Political Landscape

Candidates on Camera: Interviewing the next president of Afghanistan


Although campaigning for the presidential elections does not officially start until February 2014, the media has started interviewing the eleven candidates. This is a time for journalists to find out their plans and try to elicit specific promises on what they will or will not do should they become president. Most candidates have pasts to answer questions about: their record in office or accusations of corruption or war crimes made against themselves, their running mates or their parties. So far, though, the candidates have been barely challenged on anything and revealed little of substance. AAN Senior Analyst, Kate Clark, asks if we can expect some harder questioning from the fifth estate (with input from Wazhma Samandary, Obaid Ali, Gran Hewad, Ehsan Qaane and Borhan Osman).

So far, only Tolo News has succeeded in interviewing all eleven candidates.(1) Trailers for the interviews, underlain with romantic music, pictured each man chatting to Tolo News current affairs presenter, Mujahed Kakar, as they showed him round their homes. These were clearly never going to be the Afghan equivalent of Hard Talk, the BBC’s famously combative interview programme. And indeed, when the interviews were broadcast, they were more like opportunities for each man to present his biography and then mainly answer the same set of basic questions – what he would do on corruption, the economy, the Afghan National Army, talks with the Taleban and so on. Follow up questions were few, meaning most of the candidates were able to make an awful lot of bland assertions that they would fight corruption, bring peace, improve the Afghan economy and so on. There was not much holding to account and the interviews barely scratched the surface of the men’s lives.

Without passing judgement on Tolo’s news values (the soft start appears to have been part of a valid long-term strategy for reporting the elections – more of which later), the interviews were a warning of how difficult it may be for the media, on behalf of the Afghan electorate, to call candidates to account for past actions and pin them down on plans for the future.

AAN has spoken to a dozen leading journalists from both Afghan and international outlets on interviewing the presidential candidates. Few could speak on the record because of their outlets’ regulations. We asked only about the presidential candidates, although the pressures on local reporters covering provincial elections may well be worse given they are fewer in number, are unlikely to have international colleagues who can act as watch dogs and often work in places where the rule of law is weaker than the capital. Apart from Tolo, The Wall Street Journal has interviewed eight of the candidates (Zalmai Rassul, Qayyum Karzai, Ashraf Ghani, Abdul Rahim Wardak, Dr Abdullah, Gul Agha Sherzai and Hedayat Amin Arsala and Qutbuddin Hilal from whom it used only quotes). Other outlets have interviewed a few of the presidential hopefuls, for example Al-Jazeera spoke to Na’im, the Kabul-based Pajhwok News Agency interviewed Helal and the BBC interviewed Sayyaf and his running mate, Ismael Khan. Some journalists have chosen not to publish interviews; one reporter said they had been too dull to inflict on the audience. Some journalists said they had bids in or were holding fire until the new year, one in the belief that the 11 would be whittled down soon enough. All, however, are considering their election reporting strategy.

Human Rights Watch has also sent questions to the candidates, in the hope of getting explicit information on what they would do on “the country’s most pressing human rights issues”, including the use of torture by security services, accountability for the Afghan Local Police, civilian casualties by Afghan security forces, child labour, violence against women and transitional justice (see the questionnaire at the end of the dispatch). (2) Human Rights Watch plans to publish the results early in the new year.

Journalism – a dangerous profession

“We haven’t yet forgotten Mirwais Jalil,” was one journalist’s response to the question of whether his outlet would be challenging candidates on corruption and war crimes. “These people can do anything.” It was a reference to the young BBC reporter murdered in the summer of 1994 during the civil war in Kabul. “We find it difficult to ask these guys the questions,” said another, “but Western colleagues can ask.” As AAN reported earlier this week, even before the elections, Afghan journalists have come under increasing pressure this year, including physical attacks, in many case carried out by thugs or body guards belonging to government officials. Elections make the journalist’s role even more important and the incentive to control reporting even greater. Yet the journalist’s duty is clear, said Sayid Salahuddin, a veteran reporter who, since the early 1990s, has worked with the BBC, Reuters and now The Washington Post and choosing to speak on the record: “It is difficult for victims to come forward. They can sabotage anyone trying to claim their rights and claim justice for themselves or their families… But it is our responsibility to ask questions. We have to share what people have gone through. If I cannot speak the truth, why should I be a journalist?”

