Political Landscape

2014 Elections (18): The Abdullah interview


Dr Abdullah Abdullah, during a press conference. Photo: his public Facebook album

The second round of Afghanistan’s presidential election has not yet been formally announced, but preparations are already underway, with election material just beginning to be sent out across the country. The run-off is pencilled in for 14 June 2014 and, this time, only two names will be on the ballot paper: Dr Abdullah Abdullah and Dr Ashraf Ghani. Both men are now trying to strengthen their bid with a slew of negotiations aimed at securing fresh supporters, while also talking about what they would do as president. For this dispatch, AAN senior analyst, Kate Clark, has interviewed Dr Abdullah about current negotiations and how he would rule Afghanistan. AAN hopes to pair this with an interview-despatch with his rival in the run-off, Ashraf Ghani.

Since publishing this dispatch, Zalmai Rassul, who came third in the first round of the elections, has pledged his support for Dr Abdullah, mainly, he said, “to prevent the election from being decided on an ethnic basis.” The two camps said they had agreed to work for decentralization, changes in the electoral laws and a continuation of the ‘peace process’.  No mention was made of positions in any future Abdullah administration having been promised.

“My hope is that the stronger mandate for the future president,” Dr Abdullah (1) told AAN, “and the legitimate outcome of the elections will strengthen the position of the state. The leader in charge needs to maximise that opportunity… to deal with challenges of the sort you yourself mentioned.” Asked about corruption, patronage and appointments, the insurgency and international relations, Abdullah kept returning to this central theme: with a genuinely popular mandate given by the Afghan electorate, the next president will have the power to act decisively and make reforms. What exactly he might do on a whole range of issues if he gets the people’s mandate, was often not so clear. Criticism of the current administration, however, was frequently implicit in his words.

Patronage and appointments

One indication of how Abdullah – or Ghani – would actually govern is the appointments they would make. Reform of appointments is never as straightforward as those championing a full meritocracy believe (see AAN’s Martine van Bijlert’s research into provincial appointments) and promising to run an effective, reformist government while having to deal with the demands of those who have supported the winning candidate and the various constituencies which want ‘their’ people in government is a difficult task. Meritocracy, Abdullah told AAN, has to be balanced with the need for inclusion, including getting an ethnic balance, although, he added, “Sometimes when you bring a technocrat, that is not considered good enough by those who only think on an ethnic basis.”

So what is being promised in the deals now being secured to get fresh supporters to join the different camps? Both teams are manoeuvring hard to secure the ‘big names’ they believe can deliver votes in the run-off (the Ghani camp secured a section of Hezb-e Islami led by one-time Hezb intelligence chief Wahidullah Sabawun on 9 May, while, on 3 May, Abdullah got the support of the man who came fifth in the first round, Gul Agha Sherzai). AAN asked Abdullah what was the basis for his getting the ‘Bulldozer’s’ support: had he promised Sherzai a job in his administration, for example, if he won? Abdullah was cagey:

As far as Gul Agha Sherzai is concerned, the press release that we issued on that date is what was agreed upon, but at the same time, there is no doubt that when somebody joins, there will be teamwork; on what basis, what details, we have not discussed.

The statement Dr Abdullah referred to speaks about appointments only in the vaguest of terms: “We have a joint commitment to bring reforms and give work to the hands of those who are qualified and try to bring national solidarity.” (2) So, we asked, he had made no promises to Sherzai?

What was agreed upon is in the press release, this has been the basis of the agreement. That does not mean that we stop till there’s a new government. There will be discussions, even tonight we’ll be meeting, but up to now, this is the case. Some other camps might have some other demands but we will look into this. Those things which would be in accordance with our platform, we will consider it, so then, it’s not just the leader of the ticket or the leader of the camp, but also those who have been in the camps earlier, the followers, different tiers of leaders are also in touch. So, it’s a process of engagement.

Reading between the lines, one can say he did not accept or deny that government positions had been agreed, and that he implied discussions on appointments would continue. He also suggested it is not just the leaders his team is courting.

