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Diplomat Gone Rogue

Peter Galbraith built a career in statecraft, pursuing a humanitarian foreign policy despite a very immodest temperament. But when the U.N. fired him for insubordination in Afghanistan, he suddenly had a reputation to defend—and nothing left to lose.

In retrospect, from the moment in July 2009 when Peter Galbraith found out about the ghost polling centers being established all around Afghanistan, his future path was fixed. Galbraith was then second in command of the U.N. mission in Kabul, and he and several election officials had helicoptered onto a hilltop near the city of Khost, a creepy, bunkered spot where contractors were building fences and digging ditches to keep the Taliban out. The situation looked medieval.

The country’s presidential elections were set to take place in a little more than a month, and preparations had begun. Local officials in Khost told Galbraith of polling places deep in Taliban-controlled territory. There were 175 polling places in the region, one U.N. official told Galbraith, and more than 75 were in areas so far beyond the government’s control that they would not be monitored, and would likely not attract actual voters, but would still be included in the official tally. Galbraith was suspicious. The U.N.’s political-affairs staff had long believed that Afghan election officials were more interested in reelecting President Hamid Karzai than in ensuring an honest election; here, Galbraith saw a potential mechanism for their fraud. “The people who were running the election,” Galbraith said, “were the ones who were planning to steal it.”

Some of his colleagues may have agreed with him privately, though there was enormous pressure not to derail the election—the first the Afghans would run themselves. But if you knew Galbraith, the rest was predictable. His moral certainty would compel him to broadcast the issue loudly; his righteousness would cast the issue as the pivot on which the future of Afghanistan turned; his sheer bullishness would lead him to feud with his superiors; his myopia, when in the service of a cause, would blind him to the nuances of the broader mission. The sequence was as clear as collision physics.

Two months later, Galbraith sat in the office of his boss, Alain Le Roy, the head of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, on the 37th floor at U.N. headquarters in New York. Galbraith had left Afghanistan, after serving only fifteen weeks, and now he was being told he could not return—his escalating feud with his superiors had become irreparable, and senior members of the Karzai government refused to work with him. Galbraith seemed genuinely taken aback, and he asked what he was supposed to do. Was there another job at the U.N. for him? Le Roy was noncommittal. Six days later, on September 30, the U.N. released a statement announcing that Galbraith had been fired.

What was obvious at the time was that he would not go quietly. For a quarter century, Galbraith, now 59, has periodically slipped into the pages of the New York Times to declare that in some previously obscure corner of the world, America’s character was failing a moral test. In the eighties, as a Senate staffer, he flew into Iraqi Kurdistan and emerged with evidence that Saddam Hussein’s armies had committed acts of genocide; Galbraith performed similarly bold feats in Bosnia and East Timor.

Galbraith had powerful friends (Joe Biden, John Kerry, the late Claiborne Pell and Daniel Patrick Moynihan), and their protection gave him a freedom to stand on principle that diplomats rarely enjoy. He was one of a small group of humanitarians who, emerging at the end of the Cold War, began to redefine the ways liberals thought of American empire: not as a force to be feared but as the tool by which the rougher parts of the world might be bent toward justice. In her genocide history A Problem From Hell, Samantha Power called Galbraith’s work “heroics.”

Now all that was over. “I understood that the moment you get fired for taking a stand on principle, you’re finished as a diplomat,” Galbraith says. “People may admire you, but nobody wants to hire a principled diplomat.”

After his dismissal, something tense within Galbraith seemed to come unwound. “There’s something in my nature,” he says. “People don’t do these sorts of things to me and get away with it.” Shortly after he was fired, he began a very public campaign for vindication. The Times soon published a letter he had sent to Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (“a very well-written letter,” Galbraith told me) in which he accused his direct U.N. superior of having “blocked me and other [U.N. staff] from taking effective action that might have limited the fraud or enabled the Afghan electoral institutions to address it more effectively.” There had been, Galbraith alleged, “a cover-up.”

His campaign for vindication quickly became more aggressive, personal—and compromised. Last October, a newspaper in Oslo published a report that Galbraith had helped a Norwegian energy company secure the rights to a Kurdish oil field and, for his role as fixer, had a stake in the project that would likely win him tens of millions of dollars. In Bergen, Norway, reporters caught up with Galbraith while he was walking his Goldendoodle across a bridge in the rain, and they reported that he ran away from them, wet and grimacing.