KABUL A U.S. diplomat's scathing charge that the United Nations effectively let Afghanistan's election be stolen has exposed the international community's disunity and may help explain Washington's new doubts about the war.
The outcome of the August 20 election has yet to be decided, amid accusations of massive fraud, and in public all Western diplomatic missions in Kabul say they are reserving judgment until a complaints process is complete.
In a strongly worded letter to Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, veteran U.S. diplomat Peter Galbraith accused his Norwegian U.N. boss of blocking anti-fraud efforts, which Galbraith said would have forced a second round of voting if carried out properly.
The United Nations responded by sacking Galbraith. The U.N. mission chief, Kai Eide, has rejected the criticism and says he supports a fraud investigation which is still under way.
But the ramifications of the dispute go far beyond the question of who will occupy the number two post at the mission's headquarters in a secluded compound in central Kabul, and could help decide the future of the eight-year-old war.
Galbraith is a close ally of Richard Holbrooke, President Barack Obama's point man for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
U.S. officials have cited the dispute over the election results as one of the main reasons for the Obama administration's unexpected decision last month to begin a new review of its whole policy toward the region.
The commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan has asked for tens of thousands of additional troops to carry out an overhauled counter-insurgency strategy that would focus on protecting the Afghan population.
Some in the Obama administration favor other options, including scaling the mission back.
"COMPLICIT IN A COVER-UP"
In his letter, excerpts of which were published in the New York Times, Galbraith wrote that he had tried to prevent Afghanistan's election commission from including "votes that it knew to be fraudulent" from its preliminary tallies.
Galbraith said Eide blocked him from intervening after Afghan President Hamid Karzai complained.
The U.N. mission chief "sided with Karzai in this matter, seemingly indifferent to the fact that these fraudulent ballots were the ones that put Karzai over 50 percent."
"Given our mandate to support 'free and fair elections' I felt UNAMA could not overlook the fraud without compromising our neutrality and becoming complicit in a cover-up," he wrote, referring to the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.
In the end, the provisional results gave Karzai 54.6 percent of the vote, enough to avoid a second round run-off. Those results included whole villages where every single vote cast was for Karzai, often with the president receiving exactly 500 or 600 votes at multiple polling stations.
Eide insists he has been no pushover for fraud, but that the proper way to address it is through an Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), which is led by a Canadian and has the authority under Afghan law to nullify fake ballots.
The ECC has ordered a recount of 12 percent of polling stations, and the final result cannot be certified until that recount is complete, possibly next week.
"I completely reject that I have been more favorable to one side than to any other," Eide told the New York Times.
Diplomats in Kabul say privately that the U.N. mission was split between those who supported Eide and those who backed Galbraith, hoping for a more vigorous response to fraud.
Galbraith's outspoken approach also appealed to some American officials, concerned that a weak international response to fraud allegations could undermine any future Afghan government.
"He's not alone out there. He's not the only one saying what he's been saying," one Western diplomat said of Galbraith.
U.S. and U.N. officials say privately that they expect Karzai will still be re-elected, either with his first round victory confirmed or after a second round later in October.
So far Afghans have shown little appetite for confrontation to challenge the electoral result on the streets. Where the dispute has caused havoc is in Washington and other NATO capitals, where leaders face the prospect of selling the public on a war to protect a government with a dubious mandate.
"What's most important is that there is a sense of legitimacy in Afghanistan among the Afghan people for their government," Obama said last week. "If there is not, that makes our task much more difficult."
(Editing by Myra MacDonald)
(For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here)