Candidate in Afghan election hires Washington help

A presidential candidate in Afghanistan has hired a Washington consultant to advocate for “free and fair elections” in his country, Justice Department records show.

Abdullah Abdullah hired the firm Sanitas International, according to contract documents dated May 19. Abdullah held a commanding lead in the first round of votes in April and might have prevailed in the runoff held in Afghanistan on June 14.

Since the second round of votes, he had accused his opponent, Ashraf Ghani, of working with Afghanistan's current president, Hamid Karzai, to rig the election results. Term limits exclude Karzai from running again. 

Former George W. Bush administration official Christopher Harvin will be working for Abdullah as a “senior level communications counsel to the government affairs and campaign advisory team,” the documents say.

Harvin did not return a request for comment.

The contract says Harvin’s firm aims to “directly raise the profile on elections in Afghanistan and highlight the need for transparent, free, fair and secure elections; to raise the profile on Abdullah Abdullah's commitment to democracy, peace, stability and free and fair elections in Afghanistan.”

The work is familiar ground for Sanitas International, which has represented political underdogs in Iraq and Zimbabwe, according to Justice Department records.

Documents say the firm will also be creating a support network of "advocates with key U.S. audiences."

The official contract is still being worked out, according to the filing, so the final cost of the agreement has not yet been reached.

Abdullah recently pulled out of the Afghanistan presidential race, saying the voting was rigged by top officials, but is expected to get back into the contest.

That’s because one prominent election official — Zia-ul-Haq Amarkhil, the head of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) secretariat — has stepped down. Abdullah released tapes of allegedly intercepted phone calls that have Amarkhil ordering people to stuff ballot boxes.

According to media reports, Amarkhil said the tapes were faked and admitted no wrongdoing, but decided to quit his post “for the sake of the country and for national unity.”

“The door is now open to talk to the commission and talk about the conditions and circumstances that will help the process,” Abdullah is quoted as saying at a press conference after Amarkhil resigned.

“Our attitude will be responsible in the coming days and weeks. But it will be in support of the people’s rights,” he said.

President Obama plans to remove all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016, but his plan is contingent upon a status of forces agreement being signed with the country’s new president.

The election is also significant because it would mark the first peaceful and democratic transition of power. Despite threats of violence from the Taliban, millions of Afghans turned out to cast ballots.