Afghans survey an unsavoury buffet of presidential candidates

February 5, 2014

In the coming weeks, the world is going to discover whether 13 years of war in Afghanistan at a cost of the lives of tens of thousands of local people, the deaths of 3,392 members of the international forces fighting the Taliban insurgents, and upwards of $4 trillion has all been worth it.

Afghanistan this week embarked on its third election since United States-led forces invaded the country late in 2001 to root out al-Qaida terrorists and oust from power in Kabul their Taliban sponsors.

This, however, is by far the most important and unpredictable of the three elections. The parliamentary and presidential elections come with almost all members of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) due to leave the country early next year.

There is grave skepticism about whether the newly formed Afghan army and the police force are up to the job of containing or defeating the continuing Taliban insurgency. Many fear the departure of the ISAF forces will bring renewed attacks by the Taliban, which is already trying to disrupt the elections, and perhaps a return to full-blown civil war.

Washington has been trying to negotiate an on-going security agreement with Kabul, but this has aroused strong nationalist sentiments in Afghanistan and is unlikely to be concluded before the election. The agreement would allow the U.S. to keep some troops in Afghanistan to try to hunt down remaining al-Qaida leaders and to train Afghan forces, but it is by no means certain the new administration will sign the deal.

The election will also mark a major political transition. Hamid Karzai was initially appointed president by a national council in 2001 and then won elections of minimal credibility for five-year terms in 2004 and 2009.

Karzai is constitutionally barred from running again, but he clearly wants to play a continuing role in Afghan politics and, for reasons of personal security if nothing else, will want to influence the outcome of the elections.

Even though Karzai’s elder brother, Qayoum Karzai, is one of the leading candidates, there are doubts if he will get the President’s support. There is no love lost between the two and Qayoum, a restauranteur in the U.S. before returning after the fall of the Taliban, has no significant political credentials beyond his name.

Whoever wins the election is going to inherit an unenviable crown. Afghanistan’s 30 million people have been caught up in a sequence of wars since the Soviet Union invaded the country in 1979 to support a communist government in Kabul.

There is little functioning administration and much of the country remains under the control of regional warlords, who are often at each other’s throats. Those fiefdoms form a complex patchwork of ethnic enclaves, with no natural majority among the seven main groups.

The Pashtuns, however, who make up about 45 per cent of the population and dominate the south and east of the country, are by far the most important. Only once in the last 100 years has Afghanistan had a non-Pashtun leader.

There are 11 candidates for President and voting begins on April 5, but it is unlikely that any of the contenders will win a clear majority in the first round. A run-off vote between the two leading candidates will almost certainly be necessary, and no final result is likely to be known before July.

The qualities of the six major candidates and their campaigns range from the uninspiring to the frightening, though several have tried to cross the ethnic divides by picking vice-presidential running mates from other groups.

Former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah may be the leading candidate. In the 2009 election his challenge to Karzai was strong enough to force a second round of voting, though he dropped out, citing election fraud.

Abdullah was born to a Pashtun father and Tajik mother, and it is from his mother’s group that he receives most support. His strategy must be to win on the first ballot before the emergence of a single Pashtun candidate.

Another former minister, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, former finance minister and World Bank official, has perhaps the best technocratic credentials of all the candidates. But he has no substantial political base and has aligned himself with the controversial Uzbek regional warlord from Mazar-i-Sharif in the northeast, Abdul Rashid Dostum.

There is substantial evidence that Dostum has slaughtered thousands of prisoners over the years, some by packing them in locked shipping containers until they suffocated, others by running over them with a tank outside his office.

While Dostun’s presence on Ghani’s ticket may lose him the support of many young, urban voters, the old warlord’s supporters are very loyal. They could ensure that Ghani becomes the anointed Pashtun candidate in the second round of voting.

Just as unappetising as Dostum is former anti-Soviet mujahideen leader and hardline Islamist Abdul Rasul Sayyaf. Sayyaf has the distinction of being the man who invited Osama bin Laden to come to establish al-Qaida in Afghanistan, “mentored” the mastermind of the 2001 attacks on the U.S., Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and has given his name to the Abu Sayyaf Muslim insurgent group operating in the southern Philippines.

Sayyaf also has reached across the ethnic divides to try to boost his appeal. He has teamed up with the Tajik governor of western Heart province, Ismail Khan, another mujahideen warlord who commands loyal followers.

The man to watch, perhaps, is another former foreign minister, Zalmay Rassoul. He is a doctor by profession and, highly unusual in the corrupt cesspool of Kabul politics, has a reputation for probity.

Rassoul has little political appeal himself, but he has been a close associate and friend of Karzai for decades. If Karzai sees an opportunity to lever a surrogate into the Presidency, and allow himself to continue manipulating government from behind the screen, Rassoul could be the man.

Copyright © Jonathan Manthorpe 2014