By Peter Graff and Sayed Salahuddin
KABUL (Reuters) – Afghan election authorities began a recount on Monday in a disputed presidential election, but new rules issued by a U.N.-backed watchdog appear to make it unlikely that President Hamid Karzai’s preliminary win can be overturned.
Election commission deputy head Zekriya Barakzai said the recount of randomly selected samples of ballot boxes deemed suspicious would take several days, with a final result from the August 20 poll likely to come next week.
Allegations of fraud in the election are one of the reasons U.S. officials have cited in launching a review of policy toward Afghanistan, after the commander there asked for more troops.
Poll monitors and officials sifted through the suspicious boxes in a giant aircraft hangar on the election commission’s heavily fortified compound in Kabul.
The outcome of the fraud investigation could theoretically force a second round in the election, but new rules issued by the U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission appear to make that less likely by treating suspicious ballot boxes the same regardless of which candidate received the suspect votes.
Preliminary results showed the incumbent Karzai winning with 54.6 percent in the Aug 20 vote.
If a fraud investigation lowers Karzai’s share of the vote below 50 percent, he would have to face his main rival, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, in a second round.
For that to happen, however, the complaints commission would have to find that the share of Karzai’s votes that were fraudulent was much larger than that of his rivals.
Under the complicated rules issued on Monday, the ECC will divide the suspicious ballot boxes into categories based on the reasons for suspecting fraud. In most of the suspect ballot boxes, one candidate received 95 percent of the votes.
The ECC would calculate the impact of fraud “by determining what percentage of valid votes in the sample are fraudulent and then multiplying this percentage by the total vote for each candidate in the corresponding category,” it said in a statement.
The ECC head defended the methodology, which would exclude the same percentage of each candidate’s votes from among those in which one candidate received 95 percent, regardless of which of the candidates actually received the fake votes.
“I think the solution about how we go about calculating this is a sound way of doing it,” Grant Kippen told Reuters.
“We consulted with a lot of different individuals and a lot of different countries to walk through how we think it potentially could be applied and this is what we’ve arrived at.”
Other ECC officials acknowledged that the method could produce a skewed result if one candidate’s suspicious votes were more likely than those of other candidates to have been phony. They said this was unlikely, because the criteria for whether ballots were suspicious in the first place were applied evenly.
“We believe 95 percent of the vote for any candidate is a strong indicator of fraud. It doesn’t matter which candidate,” said Scott Worden, an ECC official.
Kippen was appointed by the United Nations envoy in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, who has been accused by his former deputy, U.S. diplomat Peter Galbraith, of turning a blind eye to fraud.
Galbraith says fraud was carried out overwhelmingly on behalf of Karzai and was big enough to prevent a second round.
Karzai has acknowledged that some fraud took place, but says the extent of it was exaggerated by Western officials and media.
Abdullah told Reuters he was looking into the recount rules to see whether they were fair. Karzai campaign official Arsala Jamal said he was also looking into the matter and had no immediate comment.
On Monday, foreign and Afghan forces launched an assault against a group of Taliban in the same area where two days before U.S. forces had faced their deadliest battle in more than a year.
Eight American soldiers were killed on Saturday after tribal militia stormed two combat outposts in remote Nuristan province in eastern Afghanistan.
“The operation started this morning,” Nuristan’s governor, Jamaluddin Badr, told Reuters by phone. A press officer for U.S. and NATO-led troops said there was “activity ongoing” in the area but gave no further details.
General Stanley McChrystal, the head of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, last week told the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London that the insurgency in Afghanistan was growing. He is seeking up to 40,000 more troops and trainers for the Afghan war, according to U.S. officials.
McChrystal warned in a confidential assessment that was leaked to the media last month that if the Afghan government were to fall to the Taliban, it could again become a base for terrorism.