KABUL (Reuters) -- A UN-backed fraud watchdog investigating last month's presidential election in Afghanistan has begun invalidating votes in a process that could keep the country locked in political uncertainty for months.
The August 20 election has alarmed the West, whose troops are involved in an increasingly unpopular military mission. President Hamid Karzai, on course to win in the first round unless the fraud watchdog overturns the outcome, has defended the vote as honest.
Preliminary results gave Karzai 54 percent of valid votes tallied this week -- enough to avoid a runoff with his closest rival, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.
Western powers originally praised the ballot as a success in a country where the Taliban insurgency is now at its fiercest. Confidence in Karzai's handling of the vote has eroded as allegations of fraud have continued to mount.
An Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), appointed mainly by the United Nations, can veto the tally and has said it has found evidence of fraud. It ordered a partial vote recount this week.
In a statement on September 10, the ECC said it had already invalidated all ballots at 17 polling stations in Ghazni Province southwest of the capital Kabul -- its first step in a complicated process that officials have said could last weeks, if not months.
"Investigation and subsequent decisions were taken in response to complaints received by the ECC during the polling and counting period," said the commission, run by a Canadian.
It added that it had found a number of "indicators of fraud," such as unfolded and miscounted ballots, votes for candidates inserted inside bundles for other candidates, and lists of voters with numerous fictitious card numbers.
It did not say how many votes it has invalidated in total so far. Based on preliminary results released so far with 91 percent of polling stations tallied, more than 400,000 ballots for Karzai would have to be annulled to require a second round.
The process has galvanized Abdullah and his supporters who have condemned the election as rigged.
'Recipe For Instability'
"I'm not talking about just my own supporters, but those who cast their vote for Mr. Karzai," Abdullah told BBC radio. "Their vote is now part of the fraud. And on top of that, a fraudulent outcome: illegitimate rule for another five years.
"I think this in itself is a recipe for instability in this country," he added.
Despite these allegations, Karzai has praised officials for carrying out the election with "honesty and impartiality." Complete preliminary results are expected on September 12, a spokesman for the Independent Election Commission said.
The ECC has now ordered a recount from polling stations where one candidate received more than 95 percent of the vote or more votes were cast than the expected maximum of 600.
"Unless the 'clear and convincing evidence of fraud' found by the ECC is addressed, it will be impossible to determine the will of the Afghan people," the National Democratic Institute, a U.S. nonprofit group that monitored the poll said in a statement.
"The electoral process has not been completed and it is essential that the international community continues to observe every stage."