A new hope for Afghanistan

Even if he doesn’t win the election, the well-spoken, moderate Abdullah is here to stay

090820_afghaistan_wideIn the weeks following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks against the United States, journalists scattered across northern Afghanistan would periodically gather in a mud-walled compound in the small and sand-blown village of Khwaja Bahauddin to attend press conferences hosted by a well-dressed ophthalmologist with thin hair brushed straight back from his forehead and a close-trimmed black beard.

His English was flawless and devoid of slang or colloquialisms. Years earlier, during the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad, he had been taught English by agents in Britain’s MI6 foreign intelligence service. He was patient with the questions thrown at him, but his back seemed to stiffen when asked how much the Americans and British were sharing intelligence they had gathered on the Taliban with the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, of which he was a member.

“We don’t need any advice,” he replied. “We know our enemies. The international allies have been striking the Taliban for two weeks. We have been fighting them for years.”

The man was Abdullah Abdullah. He was a long-time friend and envoy of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the iconic leader of the Northern Alliance known as the Lion of Panjshir, whose reputation and nickname derived from his long and ultimately successful battle to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan. Massoud, whose rump government controlled the northeast of Afghanistan, was murdered by agents of al-Qaeda posing as journalists two days before September 11, making Abdullah, with his fluency in English and practiced diplomacy, the most visible face of the Northern Alliance.

Abdullah had good reason to be cynical about America’s new-found interest in his country. Only weeks before 9/11, he had been in Washington trying to impress on members of Congress the dangers posed by the Taliban and their links to Osama bin Laden. He got nowhere. Some of those he pleaded with had barely heard of bin Laden.

But American intervention, when it finally came, brought good fortune for the anti-Taliban Afghan resistance. By December, the Taliban had been driven from power and the mostly Tajik Northern Alliance occupied Kabul. Some veteran Northern Alliance warlords were intent on solidifying their authority. They, after all, had done most of the fighting against the Taliban and felt control of the country was their due.

Others, a younger generation that included Abdullah, wanted to unite with the Pashtuns of the south to form a government with broad legitimacy. Abdullah’s faction prevailed. Hamid Karzai, a southern Pashtun, was chosen interim leader and then president of Afghanistan’s transitional administration. Karzai was officially elected president in 2004. He appointed Abdullah as his foreign minister.

Today the relationship between Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah has taken an adversarial turn.

Abdullah, who was removed from Karzai’s cabinet in March 2006, declared his candidacy for the office of president in Afghanistan’s elections this week. Going in to the Aug. 20 vote, he was the only candidate with a realistic chance of defeating Karzai, whose popularity has suffered with the resurgence of the Taliban and allegations of corruption within his government. And if the voting follows the polls—which showed Karzai with a clear lead over Abdullah, but short of 50 per cent support­—a second-round runoff may be necessary. Abdullah, whose surging campaign drew large and enthusiastic crowds in recent weeks, has an outside chance of an upset. But regardless of the election results, Abdullah has already emerged as a powerful figure on Afghanistan’s political landscape, the first serious democratic opponent Karzai has faced.

Abdullah, whose beard is now more grey than black, has moderate politics. He has promised to defend rights Afghan women gained after the fall of the Taliban and to extend educational opportunities for women into rural areas, where they are currently rare to non-existent. He also says he will fight corruption and decentralize Afghanistan’s government by allowing provincial leaders to be directly elected.

However, his biggest asset may be that he is not Karzai. Almost eight years after it appeared that the Taliban were conclusively defeated, they are once again on the march, and Afghans across the country continue to suffer from poverty and insecurity, and depredation at the hands of corrupt officials. Many blame Karzai, though Ahmed Rashid, one of the world’s foremost experts on Afghanistan, says he is not entirely responsible.

“I lay a lot of the blame for the failures in Afghanistan on the international community and on American policy in particular, on Bush failing to give Afghanistan and to give Karzai the resources that were needed to stabilize the situation—the money, the troops, the reconstruction, the roads, the electricity, the potential for jobs,” he said in an interview with Maclean’s.

“Now, having failed to do that, I think the situation has only got worse because of a lack of leadership by Karzai, allowing corruption to increase. But there is a reason for that. Why did the drug economy take off? Because there is no other economy. Why did corruption increase? Because people have to make a living with the lack of jobs.”

Karzai’s challenge is that even if he is not solely to blame for Afghanistan’s lack of progress during his presidency, it is difficult to credibly promise change as an incumbent. And Karzai has barely tried.

“He is not giving any hint or suggestion that he would do things differently, and that is what people are looking for,” says Rashid.

According to Larry Goodson, a professor of Middle East studies at the U.S. Army War College, this lack of progress, combined with corruption and the perception that he is beholden to the United States, has made Karzai an increasingly easy target for Taliban propaganda.

Karzai has secured endorsements from several notorious warlords, including Ismail Khan in western Afghanistan, and Uzbek strongman Abdul Rashid Dostum, a man who has been credibly accused of overseeing the murder of up to 2,000 Taliban prisoners in 2001. These regional power brokers may be able to deliver votes, but Karzai’s reliance on them makes him appear grubby and stuck in the past.

Karzai also courted Abdullah to be his running mate. According to Rashid, who knows both men well, Abdullah declined precisely because Karzai gave no indication that he was willing to change.

Abdullah’s campaign was more successful than most observers could have predicted months ago. He worked hard to reach out to poor Afghans, visiting remote areas of the country that are usually ignored by Kabul’s elite. But he, too, faced barriers to success. Primary among these is his ethnicity. Despite the fact that he is half Pashtun with roots in Kandahar, because of his long history with the Northern Alliance and close ties to Ahmad Shah Massoud, in the eyes of most Afghans Abdullah is Tajik. According to Rashid, Afghanistan’s Pashtuns may not be ready for a Tajik president.

Regardless of the election results, it is clear that Abdullah will not fade from Afghanistan’s political scene. Even Karzai has acknowledged that Abdullah cannot be sidelined or ignored. Karzai has promised to offer his rival a job in his government should he win.

Arguably, however, what matters most is not the election results, but that they are seen as legitimate and representative. This is not a sure thing, given the evident corruption and the weak security situation that almost certainly reduced voter turnout—especially in the Pashtun south where the insurgency is most fierce. The Taliban stepped up its attacks in the days leading up to the election, while the BBC discovered that thousands of voting cards were offered for sale. Tribal leaders have also reported being offered large bribes in exchange for their endorsements.

“It is going to be difficult to have an election that’s pristine,” says Marvin Weinbaum, a former Afghanistan analyst at the U.S. State Department who is now a scholar-in-residence at the Middle East Institute. He spoke to Maclean’s from Kabul, where is observing the election process on behalf of Democracy International. “But there’s a serious effort on the part of local and international observers to keep people on their toes to avoid some of the more outrageous attempts to fix the process.”

The real test will come when preliminary results are announced on Sept. 3, followed by formal results two weeks after that. Political power has rarely been transferred or, for that matter, perpetuated peacefully in Afghanistan. If that happens this time, the elections may be considered a moderate success.

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