Generally, the international media can provide useful cover, opening up controversial stories and making it safer for their Afghan colleagues to report on them. Western journalists are indeed unafraid to ask candidates about anything  from war crimes to paedophilia so long as they have the evidence to back up the allegations (see, for example, The New York Times’ round up of the candidates). However, there is a problem: the poor appetite of western editors for the minutiae of the Afghan elections, includes most of the 11 candidates particularly given how dull and politically indistinguishable most of them are. “My plan was to interview all of them,” said one reporter, “but it became clear it would be very difficult to get anything interesting, so I just used it as a contact building exercise.” Moreover, at the end of the day, it is the Afghan media, particularly television and radio (and including the Afghan arms of major international broadcasters like the BBC and Radio Liberty) which reaches the bulk of the population. It is they who need to be seen and heard putting the difficult questions to the men who want to be the next president, if the media is to properly hold those with power (or who want to have power) to account.

Not all the candidates are easy to get. Most have media handlers who can secure interviews, although there were some complaints that Ashraf Ghani is constantly saying he is too busy to talk. Sayyaf is by far the most difficult to get hold of. After refusing to speak to independent journalists for years, there was a brief window of availability on the day of his registration, before he has again been generally reluctant to speak. Two journalists said he abruptly cut short the interviews they had secured when the questions got sensitive (to do with allegations of war crimes and his likely relationship with the Americans if he became president).

Where are the policies?

Reading, watching and listening to the interviews which have been done, it is difficult to get much sense of what differentiates the eleven men. There are an awful lot of assertions that they will fight corruption and improve the economy and security. When asked about women’s rights, most cited Islam as providing them, but curiously that is almost the only reference any make to the religion (except for some in the context of jihad). There are precious few actual proposals on the table, Ashraf Ghani being the exception here (he will fulfil all the requirements of the constitution, including holding district elections and consider constitutional change based on a loya jirga in the fourth year of his government, he will spend 40% of the budget in the provinces, he plans to collect taxes in advance from big companies and so on). Nader Na’im, at the other end of the scale, responded to several questions on Tolo by saying, “We have a comprehensive plan and will announce it during the campaigning period.” Many, including even those who have been in government, talk about what the government ‘should’ or ‘shouldn’t’ do, but make no attempt to explain how they would do these things. The journalists were scathing about this:

How depressing that these candidates have no agendas. When you ask what are their policies on the economy, education or foreign relations, they stare at you like it’s a strange question, as if to say, “What do you mean ‘policies’? I’m standing for president. Isn’t that enough?”

They give no sense that: this is what I will do, this is what I offer the people. You offer who you are. That’s it.

They have no policies or specific strategies for dealing with our problems and crises. They just mimic Karzai: I want good governors, fighting corruption will be my first priory etc… They don’t appear to be serious [about Afghanistan’s problems], they’re just busy trying to make alliances to further their own interests.

Digging into the past

Pre-election interviews are also, of course, a chance to delve into the candidates’ pasts. Here the eleven have also been unforthcoming. There is no lack of material to dig into, however, which means, as one journalist said, “Every one of them has something to be frightened of”: that includes war crimes allegedly carried out by themselves, their running mates or their tanzims, specific allegations of corruption or embezzlement, personal scandal or their record in office.

Arch technocrat Ashraf Ghani faced with the inevitable controversy of having the Jombesh leader, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, as his vice-president, came out fighting, getting a pre-emptive apology from Dostum for the suffering caused in the war. As AAN hoped, this apology has helped open the door a little to a wider debate on war crimes. The BBC’s Meena Baktash, for example, asked Sayyaf whether he was also going to apologise: “I always ask pardon of God,” was his unsatisfying response. Former Hezb-e Islami spokesman, Qutbuddin Helal, responded to a similar question from Tolo’s Mujahed Kakar by hailing Dostum’s courage as he implied Jombesh had committed far worse atrocities than anyone else. When pressed about mujahedin crimes and in particular about the alliance formed by Hezb-e Islami and Jombesh in January 1994, the ‘Coordination Council’ or Shura-e Hamahangi, which launched the worst rocketing of the capital, Helal, with extraordinary chutzpah tried to portray it as if it had been a small step towards bringing enemies together, an attempt to make peace.

