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    South Asia
     Aug 18, 2009
Chopping it up with Karzai's challenger
By Derek Henry Flood

FOB GHAZNI, Afghanistan - The phone rings just as the thunderous Soviet-era helicopter is landing to refuel in war-torn Ghazni province, and Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah relates some not-so-great news.

"Ismail Khan has just given his support to Karzai," Abdullah said.

Abdullah, a former foreign minister, ex-United Front spokesman and once an eye surgeon, has emerged as incumbent President Hamid Karzai's only substantial challenger in the August 20 elections. On this trip, Abdullah is campaigning deep in remote provinces in a bid to undercut Karzai where it counts.

His advantage in these parts is that he is less of an insurgent lightning rod than Karzai. Abdullah is working diligently to court the Hazara, a Shi'ite religious minority in Afghanistan, and a part


of the electorate where the sitting president is vulnerable. I had been invited to join a hard day of touring the Hazarajat, an isolated area of central Afghanistan.

I asked Abdullah why he is taking such a different direction from his opponent; he tilted his head back and reflected. He described his electioneering as a purely grassroots effort without endorsements from the country's notorious warlords, the closest thing Afghanistan has to celebrities.

Karzai is running on what could be called the "warlord ticket" and his co-opting of the notorious "Lion of Herat", Ismail Khan, to get the western Tajik vote is proof his ploy is working. Abdullah claims he is focused on swaying what he termed the second- and third-tier leadership. Meanwhile, the president under whom he once served, is cutting deals with the heads of his country's ethnically based, personality driven parties.

Karzai's method of securing Hazara votes was to cut a deal with Hajji Mohaqeq, the principal leader of Hizb-e-Wahadat (Party of Unity) and the most-prominent Shi'ite jihadi leader from the anti-Soviet resistance of the 1980s. Rather than risk campaigning in the Hazarjat himself, Karzai has had Mohaqeq do so on his behalf.

The Hazara have been the most underserved of Afghanistan's settled populations since the founding of the modern state. By visiting the village of Jagholi, where Hazara are a minority in a Pasthun-majority province wracked by Taliban insurgency and political uncertainty like much of the east and south of the country, Abdullah was showing that in a genuinely united Afghanistan, the Hazara need not play second fiddle to the Pashtun majority. Jagholi was a crucial campaign stop because it is one of the areas Karzai has said he will declare a new province should the Hazara voters carry him. Abdullah is not promising further partition of central Afghanistan, but further investment and reconstruction.

I had the chance to speak to Abdullah in fits and starts throughout the day. His men move early and quickly in a threat environment that can't be secured. As the heir to the legacy of Ahmad Shah Masood, Afghanistan's most visible mujahid, Abdullah is guarded and supported by a group of fiercely loyal Tajiks that have much to lose should the counterinsurgency efforts against the Afghan Taliban fail. Only the Hazaras that he is reaching out to have more at stake.

Abdullah stated on the tarmac at the outset of the day that the primary goal of his potential presidency is simply not losing more of his countrymen to the growing insurgency. He said that Afghans were not joining the Taliban movement because they want to destroy the country, but because they see it as a way to fight corruption. He would challenge the Taliban, he says, by fighting internal corruption and attempting to integrate wayward fighters into the security forces - a move which he believes would ultimately strengthen the state. He told the gathered press that, in the meantime, he would request more foreign troops to stem the immediate tide of insurgent activity.

On Pakistan, the candidate said: "Afghanistan and Pakistan have no choice but to work together." When asked if he believed Pakistan's attitude toward the Taliban had changed since the threat had been internalized toward Islamabad, Abdullah said, "Oh, most definitely". He added that the Pakistani Taliban were destroying their own country.

On Iran, I asked him about whether he believed the US military's assessments alleging that elements of the security apparatus in Iran were arming factions of the Taliban while investing heavily in Herat province and encouraging cross-border trade. He said that he had seen "no evidence" of the American claims. Abdullah added rather vaguely that while there were some "issues" with bilateral relations, he believed that things with the Iranians were largely solvable.

I asked Abdullah if, should he be elected, he would recognize the legitimacy of Mahmud Ahmadinejad's controversial victory in neighboring Iran. He smiled and began to walk away. After a few steps, he turned around laughing and said, "Don't ask me this question."

He followed by asking: "Did you know that Karzai was the first to recognize Ahmadinejad's election, even before the supreme leader?"

I said that I did not. In jest, I shot back: "That sounds a little like [Russia's former president Vladimir] Putin being the first to call Bush on 9/11."

"Exactly," said Abdullah, unable to keep a straight face.

With that, we boarded a pair of camouflaged Soviet-era MI-8 helicopters piloted by crew from the nascent Afghan air force and roared off to Ghazni. While it may seem unwise for one of the most well-known northern anti-Taliban figures to visit a heavily Talibanized province southwest of Kabul, we arrived in what seemed to be an entirely friendly Shi'ite hamlet in the Jaghori region. The townspeople, who had been waiting for some time for their honored guest, slit the throat of a subdued farm animal to let Abdullah know that he was welcome.

