A senior diplomat who was fired from the UN mission in Kabul lashed out yesterday at claims by his former boss that he concocted a plan to oust the discredited Afghan president Hamid Karzai and replace him with someone more acceptable to the West.
Peter Galbraith, an American – whose abrupt departure from Afghanistan in September cast a troubling light on allegations of voter fraud during the presidential elections in August – told The Independent that the allegations against him were false. "It didn't happen, no way," he said. He also intimated that the claims may have been planted in the US media by the United Nations, noting that it emerged barely six days after he initiated legal action against the world body.
Mr Galbraith held the number two spot at UN headquarters in Kabul until he was sacked after clashes with the top UN representative there – Kai Eide of Norway – on the handling of the fall-out from the crooked election.
The latest outbreak of hostilities between Mr Galbraith and the UN underlines persistent doubts and divisions over the decisions of Washington, London and other capitals to continue backing Mr Karzai despite evidence of blatant vote-rigging in the election. There is also a widespread view that Mr Karzai – a Pashtun, who has surrounded himself with warlords – has little capacity to combat the Taliban or to end the corruption within his own administration.
Mr Galbraith did not deny that there was some discussion in the early autumn, including by Mr Eide, of finding someone to replace Mr Karzai, but in a telephone interview from Oslo he denied that there was ever "a plan".
Mr Galbraith accused the UN of seeking to justify his firing and to distract attention from its fumbling of "the central issue, which is its failure to confront and deal with the fraud in the Afghanistan elections that has had a devastating effect on the country".
The allegations detailed yesterday in The New York Times made extensive use of a letter written by Ambassador Eide about the dispute that blew up in Kabul after it became obvious that Karzai's first-round victory had been tainted by fraud. He was subsequently stripped of about a third of his votes after a UN audit, making a run-off necessary. The run-off was later abandoned when his remaining rival, Abdullah Abdullah, withdrew, saying it would not be fair.
In his letter, Mr Eide writes of Mr Galbraith plotting a "secret mission to Washington" with a view to getting the Obama administration on side with his so-called plan. "He told me he would first meet with Vice-President Biden," Mr Eide wrote to the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based research body. "If the Vice-President agreed with Galbraith's proposal they would approach President Obama with the following plan: President Karzai should be forced to resign as president." Possible candidates to replace him allegedly included Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister, and Ali Jalili, a former interior minister.
But Mr Galbraith said the need for a run-off, and a warning from Afghanistan's Independent Elections Commission that the second round may not happen before May 2010, that compelled him to explore other options. Technically, the first Karzai term had expired in May 2009 and extending his rule for a full year would have violated Afghanistan's own constitution. "What I was trying to do was to prevent a constitutional crisis, not cause one," he said.
In his version of events, Mr Galbraith merely went to Mr Eide with a possible option, which everyone else in the mission had already voiced support for. "I wasn't just presenting my views. And Kai initially liked the idea, and then he saw Karzai and then he didn't like it."
According to Mr Eide, in the version reported by The New York Times, President Karzai was livid when he heard that the notion of his being asked to step down had even been discussed.
Mr Galbraith, a former US ambassador to Croatia, was first sent to Kabul with the backing of Richard Holbrooke, the Obama special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The two men have long been described as close allies.
A spokesperson at the US embassy in Kabul was quoted by the newspaper confirming that Mr Galbraith had come there to promote his plan to depose the Afghan president. But the article also carried a comment from Mr Holbrooke saying he had never been aware of such a thing. That discrepancy, Mr Galbraith said, does not make sense. "Is the US embassy and is US policy so disorganised?" he asked.
* In an intended show of force, more than 1,000 soldiers, including 800 French as well as Afghan and US troops, pushed into the Uzbin valley east of Kabul yesterday with some clashing with insurgents, a French military spokesman has told Reuters.