporters about Galbraith, who served as an ambassador to Croatia during her husband’s golden age of humanitarian intervention.
Listening to Galbraith’s searing attestations over the last few days gets one to thinking: how much had Holbrooke and Co. known about how the rigged Afghan elections would go down, and why are they letting Galbraith fall on his sword over it now? Is this part of a larger scheme to delegitimize, if not usurp Karzai, or is it about bidding adieu to a UN do-gooder (albeit friend) who might ultimately expose their hypocrisy, or muck up their plans for Surge II in Afghanistan? Or, are they as stumped about what to do now as they were eight months ago?
Galbraith was ordered out of Kabul in September after a break with his boss, Kai Eide (another longtime friend who Galbraith says introduced him to his future wife) went public. Reportedly, they had disagreed over what to do about the widespread fraud perpetuated by President Hamid Karzai in the August presidential elections. Eide, it was reported, favored “face saving” recounts in key polling places, but believed that Karzai would prevail and that it was not the UN’s place to annul votes or to force a run-off between Karzai and his closest opponent, Abdullah Abdullah. Galbraith was much more adamant — only widespread recounts and outright annulment of tainted votes in at least 1,000 polling places would do, according to reports.
“I think there was massive fraud in the elections — no doubt about that,” Galbraith told the Washington Post after he returned to the States mid-September. “It undermines the credibility of the election process. I took seriously the mandate to support free, fair and transparent elections.”
Galbraith, according to WaPo, said Eide had suppressed “extensive data” on fraud that the United Nations had collected, not sharing it with Afghan election officials. “I felt we should share it; Kai did not,” he said.
After the spat went public, Galbraith was fired from his post. The UN’s official line was that Galbraith had split with his superiors over how the fraud would be handled. When UN people started talking “off the record” about a “personality clash” between Galbraith and Eide, Galbraith decided it was time to unload. Galbraith said the extent of the corruption — the vote rigging, especially the ballot stuffing — had been anticipated well ahead of the elections. He also said the dispute with Eide did not revolve around “how” the fraud should be handled, but whether it should be handled at all.
“The election was a foreseeable train wreck,” he wrote in Sunday’s Washington Post.
In July, I learned that at least 1,500 polling centers (out of 7,000) were to be located in places so insecure that no one from the IEC (Independent Election Commission), the Afghan National Army or the Afghan National Police had ever visited them. Clearly, these polling centers would not open on Election Day. At a minimum, their existence on the books would create large-scale confusion, but I was more concerned about the risk of fraud.
Local commission staff members were hardly experienced election professionals; in many instances they were simply agents of the local power brokers, usually aligned with Karzai. If no independent observers or candidate representatives, let alone voters, could even visit the listed location of a polling center, these IEC staffers could easily stuff ballot boxes without ever taking them to the assigned location. Or they could simply report results without any votes being in the ballot boxes.
His warnings at the time went unheeded, he charged. After the elections went just as he had anticipated, Galbraith said the UN urged him, and his staff, to cover up what they had been paid to ferret out: fraud.
“I got word that the IEC was about to abandon its published anti-fraud policies, allowing it to include enough fraudulent votes in the final tally to put Karzai over the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff. After I called the chief electoral officer to urge him to stick with the original guidelines, Karzai issued a formal protest accusing me of foreign interference. My boss sided with Karzai”
Now the curious thing is that pal Holbrooke — like most people on the ground with half a wit — should have known that this election was a sham as soon as Hillary gave him his job back in January. If not, Holbrooke would have been one of the first persons Galbraith complained to when he started running into brick walls and coming to terms with the true enormity of what was happening in the field, right? Then why was Holbrooke deliberately playing down the prospects for a Karzai vote buying, ballot stuffing bonanza on the eve of the elections? In one notable interview, NPR’s Renee “Democracy at Work!” Montagne asked Holbrooke about all of those closed polling places in the south of the country. Holbrooke, sounding bored, and just little too peevish, actually compared the situation to Ohio during the 2004 presidential elections!
Renee: Wouldn’t the people, though, who can’t vote think maybe it wasn’t fair because their voices can’t be heard?
Holbrooke: Does that invalidate the election? If that’s true, the 2004 election in the United States should be questioned. Because a lot of the voters in Ohio stood in lines and the polls closed and they were left out there not voting. And that was in the world’s greatest and oldest democracy.
It wasn’t convincing then, and seems more than pathetic now. Perhaps the administration had realized — after months of plotting how to get rid of Karzai — that the old Pashtun had them licked, and it would be best not to be seen as interfering. That would explain the cautious positioning on the post-election revelations, and the quiet acquiescence to Karzai’s flawed legitimacy late last month by Clinton and NATO officials. Supposedly there was a “shouting match” between Karzai and Holbrooke just after the elections, over surfacing fraud allegations — was it just for show?
But now here is the real twist. Galbraith, Holbrooke and Hillary’s friend, is now telling reporters that a U.S counterinsurgency strategy cannot work in Afghanistan as long as Karzai is president. In fact, a “ramp up” of troops is a waste of resources, he says. Holbooke and Hillary support COIN, and are likely fighting behind the scenes to see it, and the additional 40,000 it comes with, through. Meanwhile, Galbraith has been humiliated and fired, yet no one from the administration has leapt his defense. Now, they could be encouraging Galbraith to build a case against Karzai down the road, but they could just as easily be throwing Galbraith under the bus before he spoils their party.
Makes you think — throwing friends under the bus. Wouldn’t be the first time, certainly. But to what end?
— Photo of Richard Holbrooke courtesy of UPI