Kakar also asked Sayyaf about his famous remark, made before 1992, (3) that once the communist regime fell, Kabul would have to be razed to the ground and lose the metre of its soil tainted by communism and be built again (remarks which were followed by four years of fighting which did indeed destroy a third of the capital and killed tens of thousands of people). Sayyaf told Tolo he had been misunderstood and had been speaking figuratively about building a new non-materialist system. (He also claimed in his BBC interview that there had been a conspiracy against the mujahedin which caused them to fight.) Significantly, however, he did not deny having made the ‘razing Kabul’ statement. It was an example of when just asking a question and naming an allegation publically is important, regardless of the answer. One just wished, in this case, there had been a hard follow up question.

With Dr Abdullah, a senior civilian official with Shura-ye Nizar/Jamiat-e Islami during the war, Kakar was notably kinder, facilitating his skipping over the civil war in Kabul during which his comrades also deliberately shelled civilian areas for four years; Kakar asked him only about his experiences during the jihad and then the resistance against the Taleban and the post-2001 period. Other reporters have said Dr Abdullah is evasive about the civil war, describing him as speaking like he had “received media training” (actually his artfulness was learned from many years as the de facto spokesman of Shura-ye Nizar and the Northern Alliance). One journalist described how neatly he sidestepped a question on whether he would support an Afghan-based, Afghan-run war crimes tribunal, by saying there were much bigger problems to fix first, starting with the corrupt judiciary. Some of the candidates made mistakes in their own histories: Sayyaf, for example, was released from Pul-e Charkhi not by President Babrak Karmal as he told Tolo, but by his predecessor, Hafizullah Amin who was a close relative on his maternal side; special pleading ensured he was the only Islamist prisoner released during this period, leading to conspiracy theories Sayyaf may not want to revive. (4)

There are also, of course, plenty of post-2001 issues to be delved into. What was Rahim Wardak’s role as defence minister when his son, Hamid, got to become so very rich on defence contracts (see allegations here)? Has Qayum used his links to the president ‘inappropriately’ (see some allegations here)? How does Ashraf Ghani hope to have a working relationship with running mate, General Dostum, given that the two men are famous for having the worst tempers in Afghanistan and, indeed, how will they work with other Afghan and international actors? There are also questions for Sherzai, no matter how earnestly he portrays himself as a hard-working ‘bulldozer’ who gets construction done: he has been accused of misusing his office as governor of Nangarhar, as reported by AAN (here and here) to illegally grab land and embezzle development funds. As the first post-Taleban governor of Kandahar, his role was arguably even blacker. As Anand Gopal has detailed, his persecution of defeated Taleban commanders and alienation of the population (including by promoting his own tribe, the Barakzai) was a key motivating factor sparking the insurgency:

Sherzai had initially taken a conciliatory attitude toward former Taliban figures. But his close ties with US special forces, who often posted rewards for top Taliban leaders, as well as isolated attacks against the government and the possibility of exploiting his position for financial gain, eventually led to a retaliatory approach. The provincial government began to harass former Taliban commanders, usually mid-level military figures, who had remained behind in Kandahar. A group of Sherzai’s commanders became synonymous with abuse… These commanders targeted men formerly associated with the Taliban, often torturing them in secret prisons…

Curiously, those like Rassul who have been at the heart of the Karzai government from the beginning speak as if they were never there. Rassul, a cabinet minister from 2001, including national security advisor for seven years and foreign minister for three, when asked about corruption by Tolo, said, “We can tackle corruption… by developing a concrete plan for how to spend [aid] money and then implementing the rule of law.” One of the four aims of his first 100 days in office, he also said, would be to “take practical action to eliminate corruption.” One wondered what has he been doing in cabinet till now. Rassul, along with Ghani, Arsala, Wardak and others need to explain their role in the current administration which has hardly been noted for the good governance they are now so keen to promote.

