U.N. Can’t Account for Millions Sent to Afghan Election Board

Afghan Elections 2009 (Kandahar City) / Électi...Image by Canada in Afghanistan / Canada en Afghanistan via Flickr

By T. Christian Miller and Dafna Linzer, ProPublica – October 29, 2009 9:15 am EDT | Reprinted under Creative Commons license)

The United Nations cannot account for tens of millions of dollars provided to the troubled Afghan election commission, according to two confidential U.N. audits and interviews with current and former senior diplomats. (Read both [1] audits [2].)

As Afghanistan prepares for a second round of national voting, the documents and interviews paint the fullest picture to date of the finances of the election commission, which has been accused of facilitating election fraud and operating ghost polling places. The new disclosures also deepen the questions about the U.N.’s oversight of money provided by the United States and other nations to ensure a fair election in Afghanistan.

“Everybody kept sending money” to the elections commission, said Peter Galbraith, the former deputy chief of the U.N. mission in Afghanistan. “Nobody put the brakes on. U.S. taxpayers spent hundreds of millions of dollars on a fraudulent election.” Galbraith, a deputy to the senior U.N. official in Afghanistan, was fired last month [3] after protesting fraud in the elections.

The audits come as President Barack Obama is struggling to craft a war policy for Afghanistan that would establish a stable government in a country with few democratic traditions. Senior aides have made clear that Obama will not commit to sending additional troops until there is a legitimately elected government in Kabul. On Wednesday, insurgents stormed [4] a housing compound primarily occupied by U.N. election officials, killing eight people, including two election workers.

Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission initially reported that President Hamid Karzai had won the majority of votes in the August election. A recount was ordered after another U.N.-backed panel uncovered evidence of widespread fraud. After weeks of prodding from the Obama administration, Karzai agreed last week to a runoff.

The U.N. audit reports, which are near completion but still in draft form, are likely to fuel debate over the Afghanistan election commission’s ability to carry out the new round of voting. Karzai’s challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, has suggested he may boycott the elections unless Karzai dismisses the chairman and two other commissioners.

In interviews, senior U.S. and U.N. officials said that U.N. leaders had ignored warnings as far back as 2007 that the election commission was a pro-Karzai body with few internal controls.

Another top official in the U.N.’s Afghanistan mission, Robert Watkins, acknowledged in an interview that some commission employees had contributed to the fraud in the first round of voting.

“It’s clear that some of the people” working for the commission at the polling centers “were complicit in fraud,” Watkins said. “Some of the staff hired were not working in the best interests of impartial elections.”

But Watkins said the United Nations is working to improve the commission’s performance in the runoff. He said the U.N. planned to slash the number of poll workers and blackball any that may have been implicated in fraud in the August elections.

As of April 2009, the U.N. had spent $72.4 million supporting the commission, with $56.7 million of that coming from the U.S. Agency for International Development, the audit said. Total election costs are now estimated at greater than $300 million, with the U.S. providing a third to half the total funding, according to one senior U.N. official familiar with the elections process.

The draft audit reports indicate that as many as one-third of payroll requests from the Afghan commission to the United Nations included “discrepancies,” such as incorrect names or amounts.

In another instance, the U.N. Development Program paid $6.8 million for transportation services in areas where no U.N. officials were present. Auditors found that the development agency had “inadequate controls” over U.S. taxpayer money used to fund the commission.

Continue reading here.

Related Item:
U.N. Development Agency Audit of Afghan Elections and Development Spending
Original Document (PDF)