Along with the withdrawal of foreign troops, a crucial political transition is on the cards for Afghanistan in 2014. Hamid Karzai nears the end of his second term, the only two he is constitutionally allowed to serve. While rumours of Karzai playing with the constitution to allow himself a third term were rife months ago, the president has refuted such allegations, saying he will step aside when his term ends. Afghan journalist Mujib Mashal discusses what may happen and who might step forward.
After a decade of Karzai dominance, the political theater is expected to open up for the first time. The west’s obsession over the past decade of investing in Karzai, the man, rather than the larger Afghan political system has left little room for the emergence of tested figures that stand out as natural successors. Excited by the open field, potential candidates and coalitions are already jostling to position themselves for the 2014 vote. Karzai’s recent hinting that the election could be held a year earlier – in 2013 – because Afghanistan can’t handle two major events in one year has further fueled a campaign mode.
The talk around Kabul is that there are too many candidates suited for the job of number two or three – presidential candidates run on a three-person ticket, with two vice presidents – but that hardly any stand out for the top slot. At the end of the day, a candidate’s success will again depend on the backing of the government machinery and the established vote banks built around coalitions, tribal relations, and political figures.
To look for the potential candidates who may end up as the eventual serious contenders, we need to look beyond many of the usual suspects, whose names are already making the rounds.
President Karzai, based on a source close to him, is still torn about whom to support as his successor and will likely remain so until the last minute. Karzai’s inner circle in the palace has been pushing for him to support the candidacy of his brother, Qayyum Karzai, whose ambitions for the top job have been clear. Qayyum, a former MP at the top of the parliament’s absentee lists, resigned before completing his term. He has a large business enterprise in the country, as well as restaurants in the US, where he has spent most of his life. He has reportedly been spending a lot of time in Kandahar along with his other two brothers; Mahmud, who until recently had shares in the troubled Kabul Bank as well as the country’s largest cement factory, and Shah Wali, who replaced the late Ahmad Wali as the head of the Popalzai tribe.
Rangin Dadfar Spanta, Karzai’s national security advisor, Shaida Muhammad Abdali, the deputy national security advisor and one of the president’s closest aides, and Assadullah Khaled, the minister of tribal affairs and the president’s coordinator for the southern zone, are believed to be urging the president to get on board with Qayyum’s candidacy. Spanta, a one-time staunch critic of the president when he was a visiting professor at Kabul University from Germany, was reportedly introduced to the president by Qayyum, his friend of over two decades. Over the past several years, Spanta became the president’s advisor on international affairs, then foreign minister, and now his close confidant and national security advisor. Spanta owes much of this to Qayyum’s backing, a source close to both men said.
But the president is unsure about his brother’s candidacy, and has publicly hinted at this. He is concerned about his own legacy, fearing to give the impression that he is turning the Afghan presidency into a hereditary system. But more importantly, it may well be a matter of trust, according to one source close to Karzai. The late Ahmad Wali Karzai, the head of Kandahar’s provincial council, was the brother Karzai trusted most and his relationship with the US-based brothers was never of the same level, as illustrated by Mahmud’s public comments. When the scandal around Kabul Bank reached its heights, Mahmud once said on TV that he questioned his own past decisions to campaign for the president during previous elections.
Personally, Karzai might be inclined towards the candidacy of someone like Omar Daudzai, a long time confidant and powerbroker who has established a vast network of his own. Daudzai is Karzai’s longest serving chief of staff – during two different stints, split by a brief deployment as the ambassador to Iran – and is a savvy powerbroker with his skills coming to the fore during the previous presidential elections. Behind the scenes, he was Karzai’s chief coalition builder; he helped bring in Haji Muhammad Mohaqqeq and General Abdul Rashid Dostum, both of whom control two of the countries large ‘vote banks’ that made up a major part of Karzai’s final tally. Daudzai also tried to further weaken the United National Front, the loose coalition of mostly former ‘Northern Alliance’ leaders already split by Marshal Fahim’s decision to join Karzai’s ticket. He reached out, unsuccessfully, to Ustad Atta Muhammad Nur, one of Jamiat’s major leaders, and later, more successfully, to the late Ustad Rabbani. After the messy 2009 election went to a second round, Rabbani offered to ‘overtly’ support Karzai if his ‘reduced…original requests’ were met. In the ‘reduced request’, according to a Wikileaks cable, Rabbani asked for 10 ambassadorships, 10 consulates, 8 ministries, and 10 governorships.
But Daudzai, despite being a trusted adviser and organiser for the president, is also not guaranteed the president’s support, as many in the inner circle seem to be jockeying for Karzai’s backing of Qayyum. Another factor that could go against Daudzai is that, though a Pashtun, he is not from the south, the historically ‘king-maker’ region of the country. [He is from the north of Kabul province].
A third individual of ambition, Ghulam Jailani Popal, could benefit from this split in the president’s camp. The former chief of the Independent Directorate for Local Governance (IDLG), a powerful ministerial level position responsible for appointing the country’s provincial and district governors, is a Kandahari who enjoyed a close relationship with the president until their falling out last year. He has recently returned to the palace as an advisor to the president – a move interpreted by many as an attempt to regain the president’s confidence and begin building his coalitions from within. Popal has a background in the aid sector before his rise through the government ranks. He has also been a member of Afghan Millat – a Pashtun nationalist party – a fact that could antagonise the northerners, although his reputation as a pragmatic leader who is on good terms with northern leadership may well offset that. Most of the country’s governors and district governors are his appointees – a great resource in election times. He is also seen as a competent manager, something that can gain him western backing. The president’s inner circle, pushing for Qayyum, might eventually settle for Popal over Daudzai if their interest lies in keeping the power in the south.