The Long Haul

So far, all the interviews have been bland. However, there are many months ahead and reporters also have to think about forging relationships and ensuring future access. “This is also about setting up contacts for when they start campaigning,” said one journalist with an international outlet. “When I saw Dr Abdullah, for instance, time was limited, I wanted to establish a relationship for the campaign, I didn’t feel that pushing him on his past would be helpful. It would have antagonistic. I can write about the civil war without directly asking him about it.”

Two of the major Afghan broadcasters, Tolo and BBC Persian and Pashto also spoke about the long haul. Emal Pasarly, the BBC Pashto Editor Mulitmedia, when asked why the BBC had not pushed Sayyaf harder on the war crimes question, said:

We are still months away from the elections and most candidates except for Ghani have yet to show what they are about. A lot is not yet clear. Most interviews are still simplistic, getting to know the candidates, introductions… rather than digging deep or challenging them. However, we’re planning to have interviews in the coming months when we know about their policies. We will have debates and Talking Point programmes [when interviewees answer questions from the audience]. In past elections, we invited the candidates to answer questions from the listeners and they could not hide. We will challenge them.

An example of how well this can work was an edition of the BBC programme, Nobat-e Shoma (Your Turn), with the Jombesh deputy leader, Faizullah Zaki. The audience, which including those who had suffered at the hands of Jombesh during the war, questioned him hard. Zaki, who is a canny politician, was pleased with the result, feeling it had brought a poisonous issue into the open where it could be dealt with. He was also the only person to turn up, on behalf of Dostum, to a seminar on transitional justice on held by the Killid media group and the Afghan Centre at Kabul University on 18 November; all the candidates had been invited.

Tolo’s response to AAN’s contention that its initial interviews had been too soft was similar to the BBC’s, as its head of news, Lotfullah Najafizada, explained:

Tolo News programming is primarily aimed at promoting policy discussions, which in our view is critical for a higher turnout. We interviewed all the candidates six months to the election day to begin such a debate nationwide. We learned that there is a lot for the candidates to think about and to work on their policies ahead of the campaign season. I stress, the interviews were to begin a series of election discussions and we expect an unprecedented engagement with the candidates to ensure they answer all relevant questions.”

In previous elections, rigging votes has been as, if not more, important than the actual ballot (see AAN reporting here) which means the media’s role is not just being the interface between candidates and voters. The better it can hold candidates to account now and report on cheating in the polls and in the count later, the more democratic the presidential elections will be. The difficulty of doing this well should not be underestimated, however.

Watching Tolo’s interviews, especially the trailers with their romantic music and cosy settings and seeing Kakar in the homes of physically huge men like Sayyaf and Sherzai who towered over him like predators over a prey animal was not easy. Yet, one can imagine these soft interviews being the first part of a strategy: gently introduce the candidates, ask them the same set of basic questions for use later in comparisons between the eleven and to kick off hard-hitting debates on the economy, women or corruption. If searching journalism is to come, with, for example, investigative reporting and audience debates allowing citizens, including victims and witnesses, to challenge the candidates on their past records and future plans, then all will be well and good. We would then be able to look back and say the initial, rather fluffy interviews had just been the first sneaky salvos in the battle by journalists to get straight answers on behalf of the electorate.

 

(1) The candidates are:

Dr Abdullah, former foreign minister, Jamiat-e Islami main contester in the 2009 presidential elections.

Abdurrab Rassul Sayyaf, leader of the Dawat Party (the former mujahedin faction Ittihad-e Islami), resigned as MP for Kabul to run.

Qutbuddin Helal, spokesperson of Hezb-e Islami Hekmatyar during the 1990s and, more recently, member of the Hezb-e Islami peace delegation to Kabul.

Abdul Rahim Wardak, former minister of defence, resigned as security adviser to the president to run.

Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, former minister of finance and dean of Kabul University, resigned as head of the transition coordination commission to run.

Zalmai Rassul, former head of the National Security Council, resigned as minister of foreign affairs to run.

Qayyum Karzai, brother of current president, Hamed Karzai.

Gul Agha Sherzai, resigned as governor of Nangarhar province to run.

