KABUL, Afghanistan — It starts by cutting the bright green seal on the lid of the ballot box, but the tedious task of auditing just one box among five hangars’ worth in Afghanistan’s contested presidential election often ends only hours later.
The pace of counting continues to lag amid challenges by both campaigns two days after rival candidates Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah stood with Secretary of State John Kerry and pledged to accept the results of an election audit they vowed would end before NATO leaders meet next month to discuss their future commitments in Afghanistan.
Once the seals are cut, the box is opened and some quick math done to match the number of ballots with a tally sheet inside.
Things slow from there. While an auditor form the Afghan Independent Election Commission flips through several bundles of ballots, observers from the rival campaigns lean in, peering at check marks and scribbles to pull aside the ballots they consider suspicious.
According to new rules released after the Kerry-brokered agreement, 20 suspicious ballots — those with similar markings, possibly suggesting ballot stuffing — are needed to trigger a recount of the entire box. When campaign observers fail to agree the number of suspicious votes reaches that threshold, they must turn to a member of the U.N. team overseeing the process.
“Lately they have to call the U.N. over,” said one international observer, who asked not to be named due to rules limiting interviews by observers.
Boxes can take as little as one hour to review, or as long as a day, observers said.
So it goes in the five large hangars inside a fortified base just east of Kabul, where election auditors and observers tasked with determining the next president of Afghanistan are struggling to balance fairness with a fast-approaching deadline.
The importance of an election resolution was underlined by Kerry’s second visit in a month to coax the candidates to put aside their differences in the interest of resolving who will succeed President Hamid Karzai.
The U.S. and its allies in the NATO-led coalition are due to withdraw all combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year, but plans to leave a limited number of troops mainly to train and advise the Afghan security forces are contingent on the next president signing a bilateral security agreement, which Karzai has refused to do. Both of the candidates have pledged to sign.
The audit of more than eight million ballots from the June 14 runoff election, which showed Ghani leading though he was second in the first round, had been suspended repeatedly as the campaigns cried foul. In meetings with both candidates, Kerry urged them to drop their protests over the audit itself and begin working on a power-sharing agreement to follow.
The candidates agreed to push for the audit to be completed by Aug. 31, in time for the winner to appear before the summit of NATO members in Wales the first week of September. The military alliance will look for a peaceful transition as a sign of progress in the troubled country, which is dealing with an entrenched insurgency and a rock-bottom economy, and needs to prepare for future commitments to the country after this year.
As of Saturday evening, with roughly a third of the month gone, observers had audited only a quarter of nearly 23,000 ballot boxes from across the country. Despite a goal of auditing 1,000 boxes a day, the most they’ve completed in one day was 720 boxes. Saturday’s total came to 480, according to the Independent Election Commission.
A spokesman for the IEC told reporters Sunday that it will soon increase the number of two-person IEC audit teams working each six-hour shift from 100 to 150. Noor Mohammad Noor said the audit process had improved since the candidates signed the agreement Friday; before, he said, candidates often disagreed over criteria for invalidating votes.
“The process is going smoothly and without any difficulties,” Noor said.
While observers agree the audit is going more smoothly, with fewer open disagreements, they say the process remains tedious.
In addition to the audit teams, multiple other participants huddle around each ballot box, including one observer from each campaign, an international observer and one or two additional Afghans. Among them are representatives of the Afghan Independent Electoral Complaints Commission and the Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan, which provides observers. U.N. advisers float around the hangars, meanwhile, and media members are often on hand.
Ghani currently leads the count by roughly a million votes. Noor said the election commission will begin officially invalidating votes this week, running the updated numbers from each hard-copy recount through a digital tallying system. He said the audit would speed up in the coming days.
“We are working closely with the candidate teams,” Noor said. “And the process will be faster.”
Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.