Large tents had been erected and a small boy read from the Koran over a makeshift PA system. Abdullah was vigorously received by several thousand people who don't traditionally get visited by Kabuli elites and have had very little interaction with the central government. The region we landed in had historically been Hizb-e-Wahadat country, Abdullah admitted to me, but visits like these were part of his strategy of garnering the support of what he termed Afghanistan's mid-level figures. It is these people, he believes, who may be able to agitate for dissent from within the historic jihadi parties. In the past, Karzai has felt that buying off the ethnic and sectarian leaders at the very top would assure his victory.

On the way to our next stop, Daykundi province, Abdullah said that he felt the election will surely go into a second round if Karzai does not get the necessary 51% of the vote that he needs to stay in office. Local media is showing Karzai still in the lead, but Abdullah is gaining momentum. The third opponent, former finance minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai is a distant third with the rest of the 40-odd candidates barely mentioned.

Daykundi province was created five years ago under the Karzai administration as a partition of Uruzgan province, birthplace of Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Daykundi was created as a Hazara majority area from a Pashtun majority one. Karzai has mentioned more possible provincial splits to attract the Hazara swing vote.

Abdullah points out that as Karzai has been making power plays in Kabul, ("Sipping tea in his palace," as Abdullah phrased it), in order to secure huge blocks of votes, he has flown around the country at some risk to take his message to the peasantry in person. Abdullah spoke often of the president's well-reported isolation from the people in Kabul. He said the high visibility of Karzai's international Dyncorp bodyguards immediately after he took power as proof of Karzai's mistrust and disconnection with the Afghan people. "He couldn't find 25 or 30 bodyguards out of 30 million people? He could not trust (the Afghan people)," Abdullah said.

I first met Abdullah during the war against the Taliban in November of 2001, when he was the spokesman for the United Front, often called the Northern Alliance in the American press at the time, and working together with Mohammed Fahim. The two men led then recently killed Masood's Jamiat-e-Islami forces against the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Takhar and Kunduz provinces.

These days, Fahim is pictured on posters with Karzai all along Kabul's streets and Abdullah is not thrilled about the arrangement. Abdullah said Fahim and Karzai "were good together", casting doubt on the rumor going around Kabul that Fahim may return to Abdullah's camp just before this week's vote.

It is notable that Abdullah has always stood firmly against the Taliban as an ethnic Tajik leader facing the mainly Pashtun, Pakistani-supported militia in the 1990s. Karzai, on the other hand, switched sides when siding with the Taliban no longer served his agenda. This could be a boon to Abdullah's credentials in the eyes of the international community, but could hurt him among parts of the electorate who, like Karzai, once were encouraged by the rise of the Taliban as a stabilizing factor. In fact, some look at the legacy of the northern ethnic forces as the most divisive moment in modern Afghanistan.

Polling in many areas of Afghanistan will be tenuous at best. Ten districts in four of the worst insurgency afflicted provinces of Ghazni, Wardak, and Helmand and Kandahar may not have any voting at all. This could be a plus for Abdullah as his traditional ethnic-Tajik power base resides in the more stable provinces north and northeast of the capital where voting is expected to take place mostly unhindered - save for perhaps Kunduz Province where former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, Abdullah's best known ally, was attacked by insurgents while his convoy was en route from Kabul to his home in Badakhshan province.

The two leading candidates strategies for the Hazara vote is illustrative of Afghanistan's political environment in the aftermath of the 2001 Bonn agreement on a broad-based post-Taliban government. The Hazara have never held any position of influence or governance in Kabul even during what may pass for Afghanistan's progressive spurts during the Cold War.

In Karzai creating a Lebanese-style pan-ethnic government, he has given Afghanistan's oppressed Shi'ite minority something it has never had: political representation. Abdullah is trying to convince voters of central Afghanistan that he can do more than simply empower a few of their leaders and that real progress means bringing development to their homeland.

Karzai is thought to be promising Hazara districts in central Afghanistan that lay in the majority Pashtun provinces of Ghazni and Wardak that they will become fully fledged provinces of their own.

Abdullah thinks that he will face Karzai in a one-on-one runoff battle after the preliminary results are announced in early September. However, the logistics of staging the initial election are staggering enough. It is unclear whether the Independent Election Commission here could even handle the task.

An outright Karzai win will not knock Abdullah out of the political scene in Afghanistan. Abdullah has been involved in Afghan politics since the 1980s and has seen plenty of other players come and go.

"I am with the people," Abdullah said as the MI-8 careened through a mountain pass. At this point, he called me over to the porthole window.

Through the roar of the rotors, he yelled: "There is a burning car. A car has been blown up below us."

Down on the charred earth, the carcass of some vehicle, likely hit by an IED (improvised explosive device), smoldered brightly enough for us to see it from the air. The reality is that no one can really remain above the challenges of leading Afghanistan - no matter how high their creaking, Soviet-made aircraft flies.

Derek Henry Flood is an American freelance journalist specializing in analysis of Middle Eastern, South and Central Asian geopolitics through traditional reporting and photography combined with digital multimedia.

(Copyright 2009 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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