Hedayat Amin Arsala, former senior minister.

Sardar Mohammad Nader Naim, grandson of King Zaher Shah.

Daud Sultanzoi, former MP (2005 parliament) and Tolo News broadcaster.

 

(2) The Human Rights Watch questionnaire, sent to all the candidates:

Security Force Accountability

1 The Afghan Local Police (ALP) have been implicated in numerous abuses against civilians that have been traced to poor vetting of ALP members, limited governmental oversight, and the lack of a functioning disciplinary mechanism.. As president, what changes, if any, would you make to reform the ALP program?

2 Afghanistan has no functioning system to provide prompt, fair and consistent compensation to civilians harmed by Afghan security forces. As president, would you create such a system?

3 As president, what steps would you take to end abuses by illegal militias (arbakis), some of which are aligned with and supported by the government?

Women’s Rights

4 As president, would you support and work to provide the necessary resources for the establishment of shelters for women fleeing domestic violence and specialized violence against women prosecution units within the Attorney General’s Office in each of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces?

5 There are very small numbers of women in the Afghan National Police (ANP). Could you please describe what specific steps you, as president, would take to increase the number of women who join the ANP and the ANP’s success at retaining these women in the police force?

6 As president, what steps would you take to improve enforcement of the provisions of the Law on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, which makes forced marriage and child marriage a crime?

7 Following Afghanistan’s first review by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women in mid-2013, the committee expressed serious concerns about discriminatory treatment of women in regard to personal status and family law matters. The committee called on Afghanistan to: 
a) Repeal all discriminatory provisions of the Shia Personal Status Law and Civil Code; b) Raise the age of marriage for girls to 18;
c) Adopt a Family Law providing equal rights for women and men in all matters related to marriage and family, including property, inheritance, divorce and child custody; 
(d) Abolish polygamy.
As president, would you support and work for these changes?

8 In recent years, there have been many murders of high-profile women, including women who work for the government, such as Lieutenant Islam Bibi and Lieutenant Nigar in Helmand this year. As president, what would you do to protect female government employees from attacks?

Transitional Justice and the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission

9 Many serious human rights abuses have been committed in Afghanistan over the past 35 years, yet no major perpetrators have been prosecuted or convicted for any of these abuses. As president, would you take steps to prosecute those people who credible evidence indicates were involved in serious human rights abuses?

10 In 2012, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) completed an 800- page report mapping serious human rights abuses that were committed in Afghanistan between 1978 and 2001, but the report has not yet been released by the Afghan government. As president, would you release this report?

11 As president, what would you do to revive and implement the 2005 Action Plan for Peace, Reconciliation and Justice?

Torture and Cruel, Inhumane and Degrading Treatment

12 After a government committee found widespread torture in Afghan detention centers, President Karzai in February 2013 ordered that any government officials who engage in torture would be prosecuted, yet there have been virtually no prosecutions. As president, what steps would you take to ensure that members of the police, military and other government officials who commit torture are brought to justice?

13 As president, would you ensure access to all Afghan detention facilities by the AIHRC, the United Nations, and humanitarian and human rights organizations to monitor conditions within these facilities?

14 As president, what would you do to end compelled “virginity examinations,” a form of cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment that is carried out on all women and girls accused of “moral crimes” for use in legal proceedings, despite being medically invalid?

Children’s Rights

15 Only about half of Afghan girls currently go to school, and many boys are also deprived of education. As president, what steps would you take to increase access to and quality of education for Afghan children, especially girls?

16 Child labor, including in mining and in the carpet industry, remains a very serious problem in Afghanistan. As president, what steps would you take to reduce child labor?

Afghan Refugee Children

17 Several European countries have requested that the Afghan government agree to the return of unaccompanied Afghan children from Europe, even if the children’s families cannot be located. As president, what would your response be to this proposal?

 

3) I have not been able to find a source with the date and place this remark was made. The fact Sayyaf did not deny having made the remark does lend credence to the widespread belief, in Kabul, at least that it was made.

 

4) There is a long-standing conspiracy theory that Amin was a CIA plant, based mainly, it seems, on his having gone to university in the United States.

 

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Thematic Category: Political Landscape