The Afghan Election Controversy Revisited

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A lot of ink has been spilled so far about the dispute in the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) between the mission's former deputy Peter W. Galbraith and his boss, Kai Eide. What has been lost in the discussion, though, is the basic point that the disagreement over how to handle fraud in the Afghan elections is an honest one between two people who both believe that they have the best interests of Afghans at heart.

Peter Galbraith is a legendary American diplomat with a proud record of accomplishment. Kai Eide is also a veteran international trouble-shooter and former head of the United Nations efforts in Bosnia and Kosovo. Their dispute, which lead the firing of Galbraith and a subsequent scathing op-ed from Galbraith in the Washington Post, centered on how the UNAMA should handle fraud committed during the Afghan presidential election.

Let's be clear: fraud certainly occurred. No one is disputing that, least of all the UN. They key point of dispute between Eide and Galbraith was over what to do about that fraud. Galbraith suggested a course that involved more direct UNAMA intervention. The basic UN approach to elections, however, is to give local ownership and control over the process. This was particularly the case in Afghanistan where the UN was explicitly mandated by the Security Council to support the Afghans in their elections. The problem is, these two positions became personalized around support (or lack thereof) of Afghan President Hamid Karzai. For example, to prevent fraud, Galbraith suggested shutting down a number of polling stations where the security situation prevented election monitors from visiting. However, most of these stations were in ethnic-Pashtun provinces that could be counted on to support Karzai; if the UN had taken Galbraith's advice, it would have disenfranchised thousands of Afghan voters likely to vote for Karzai. For his part, Eide as head of the mission, had to implement the mandate given to him by the Security Council, which was to refer all allegations of fraud to the Independent Election Commission (an entirely Afghan body that Galbraith says is staked with Karzai supporters). The IEC ended up deciding to close fewer polling stations than Galbraith had suggested.

That is just one example of the kind of policy disagreement that separated Galbraith and Eide. The main dispute, though, is not over how many ballot stations to open or how to conduct a fraud audit. Rather, it is over the correct role of UNAMA in this entire election process. Galbraith wanted the UNAMA to intervene more directly in the process to maintain the purity of the elections. Eide was trying to ensure that UNAMA respected and supported the Afghan-owned electoral process. Both positions are perfectly defensible, and both include trade-offs. On the one hand, taking the Eide position can lend the impression that the system was rigged to elect Karzai. On the other hand, taking the Galbraith position would have meant undermining Afghan sovereignty, upon which the entirety of the UN's work in Afghanistan depends for legitimacy. (And it is important to note that this work involves the kind of nation building that is ultimately the only viable exit strategy for the international community.)

In the end, both diplomats were doing what they believed to be in the best interests of Afghanistan. Unfortunately, their two positions were simply contradictory. It is too bad that this disagreement led to one of them being let go.

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