AAN pressed Abdullah about negotiations with another first round candidate whom he is negotiating with, the fourth-placed Abdul Rab Rassul Sayyaf, and the rumours that, in return for his support, Sayyaf could get the justice portfolio or be made head of the supreme court. “I think you are going to further details than we have discussed,“ he said. “People are talking about it? If this is what makes your final judgement on what’s going on, then we have a saying in Farsi: it goes to Turkistan [ie, it goes completely and a long way, in the wrong direction].” Abdullah also said they were in discussion with Zalmai Rassul and that his team was now discussing a ‘framework of cooperation’. However, should he be courting the failed candidates, especially Rassul, given how clearly the voters signalled they preferred Abdullah and Ghani over the ‘continuation’ candidate, the man seen as the Palace choice?

What I mentioned earlier is that, based on our platform, which is reform and unanimity, we will reach out to those people…

Abdullah denied he needed the support of any of these individuals, given how many votes he had secured in the first round, but referred to the need for ‘inclusive’ government: “It means whenever there is experience, there is expertise, there is competence and that helps the perception of national unity, we will go for that.”

The BSA

One of the next president’s first and most important tasks will be dealing with the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), which, if signed, will be the basis for a continued US military deployment in Afghanistan and funding for the Afghan National Security Forces and, off the back of that, a continued NATO deployment. Karzai negotiated the BSA, but, in the end, suspicious of America’s ‘real’ intentions, refused to sign it, saying it would “destroy” Afghanistan. (See also this AAN piece). Both Abdullah and Ghani have said they will sign it, but AAN asked if it might not now be too late, given how hostile Congress – which controls funding – has become towards Afghanistan. He responded by speaking of the benefits that would come to Afghanistan from other nations having a “much more predictable entity” to deal with. As to whether he might face problems if he made the sort of grand gesture needed to get America back on side when, at home, so many Afghans view the US with hostility, he said:

The partnership [between the US and Afghanistan] should be a genuine partnership. From the Afghan side, it has to be based on our national interests, but there are lots of areas where our national interests overlap with the interests of other countries, including dealing with the challenge of terrorism and security in Afghanistan, so why not take advantage of this for the interests of the country? The interest [in Afghanistan is still] here, so what is the right thing for us to do? Utilise it in the best way possible. When there are mistakes, deal with them directly as mistakes, rather than malintent, and try to correct it and move forward… Where there are calls for reforms, this is first and foremost an Afghan concern, and those calls for reforms should not be taken as a hostile attitude towards us because we need this.

This looks like Abdullah would be far more willing to give the US the benefit of the doubt than Karzai has been of late. Yet, the possible political problems he could face from some Afghans over the continuing foreign military presence might remain: did he think Afghans were still ready to have the predicted 10,000, BSA-mandated American troops stationed on their soil?

I wish the opportunities of the past 13 years had been utilised in the best way, so that today, having 10,000 American troops wouldn’t have been a necessity and having them leave wouldn’t have been a problem. [But] we are not there. We are not there.

When asked if those troops would leave during his five-year term if he became president, he said “one or two questions” should be left to when he was in power.

The insurgency

AAN also asked about how he hoped to end the war with the Taleban.

… I don’t think there is a prescription, you put it there for a quick fix and things change over night. The point is that everything we are struggling for – legitimacy of the state institutions, justice and delivery of services, fighting against corruption – will create circumstances that would isolate those who would like to continue fighting the war. Apart from efforts in the regional context that one has to do, apart from the efforts of reconciliation that one has to carry out, this broader picture is important.

It’s not that we [need to] have a stronger national army, strong police. [When we speak about strength], we mean ‘stronger’ in terms of legitimacy. The more the trust of the people [in] the state and its institutions, the weaker the opposition, and hopefully, one day, the major part of the opposition will come to the understanding that war is not a solution. We do believe that the message has to be given to them as well that the Afghan state also does not believe war is a solution. The genuine calls for making peace shouldn’t be given from the position of weakness and should not be taken as a sign of weakness. After all, the nation is bigger than a small group, within the government or outside the government. Once the gap between the people and the government is bridged and the people consider the institutions of government as one of themselves, and the policies are very clear, then things will start changing positively.

He said he had met Agha Jan Mutassim, the dissident Taleban leader – at Mutassim’s request – but had not sought to hear from other Taleban: this would be a “presidential” act, he said, not appropriate unless he was voted into power.

Transitional justice

AAN asked about one other specific issue: the Conflict Mapping Report, a major piece of research by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) on war crimes and crimes against humanity committed between 1978 and 2001 which covers all parties to the conflict and all provinces. Karzai has not allowed it to be published. Would Abdullah?

