October issue 2004

By | News & Politics | Published 15 years ago

It is a strange presidential election. There are no real election campaign rallies — at least, not the type one witnesses on such occasions in the rest of the democratic world. Most candidates are staying put in Kabul instead of travelling to the 30-plus provinces to canvass for votes. In fact, an overwhelming majority of the 18 candidates haven’t even bothered to run formal campaigns to seek votes.

The candidates, as well as the voters, are in no doubt as to who is going to win the poll. So what one is witnessing is essentially the formalisation of a foregone conclusion. Nothing has been left to chance and there would have been no election had Hamid Karzai faced the prospect of defeat. As the transitional president since December 2001, when the US-led military coalition attacked Afghanistan and overthrew the Taliban regime with the help of the largely non-Pashtun Northern Alliance, Karzai is everybody’s favourite to retain the job. More importantly, the US wants him to keep the office as long as it is necessary for its own strategic interests. Karzai was installed as president with US blessings at the UN-sponsored Bonn conference and will retain the job until Washington decides otherwise or nature intervenes.

The Afghans and their presidential candidates should also be forgiven for not generating the kind of enthusiasm that is seen in elections worldwide. Afghanistan has never experienced an election of this scale and size. The limited democracy that the Afghans briefly enjoyed decades ago was a controlled affair and neither the small political parties that existed then nor the candidates for parliament were allowed to challenge King Zahir Shah’ s monarchy. Many Afghans are still hesitant to enjoy the fruits of the new era of freedom that the presidential polls on October 9 and the parliamentary elections in spring next year should unlock. The fear of the gun, whether wielded by the pro-government warlords or the anti-US Taliban, is still widespread. The elections could prove a liberating experience if deemed free and fair. Rigged and stage-managed polls, on the other hand, could destroy the expectations and trust that the Afghans are beginning to place in democracy.

One reason why most presidential candidates are inactive is their hope of striking a deal with frontrunner Karzai or one of his major challengers, such as Mohammad Younis Qanooni. This would enable them to retire from the contest in return for a slot in the cabinet, a plum job in the future government, a seat in parliament or some money. The elections would surely leave a trail of horse-trading, not exactly like in Pakistan and India but something Afghan-specific. Most candidates appear keen to strike a bargain with the Karzai camp because he is expected to win the election and has a lot more to offer to those rallying to his side.

Speculation has been rife that most candidates were planning to boycott the polls or retire from the race. Qanooni too had to issue a few denials that he wasn’t withdrawing from the contest. But it failed to stem the flow of reports that patrons and supporters of Karzai and Qanooni, including the Americans, were making last-ditch efforts to reach an agreement under which the latter would back Karzai’s candidature in return for important berths in the cabinet for Qanooni’s Tajik-based Shura-i-Nazaar. The threat of boycott by 15 candidates, who wanted Karzai to resign ahead of the polls, hasn’t materialised yet, but it cannot be ruled out.

That campaigning openly in Afghanistan is a risky business was underscored when Karzai attempted his first trip outside Kabul recently to Gardez, capital of the southern, Pashtun-populated Paktia province. A missile fired by Taliban fighters missed his helicopter while landing at the Gardez airbase, prompting his American bodyguards to commandeer the chopper back to Kabul. Karzai later complained that his security men over-reacted to the attack and caused disappointment among his Afghan supporters who were waiting for him to open a new school in Gardez. The incident was a grim reminder of the insecurity that haunts Afghanistan despite the presence of around 30,000 foreign troops in the war-ravaged country.

Karzai, who has survived at least three assassination attempts, is a marked man. His movements are restricted and too much dependence on the US military has damaged his reputation among freedom-loving Afghans. The US would be hard -pressed to find a replacement if anything happens to him at this stage. Vice-president Hidayat Amin Arsala and finance minister Ashraf Ghani, both pro-west Pashtuns who took refuge in the US after Afghanistan’s communist Saur Revolution in April 1978, would be among the most prominent candidates for Karzai’s job in case he is eliminated. However, making them or others acceptable to the diverse coalition partners who make up the Karzai government isn’t going to be an easy job.

The 18 presidential contestants include eight Pashtuns, eight Tajiks, one Uzbek and one Shia Hazara. Almost every important ethnic group living in Afghanistan is represented by the candidates except the miniscule Turkmen, Kirghiz, Pashai, etc. Pashtuns, estimated at 38 to 60 per cent of the country’s population, according to hugely diverse calculations, make up the biggest ethnic group. Tajiks are the second biggest with anywhere between 20 to 30 per cent of the population. Shia Hazaras at 10 to 12 per cent are third in terms of their numbers, followed by the Uzbeks. The Pashtuns, who founded Afghanistan and have monopolised power since 1747, are known for their disunity. That explains the presence of eight presidential candidates in their ranks, including Karzai. Others include Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai, who served as prime minister in a Pakistan-based mujahideen government-in-exile during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Sayed Ishaq Gilani, Homayoon Shah Assefy, Abdul Hadi Khalilzai, Mir Mohammad Mahfooz Nidai, Mohammad Ibrahim Rashid and Wakil Mangal. Apart from Karzai, the other serious candidates are Ahmadzai, who is seeking votes of his Ahmadzai tribe and Islamic-minded Pashtuns, Gilani who is hoping to use his spiritual roots to attract voters, and Assefy, who heads the pro-monarchy National Unity Party.

