The 2014 Afghan presidential election involved accusations of fraud, recounts, and threats of violence. Eventually there was peace. Sound familiar?


I was an election monitor in Afghanistan after a top candidate cried fraud in the 2014 presidential election and a recount was ordered. I could swap out his name with President Donald Trump's, and you wouldn't know the difference.

In April 2014, despite promises of widespread violence, millions of Afghans risked their lives to vote for a new president among eight candidates. With no clear winner, officials set a runoff election between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah for June 14. Taliban sliced off the inked fingers of 11 men to punish them for casting ballots.

Overall, though, the second round appeared to go smoothly until the numbers started rolling in. They showed Ghani ahead with 4.5 million votes to Abdullah’s 3.5 million. Abdullah was furious. He complained loudly of industrial-scale fraud, suggesting Ghani was stealing the election. Sound familiar?

Before the runoff ballots were even totally counted or any fraud found, the Abdullah campaign was promising Abdullah would not accept defeat. Abdullah campaign officials provided a variety of anecdotes of widespread ballot stuffing and unverified numbers to make their case, but no hard evidence.

Free and fair vs. fraud

"corruption in Afghanistan.

But what it came down to in Afghanistan is who had more votes. “However, the mere presence of fraud rarely matters; the fraud must be great enough to change the results,” wrote Thomas Scherer, at the time a Princeton PhD candidate. "Does Abdullah really believe that he can overcome a million-vote difference?” 

Did Trump really believe he could overcome a nearly 20,500 edge in Wisconsin. Yet, Trump paid for a Wisconsin recount — and failed.

Changing, but not that much: counting process to be stopped immediately," Abdullah said in a 2014 news conference. "We all know that the turnout was not as high as it was said. The exaggerated number of votes reported from the provinces was not in proportion with that area, let alone the security situation."

Election intervention

It almost seems like Trump took a page from Abdullah’s campaign revenge playbook.

"STOP THE COUNT!" Trump tweeted as the process played out. Claims of illegal voting, exaggerated turnout, stolen election. The disjointed, unhinged press conference Trump held two days after the election when it was becoming clearer that Joe Biden would be the next president resembled Afghanistan in 2014.

When Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission announced preliminary results giving Ghani a 1 million vote lead, some of Abdullah's supporters threatened or warned of violence in the streets. 

Tensions were so great that then-Secretary of State John Kerry intervened. After all, the U.S. handed out over $60 million for programs supporting the 2014 election. Kerry appealed to Abdullah to accept the obvious by sharing his personal experience with his 2004 failed presidential campaign. He told of deciding not to contest controversial Ohio election results, which gave the advantage to George W. Bush. “It was hard to do, and many of my people were mad at me, but it was the right thing to do for the country,” Kerry said, according to the New York Times.

Trump hasn't overreached: recount of all second-round ballots. Abdullah then promised to accept the recount results as binding.  

I worked with the Independent Election Commission (IEC) at the time and saw the UN-supervised recount go on for 50 days in August at a highly-secured location on a military base in Kabul. Outside the Quonset huts where the counting went on, U.S. military mine resistant ambush protected vehicles lined the street. Inside, national, international and candidates’ observers participated in the audit process. This audit was exceptional because it was a complete audit and physical inspection of each of the 23,000 ballot boxes. Those boxes had been airlifted to a secure warehouse and escorted by IEC staff and agents from both teams. 

The Biden administration: power-sharing agreement. Ghani would be president and Abdullah became chief executive , and they’d have equal numbers of minister appointments. Abdullah said he’d only sign off on a unity government if the final vote tallies were not made public, still insisting bitterly that the ballots were so badly tainted by fraud that they should never see the light of day.

For his part, Trump appears to have acknowledged Biden's win, but still refuses to concede. Last week the president tweeted that he told his officials to begin "initial protocols" for a transition to a Biden administration, because that is "in the best interest of our country."

There’s no chance of a power-sharing love-in with Trump and Biden, but finally the transition is underway. Still, there’s near certainty Trump will insist to his dying days — without any overwhelming proof — that the 2020 election was rigged, and he should have won.

Alicia Shepard, a former NPR ombudsman, spent 2014 and 2015 working in Afghanistan for non-profit news organizations and the U.S. government. Follow her on Twitter: @Ombudsman

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