It is likely that one of the three – Qayyum, Daudzai, or Popal – will gain the president’s backing, which will mean the end of the other two’s hopes for the top job. In a recent interview with the BBC, Daudzai said that the president’s camp will have their one candidate, and that Karzai will remain a “national leader” – melli meshr– to these supporters.
Gulab Mangal, the current governor of the volatile Helmand province and a favorite of the western countries, is another candidate touted for the job. He was praised by the Americans as a ‘force of positive change’ for early improvements in the situation in Helmand. But his relationship with the president is cool at best and it is doubtful that he can gain Karzai’s support for a candidacy. Another point of vulnerability – along with Hanif Atmar, the well-regarded former minister of interior also believed to be in the running – is their purported affiliation with the former communist government. Though it is a long gone past, the current mujahedeen leaders would be hard-pressed to follow their lead. Karzai, on several occasions when Atmar was still minister of interior – and praised by the West for reforming the ministry – told US officials that Atmar was hanging on to his ministry ‘by a thread’ because many powerful mujahedeen leaders did not trust him due to his background.
As for the United National Front and the other northern coalitions, it seems that the ambition of the current vice president Marshal Fahim to announce his own presidential candidacy will split them once again. Also pushing hard for the job is Ahmad Zia Massud, a one-term Karzai vice president and brother of the late anti-soviet and anti-Taleban commander Ahmad Shah Massud. Zia had already tried hard to gain the coalition’s backing last time around, but Abdullah Abdullah edged past him. With the death of Ustad Rabbani, the coalition has lost a major uniting figure, and Massoud, his son-in-law, has lost a major lobbying force that could have swung the coalition’s candidacy his way. While US embassy cables suggest Rabbani was uncertain about Massud’s candidacy in the last elections and supported Abdullah instead, the fact that Abdullah had been tested once already might have led him to support Massud this time around. As to whether Abdullah will run again or not is uncertain, as is the position of Amrullah Saleh, the former chief of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), well regarded for his leadership and management. Saleh has been present in the coalition’s rallies and meetings, but it remains unclear where he will fit in the next elections.
The United National Front’s fragile coalition with Mohaqqeq and Dostum – they are holding major rallies together, these days, most recently in Sheberghan – is doubtful to last until the election day, as previous experience has shown. But if it does – and especially if it teams up with the camps of Atmar, Wardak or others – it could alter the dynamics.
Other names will also emerge in the mix. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, who failed to win many votes last time around, will likely run again. Despite his harsh criticism of Karzai on the election trail, he returned to the government to coordinate the “transition” efforts with US and NATO, a move many saw as driven by his desire to maintain a foothold and run again. Faruq Wardak, a long time cabinet minister under Karzai – currently holding the education portfolio – is also likely to run. As the president’s go-to guy for organising major national events – and as the one time head of the powerful Office of Administrative Affairs – Wardak has a large network.
Ali Ahmad Jalali, who was briefly minister of interior, has recently announced his desire to contest the vote, though it remains uncertain how much backing – both popular and among the ‘king makers’ – he has. He left for the US after he finished his stint as the minister of interior, taking up a teaching job at the National Defense University. His possible return to the country as Karzai’s national security advisor was rumored once, but it eventually did not materialise. In a conversation with US officials, described in a Wikileaks cable, Karzai said – seemingly jokingly – that Jalali was not willing to give up his ‘$13,000’ a month salary at NDU. There seems to be an indefinable (Afghan) public fascination with Jalali, though that doesn’t say much tangibly about his chances. Fawzia Kufi, a prominent MP from Badakhshan, has announced her intention to run, but it remains to be seen how much support she can garner.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the former US ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the UN, tested the waters during the last election, but eventually decided against running. This time around, he is again believed to be interested in giving it a try. His obvious connection with the US government is a double-edged sword: it could provide him with support in the West – and a perception in Afghanistan that he is the internationally-backed candidate – but isolate him in Afghanistan as an outsider. If Karzai is often brushed aside as a ‘US puppet’, imagine somebody who was the face of America’s diplomacy with the rest of the world.
At the end of the day, much will depend on the established vote banks and who Karzai backs. Karzai’s backing will provide the candidate of choice with the support of the government machinery, a key factor in previous elections. Sadly, there are no deterrents for such abuse in place at this moment, something the international community and the civil society need to consider seriously already before it is too late again. Reforms in the electoral law, solid mechanisms to prevent vote rigging and minimise interference by government agencies and security forces, and establishing a credible, transparent complaints commission that is acceptable to all need to be prioritised now.
Much of the final equation will also depend on how long and how strong coalitions such as the United National Front last, and whether they can agree on a common candidate.
Mujib Mashal is an Afghan journalist writing for international publications. Most recently, he has been working for Al Jazeera English out of Doha. Follow him on Twitter at @mujmash.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020