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Diplomat Gone Rogue

With Jimmy Carter, 1977.  

Everyone had expected a Karzai landslide, but it now seemed that if the obviously fraudulent ballots were excluded, the sitting president would win just less than 50 percent of the vote, not enough to avoid a runoff.

On September 8, the Afghan election commission preliminarily announced that Karzai was the winner. It was Ramadan, and the American ambassador hosted an iftar dinner at sunset. Afterward, on the roof of the residence, the Afghan election commissioners told Galbraith and American ambassador Karl Eikenberry that even if there were to be a runoff, it would be impossible to hold before the following spring. If that was true, Galbraith said, then the country was facing “a constitutional crisis”—that Karzai was manipulating the situation to stay in power an extra year after his elected term had ended. Galbraith later suggested to Eide that the international community insist on a different interim president—perhaps, he said, the former finance minister Ashraf Ghani.

The next day, Eide went to see Karzai and, returning, visited Galbraith. “He made clear that he didn’t want to do anything about the election fraud,” Galbraith remembers. “He said we didn’t have a role here, our only job was to support the Afghan election commission in whatever they chose to do.”

Galbraith and Eide had two different conceptions of what diplomacy entailed in Kabul, each of them principled, in its own way. Eide wanted to support the fragile, flawed government because he saw in it the best hope for stability and progress. “I tried to prepare for a worst-case scenario where I had to deliver some very unpleasant messages to [President Karzai],” Eide says. “If you want the president to understand and accept what you are saying, you need a certain level of confidence. Peter wants to play the big role.” In Kabul, Galbraith tried “grand solutions that go beyond the rules of the game”—particularly the suggestion that Karzai be removed as interim president. “They may seem attractive, and to some they were attractive,” Eide continues. “But there would have been political riots if we were to follow these recommendations. It wouldn’t have worked.”

The feud became public. The Times of London editorialized in favor of Galbraith. “The question in the media became this feud between Kai and Peter, and that took the focus off the Afghans and the fraud,” says Cook, the U.N. election adviser. “Most of the international community felt Peter was being too vocal.” By this time, Galbraith had returned to the States. “There is,” Carney says, “the Peter who I admire greatly, and then there is Peter the butthead.”

By the middle of September, the Afghan election commission had officially declared Karzai president. The Americans and the U.N. insisted on a runoff, and one was scheduled, though the second round of elections would use exactly the same polling places. Then, shortly before the vote, Karzai’s opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, dropped out. The Americans recognized Karzai as president. The White House was moving toward its massive surge of troops and civilians, which would be announced in December, and the Americans had already begun to turn the page. Galbraith had hoped for some support for his case from his friends within the Obama administration. None came.

Galbraith lives, most of the time, fifteen miles northwest of Brattleboro, Vermont, in a spot where the cell-phone service, as he notes many times on the stump, is worse than it is in East Timor. He owns a renovated farmhouse high upslope of 100 acres of hillside, and from his porch you can see the pond in which he swims every day. The spot reminds you of the New England view that the nineteenth-century poets had—a violent, anarchic place, with Indians lurking. His father bought much of a nearby mountain in 1947, and the family has been coming here ever since; his brother Jamie’s place is just up the road. Galbraith gave me a gentleman naturalist’s tour of the area, getting briefly lost in the woods just after visiting the beaver dams and just before stooping over on the side of the road to notice a patch of bright-white mushrooms. “Fine puffballs,” he murmured, bending over to pick them.

Galbraith’s run for the State Senate has been a bit of a mystery to those close to him—both because it has come late in life and because the post, a part-time position, is so obscure. Two years ago, he considered running as the Democratic nominee for governor, challenging the popular Republican incumbent Jim Douglas, but he dropped the bid after he failed to persuade a progressive third-party candidate to abandon the race. “It was interesting to see the methodical way he went about mastering local issues,” Jamie Galbraith says. “He tried this once before and absolutely hated it. This time he stuck with it. We’ll see how he adjusts.”