Skip to content, or skip to search.

Skip to content, or skip to search.

Diplomat Gone Rogue

Left: With his mother, Catherine Atwater Galbraith, escorting the Nehrus in India, 1962; Right: With U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Madeleine Albright in Vukovar, 1996.  

Galbraith chooses to see these ventures as humanitarianism by other means. “While I may have had interests,” he said last year, “I see no conflict.” Kurdish autonomy was, after all, a cause of his when most deemed it hopeless. And the money that oil brought to the Kurds, he says, has made a difference. Their cities have seen expansive reconstruction, and they are now extending utilities and building schools in rural areas. “But the most important tangible benefit is that Kurdistan is not dependent on Baghdad. Their bargaining position is so much stronger because Baghdad can’t turn off the spigot.”

Galbraith’s new wealth had more parochial consequences, too: It strengthened his own bargaining position. By the time he took the U.N. job in Kabul, he was liberated from any financial concerns, and his reputation was secure. “Peter,” his brother says, “had nothing to lose.”

When Galbraith arrived in Kabul, in June 2009, the diplomats there were quietly optimistic. A first round of military reinforcements were arriving, Holbrooke was organizing things, and a presidential election was scheduled for the end of August. Everyone assumed that President Karzai’s reelection was a foregone conclusion. The point was the process. The West hoped to seed a democratic tradition in Afghanistan. “The consensus,” explains Tim Carney, a retired ambassador whom the State Department had appointed its point person on the election, “was that elections would do that.”

Galbraith arrived with a “flourish,” as one U.N. official put it, and changed the U.N. mission in the same way that McKinsey consultants transform small-town factories. There were now meetings where before there had been none and, quickly, a purpose. After Khost, Galbraith’s mind focused on the ghost polling stations. From the Afghan election staffers, he managed to wangle the fact that 1,200 polling stations would be set up in locations that could not be secured. Twelve hundred! He was amazed.

Galbraith met with the chief of staff of the Afghan army, who admitted that in the key Pashtun provinces, the army only held individual points. Galbraith pressed the top Afghan election officials to get rid of the ghost polling stations, making members of Karzai’s administration livid; he told Western diplomats that the election, and therefore the government, risked illegitimacy.

“Previously, the plan had been quiet private meetings to urge compliance,” says Cook, the U.N. election adviser. “But that wasn’t working, and it wasn’t working because the Afghans were thumbing their noses at it.”

The Obama administration, as it took over, had been far more leery of Karzai than the Bush White House had, and Galbraith shared the skepticism. Two days after he’d visited Khost, with Eide out of town, he went on his boss’s behalf to a meeting at Karzai’s palace, in a long room with ornate wood paneling. Galbraith relayed what he’d heard in Khost and said that there must be similar problems elsewhere. “Karzai is very theatrical, and his reaction was like Claude Rains in Casablanca—‘I’m shocked, shocked!’ ” remembers Carney, who was in the meeting. “But Karzai was taken aback. I think that rang some bells.” It proved to be the last meeting on election security that Karzai would hold. When Eide returned, according to Galbraith, he told his deputy “to stop. He said we’re not going to discuss polling centers again.”

Things between Eide and Galbraith were degenerating quickly. The two diplomats had known each other in the Balkans in the nineties; they had taken their families on a sailing trip in the Adriatic, and Eide had introduced Galbraith to the Norwegian policy analyst who is now his second wife. (“Though she never really liked him,” Galbraith says.) Now they were living together in Palace 7. Eide had become Karzai’s chief interlocutor with the West and saw him frequently. “Across the board, Kai Eide was trying to build a relationship with Karzai,” says Carney. “The question is, was Kai Eide sufficiently savvy to see when that effort became self-defeating?”

For a month, Galbraith and other Westerners had been pushing the Afghans to abandon the polling stations they couldn’t control, and each time the defense minister had insisted they would be able to control them by August 20, Election Day. They couldn’t. “It was obvious that night that it was massively fraudulent,” says Galbraith. “We had reports from U.N. staff on the ground of negligible turnout across the Pashtun areas. And we were getting vote totals—in Kandahar region, for instance—that would indicate in the city 30 percent turnout, in the suburbs 60 percent, in the outlying areas 200 percent.”

Galbraith did not then have access to the details, but when they emerged, they would prove him right. The paper ballots had been distributed in pads of 100; voters were meant to take a single detached ballot, mark their preference, fold it, and slip it through a slot into the ballot box. When the U.N.’s auditors went through the boxes, they found the pads intact, each ballot marked in the same handwriting, rubber bands wrapped around them. Polling station after polling station submitted exactly 500 ballots, with every single vote marked for Karzai.