One has to see it. The important thing about human rights issues is, if it’s from one angle and politically oriented against one or two groups, that will add to the problems rather than addressing them. But as long as it addresses the problem and helps the foundation for the future. [This would be the] principle [for deciding], but I haven’t seen it.

Q You won’t have seen it… but it’s a massive piece of research…

The research might be important. At the same time, the AIHRC has a lot of duties to carry out and so has our justice system to deal with the atrocities being carried out today… So I think this is the priority for the people of Afghanistan, I have no doubt in my mind.

Q Do you think it’s dangerous to start talking about the past. General Dostum did raise it in this election – he apologised for the suffering in the war.

If that was all that needed was to call a few people and say, apologise, apologise, apologise and then carry on with this mess today, I don’t think that serves the purpose. Issues of human rights and women’s rights are serious issues in this country. It has to take us forward, move us forward, rather than dig us further in the past. That is something of a principle to be used.

Q: South Africa, Northern Ireland, Argentina, they’ve all recognised that, in order to go forward, you have to at least look at what’s happened.

I agree, but at the same time, it has to help cure those wounds of the past, rather than freshening them. That is something one has to balance it against.

Looking forward to the run-off

One politician, Abdullah has said, he is not ‘reaching out’ to is Ashraf Ghani. He said they were only seeing each other in official meetings, such as the ones arranged with the IEC and the president to discuss the transition, the complaints process and the second round: “Engagement will be needed,” Abdullah said, “but not an engagement in order to avoid going into the second round. I don’t think he is asking for that and we can’t [ask for it].”

The run-off would, he said, be going ahead. Threatened violence by the Taleban could not be allowed to derail the second round. He also rejected the possibility that the run-off could turn into a Pashtun versus non-Pashtun fight, given the record of some Afghan leaders resorting to the ‘ethnic card’ when under pressure in the past. “We are not under pressure and we will not resort to that card,” he told AAN. “It would be wrong of any candidate to do so and for many reasons… The people have evolved, the younger generation are not those who can be misled by any side and the voters are much more conscious, and our campaign record is an example of votes from different parts of the country.”

Not everyone is convinced a second round is best for Afghanistan. Powerful arguments have been made for and against it, either with the argument that democracy requires a second round or that the risk of a messy, violent run-off is too great and Abdullah and Ghani should negotiate a new administration. Whatever one might think of Dr Abdullah, he is certainly right on one thing: the legitimacy of the new president will affect how he can govern and how much clout and flexibility he has to deal with all the problems facing Afghanistan. They include less money, an insurgency which shows no signs of abandoning the fight (see the Taleban’s just-posted threat of violence for 2014 here), rampant administrative corruption and some difficult international relations. The success of the first round has already created the potential for that legitimacy; it is now largely up to the two final candidates in the race, Dr Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, to strive for a good second phase – whether run-off or negotiation. Once in the Palace, we will then see just how much the fine words and promises of the winner actually amount to.

(1) AAN has requested an interview with Ashraf Ghani, but has yet to secure an appointment.

(2) Dr Abdullah’s media coordinator pointed us to this statement, made by Abdullah when Sherzai joined his team. Strangely, there is no text released on the campaign websites. The full translation is:

It is a thing of pride for us that the Peace and Reconstruction team lead by Sherzai sahib, has joined us; he is a son of a famous mujahid and he and his family are famous figures of Loy Kandahar who were part of the struggles in the jihad of Afghanistan, this is a source of pride for us. I do thank Sherzai sahib and the senior members of his team, also Gailani sahib who is here, and we hope that both teams can serve honestly and with commitment for Afghanistan. We have a long way ahead and our commitment to God and to the people of Afghanistan makes us struggle for national unity and solidarity. We have a joint commitment to bring reforms and give work to the hands of those who are qualified and to try to bring national solidarity. There are conspiracies against our country, the main one being to create conflict, dispute and discrimination among the people and we must not let them succeed. Our decisions would always be joint with you and we will use every opportunity to build national unity and solve the problems that our country faces. We must give a hand to each other to try to bring about success and unity. Once again, I thank everyone who came to this event today and also both teams in their struggle to participate in the election and may the election to be held successfully. We, both teams, will stick to our promises and commitments to serve the people with honesty. With the help of God and the people, we will serve our country.

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Thematic Category: Political Landscape