KABUL — Efforts to resolve Afghanistan's fraud-marred presidential election suffered new setbacks Monday when one of two Afghans on the commission looking into alleged cheating resigned over "foreign interference" and U.N. officials acknowledged that errors and miscommunication had plagued the investigation.
Allegations of widespread fraud in the Aug. 20 balloting threaten to scuttle the international strategy to combat the burgeoning Taliban insurgency at a time when public support for the war in the United States and Western Europe is waning.
The U.S. and its international partners are anxious for a U.N.-backed commission to wrap up its investigation into fraud charges and determine whether President Hamid Karzai won or must face second-place finisher Abdullah Abdullah in a runoff.
One of the two Afghans on the commission, Maulavi Mustafa Barakzai, said he was resigning because the three foreigners on the panel – one American, one Canadian and one Dutch – were "making all decisions on their own."
A spokeswoman for the Electoral Complaints Commission, Nellika Little, rejected Barakzai's allegation, saying the Afghan commissioner "was an integral part of the commission" and took part "equally in all commissioner meetings." She said the resignation "will not distract" the group from completing its investigation.
Barakzai would not elaborate on his allegations against his non-Afghan colleagues, and it appeared the highly public resignation might be a bid by Karzai's supporters to discredit the commission.
Preliminary results released last month showed Karzai winning with about 54 percent of the vote. If the complaints commission voids enough ballots, Karzai could be forced into a runoff if his percentage falls below 50 percent.
Reporters were told of Barakzai's resignation and his news conference by members of the Karzai campaign. Barakzai was appointed by the Afghan Supreme Court, whose judges were named to their posts by the president.
U.N. spokesman Aleem Siddique called the resignation "regrettable" but said the U.N. continues to trust that the group will produce a fair outcome.
"We have full confidence in the ECC as the important work continues," Siddique said, adding that the U.N. "stands by the work that they are doing on behalf of the Afghan people."
Barakzai's resignation was the latest in a series of problems that have confounded the electoral process since the election, the first run by the Afghans since the war began in 2001.
Last month, the top-ranking American in the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, Peter Galbraith, was fired after he accused his boss, Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide, of downplaying fraud in the August ballot. U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat who met Monday with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, told reporters in New York that it was a "very sad day when someone is dismissed for telling the truth."
Other problems have plagued the partial vote recount, which began last week.
The chairman of the commission, Canadian Grant Kippen, told reporters Monday that it had misinterpreted the statistical analysis used to determine what percentage of votes for each candidate would be voided in ballot boxes deemed to have been faked.
Kippen told reporters last week that each candidate would lose votes in proportion to the number of fraudulent ballots cast for them in a sampling of suspect boxes.
But Kippen said Monday that each candidate would lose the same percentages of votes from suspicious boxes based on the number of fraudulent ballots found in the sample. That means votes legitimately cast for a candidate could be canceled if they were found in ballot boxes that were deemed to have been stuffed in favor of another contender.
Kippen insisted that the rules had not been changed and were statistically sound. But confusion stemmed from miscommunication between statisticians who designed the mathematical procedure and commissioners whose role is to determine whether the individual boxes are fraudulent.
"It hasn't affected the process," he said. "It has probably affected people's perception of the process."
The commission has also been beset by language problems. When the commission first ordered Afghan election officials to audit and recount ballots last month, officials said there were problems in the translation from English to the Afghan language of Dari.
New translations were issued and a system for counting a sample of the nearly 3,400 suspect ballot boxes was instituted. But Afghan election officials said many of the boxes earmarked for investigation did not meet the criteria set down by the commission. Scores of new boxes had to be examined, further delaying the process.
Meanwhile, violence continues.
NATO said Monday that its forces killed several militants the day before in southern Zabul province.
The same day Taliban militants attacked a border police outpost in neighboring Kandahar province. At least 14 attackers were killed in the assault, according to Gen. Saifullah Hakim.
Associated Press writers Rahim Faiez in Kabul, Noor Khan in Kandahar and Edie Lederer at the U.N. contributed to this report.