afghanistan-2-oct04The Tajiks, who wield considerable power in the existing set-up in Afghanistan, too, are a divided lot. Besides Qanooni, other Tajik candidates in the presidential race are Abdul Latif Pedram, Dr Masooda Jalal, Abdul Sattar Sirat, Abdul Hafiz Mansoor, Abdul Hasib Aryan, Syed Abdul Hadi Dabir, and Ghulam Farooq Nijrabi. The strongest candidate is Qanooni, who is presenting himself as a worthy heir to the late mujahideen commander, Ahmad Shah Masood. Both belong to the Panjsher valley and were part of the Shura-i-Nazaar, an offshoot of the Jamiat-i-Islami led by former Afghan president Burhanuddin Rabbani. Qanooni has served as minister of interior and education in the Karzai cabinet. However, his candidature would pose a threat to Karzai only if the other seven Tajik contestants were prevailed upon to withdraw from the contest and throw their weight behind him. Of the lot, Abdul Sattar Sirat and Abdul Hafiz Mansoor are capable of drawing some votes away from Qanooni. The 67-year-old Sirat served as justice minister under the former king, Zahir Shah, and is considered close to the royal family. Mansoor also hails from the Panjsher valley and claims to represent the legacy of commander Masood. Other Tajik candidates such as the lone female challenger Dr Masooda Jalal, the radical anti-Pashtun Tajik nationalist Pedram and noted surgeon Nijrabi are important in their own right, but have little chance of influencing the presidential election.

Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum is the lone contestant from his community. The former factory worker, known for his fondness for liquor and the good things of life, stands no chance in the election because the Uzbeks don’t have the numbers to outvote the more numerous Pashtuns and Tajiks. He is also disliked by the mujahideen for fighting against them in the 1980s as part of a Moscow-backed communist militia called Gilum Jam. The 50-year-old Dostum has changed sides many times and is a great survivor. There is every possibility that he would strike a deal with Karzai in return for a spot in a future government and some autonomy for his northern fiefdom with a base in his native Shiberghan.

Shia Hazara warlord, Mohammed Mohaqeq, suffers from the same disadvantage as Dostum. No Hazara has ever served as Afghanistan’s ruler and none is expected to do so in the future. Sultan Ali Keshtmand, a Shia Hazara communist, occupied the highest ever position from his community as prime minister in the pro-Moscow PDPA regime that tenuously ruled Afghanistan in the 1980s. Most Pashtuns and Tajiks would see to it that the Hazaras, who were oppressed by past Afghan monarchs, remain subservient. Mohaqeq’s candidature also remains weak due to divisions in the ranks of the Shia Hazaras. His rival, Abdul Karim Khalili, is Karzai’s running-mate for the office of vice-president. Other presidential candidates have also found Shia Hazaras to contest for the vice-presidency on their ticket. Sensing the hopelessness of his cause, Mohaqeq could opt out of the race after striking a deal with Karzai.

Though the candidates are all lined up for the vote, holding credible elections in a country awash with weapons isn’t going to be easy. Three years after the fall of the Taliban regime, the US-led coalition is still fighting the Taliban and other like-minded groups. Taliban attacks have rendered vast parts of the country, particularly in the Pashtun-populated southern and eastern provinces, insecure and unstable. Aggressive military reprisals by the US military and its allies after every guerilla attack have alienated sections of the population. People blame the Americans and the Karzai administration whenever pro-government warlords commit excesses against the general population. The slow pace of reconstruction, widespread unemployment, corruption in government offices and general lawlessness have also caused disappointment among Afghans who were hoping for better days after the ouster of the Taliban. The elections have generated hopes of a prosperous future, but the expectations far outweigh the possibilities that exist in the post-Taliban Afghanistan. The fact that 10.5 million Afghans — far more than the UN-anticipated 9.5 million — have registered as voters despite threats by the Taliban and former mujahideen leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, is a sign of the confidence that most people have in a democratic Afghanistan. Though the inflated figures point towards possible irregularities in the registration process, the fact that 42 per cent of the voters are women is a huge improvement in the status of the female population compared to their inferior position under the Taliban.

However, Afghanistan’s presidential election is unlikely to solve the country’s numerous problems. It has already caused a split in the uneasy coalition between the pro-west liberal Afghans led by Karzai and components of the Northern Alliance, which has old ties with Russia and Iran. Their animosity could increase if the election was rigged or the defeated Northern Alliance candidates were denied a role in the future government. No attempt has been made to achieve a national reconciliation by allowing the Taliban and Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami, or at least the moderate elements among them, to become involved in peaceful politics and take part in the polls.

Most of the presidential candidates and many Afghans still believe that Afghanistan is not ready for the election. There is the belief that the election is being held prematurely to legitimise Karzai’s rule and enable President George W. Bush to cite a democratic Afghanistan as a measure of his success in the US war against terrorism. However, the fact that Afghanistan is holding its first democratic election, that too after 26 years of civil war, is something remarkable. Even attempting such an exercise in a heavily-mined and armed country with poor infrastructure, low literacy levels, and ethnic and regional contradictions is a bold move.

Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.