-- The big winner in the fraud-ridden, never-ending Afghanistan elections is turning out to be a party not even on the ballot: the Taliban.
A stream of revelations about systematic cheating during last month's vote has given the Taliban fresh ammunition in their propaganda campaign to portray President Hamid Karzai's administration as hopelessly corrupt. Infighting among U.S., U.N. and European diplomats over whether to accept the results with Karzai the winner or force a new round of voting has also fed the Taliban line that the government in Kabul is merely a puppet of foreign powers.
Mohammad Omar, the Taliban's reclusive leader, broke his silence Saturday to denounce "the so-called elections which were fraught with fraud and lies and which were categorically rejected by the people."
In a statement released on the Internet to mark the end of Ramadan, Omar also railed against what he called "the rampant corruption in the surrogate Kabul administration, the embezzlement, drug trafficking, the existence of mafia networks, the tyranny and high-handedness of the warlords," according to a translation by the NEFA Foundation, a terrorism research group.
The problem for the Afghan government and its chief benefactor, the Obama administration, is that the Taliban's rhetoric has been echoed in recent days by U.S. and European officials, as well as some Afghan leaders, who have characterized the Aug. 20 election as a debacle and Karzai's government as inept.
"They are benefiting enormously from all this," said Haroun Mir, a political analyst and director of Afghanistan's Center for Research and Policy Studies in Kabul.
"The credibility of this election has already been highly undermined, both by the opposition and by the international community itself," he added. "Now people have lost their trust, not only with the Afghan government, but also in the NATO forces."
Taliban leaders first tried to discredit the elections by intimidating voters to stay away from the polls. It largely worked: Only 39 percent of registered voters turned out, compared to 70 percent in the 2004 Afghan elections. But self-inflicted wounds by Karzai's government in counting and policing the vote have done at least as much damage, according to diplomats and analysts in Kabul.
On the streets of the capital, Afghans said they were increasingly worried that the Taliban -- whose forces now control more territory than at any point since they were toppled in 2001 -- would attract more support from Afghans angry with the weak performance of the central government.
"Every day they make more propaganda against the government. This election has been a gold mine for them," said Abdul Sawad Nawabi, a 52-year-old money changer, who opposes the Taliban. "People are very concerned. It is obvious that when the government is dealing with its own problems, it just benefits the enemy."
Ghulam Abbas, 34, a clerk at a menswear store in central Kabul, said ordinary Afghans favor democracy but do not understand how an election monitored by tens of thousands of international troops and observers could have been bungled so badly.
"In every other country, the results are known in three days, five days, at least a month. It shows the weakness of our government that they still can't show a final result. And we don't know the reason. Was it too much fraud? Or something else?"
Last week, Afghan election officials released preliminary results showing Karzai with 54.6 percent of the vote, compared to 27.8 percent for his chief rival, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.
But the U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission is conducting an investigation into reports of fraud at several thousand precincts and has also ordered a recount of 10 percent of the ballots. Karzai must receive more than 50 percent of the final, certified vote to avoid a runoff.
Karzai supporters blamed the international media and foreign diplomats for exaggerating reports of fraud at the polls. They said the incumbent president will be declared the winner eventually, but worried that the uncertainty could endure for weeks or months.
"All the discussion about the fraud and the pressure will not help anyone, and it will only give the insurgents more opportunities," said Halim Fidai, the governor of Wardak province, just to the southwest of Kabul. "The longer this goes on, the more the enemy will try to exploit the situation."
Khalid Pashtun, a member of the Afghan parliament from Kandahar, said a dragged-out recount would only weaken the standing of the central government
"That's what we are trying to tell the commission: Please don't push this issue too much because the Taliban will just take advantage," he said. "They will constantly tell people that this is not a legitimate government."
More Work for NATO
Afghan officials said the investigations and recounts are also undermining attempts by U.S. and NATO commanders to persuade Taliban commanders and fighters to switch sides.
British Lt. Gen. Graeme Lamb, who is in charge of a NATO program to reach out to those fighting alongside the Taliban but not considered die-hard followers of the movement, said last week that many of the insurgents were "guns for hire."
"You can buy an insurgency if you have enough money," he told the Independent, a British newspaper. "It's a case of changing people's minds, changing people's perceptions.
But several Afghan officials and analysts said such an approach was doomed as long as insurgents sensed that the Afghan central government was in trouble and that NATO was losing its stomach for the war, now in it's eighth year.
"These Taliban are getting more and more powerful, so it's harder and harder to get them to come to the table," said Arsala Rahmani, a former Taliban deputy minister who now serves in the Afghan Parliament. "They have better weapons than ever and they think they are stronger than the 40 countries that are fighting against them."