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
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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.