Alliance of Afghan candidates unlikely, but it would help

The attempted assassination of Afghan presidential front-runner Abdullah Abdullah in Kabul last Friday is a stark reminder of how precariously the nation’s future hangs in the balance.

In Afghanistan, it is both the best of times and the worst of times, as novelist Charles Dickens so famously put it, describing another time and place. More than ever before, the nation appears to be making meaningful progress toward stable democracy, as President Hamid Karzai prepares to cede the reins of power to his duly elected successor after more than 12 years in office as required by the Afghan constitution. This will be the nation’s first democratic transfer of power.

At the same time, the recent violence — along with the very fact that a run-off is necessary at all — points to looming dangers. This is an especially perilous moment as most foreign troops prepare to leave Afghanistan by the end of the year barring a new agreement.

Facing off in the final round against Abdullah, a former anti-Taliban Northern Alliance leader, is former World Bank executive Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. Though of mixed Pashtun and Tajik heritage, for his part Ahmadzai belongs to the Pashtun ethnic group. In the first electoral round on April 5, Abdullah claimed nearly 45 percent of votes to Ahmadzai’s 31.5 percent, and he has since won the support of third-place candidate Zalmay Rassoul, who carried 11 percent of voters.

One of the many wild cards in this explosive mix: the Taliban. The organization draws its support largely from the Pashtun, sparking concern that an Abdullah victory could spur Taliban recruitment efforts. There is also growing concern that the Taliban will use violence to disrupt the upcoming elections in an effort to destabilize the country.

Raising the stakes even further is Afghanistan’s winner-take-all political culture. Regardless of the victor, he can be expected to place his cronies, warlord supporters and other close allies in positions of power. Those who did not vote for him are likely to be entirely locked out.

And yet, for all these challenges, Afghanistan is in a far better position now than at any time in recent memory. Both Abdullah and Ahmadzai are highly qualified compared with any contenders since the assassination of President Mohammed Daud Khan in 1978 by Russian-backed communist party operatives. Both offer new hope for improved relations with the West, having said they would sign a security agreement allowing U.S. forces to remain after 2014, something Karzai refused to do.

That said, both candidates also have significant weaknesses. In the first round of voting, Abdullah did predictably well among the Farsi-speaking Tajik in the relatively calm north and west but — again predictably — poorly in the Pashtun-dominated south and east. His support among the younger generation is not strong, a significant issue in a country where 68 percent of people are younger than 25, and despite his efforts to broaden his appeal, he continues to be viewed by many as a member of the old guard.

As for Ahmadzai, for all his success in the Pashtun-dominated east and south and among younger voters, he lacks a forceful public persona — what we in the West call the “electability factor.” Not surprisingly, he has failed to convince those who did not vote for him in the first round of elections on April 5 that he would make a strong leader. This weakness is reflected in his choice of an Uzbek warlord, Abdul Rashid Dostum, as a running mate, bringing a strong man to his side as compensation for his own lack of confidence. This choice angered even many of his supporters because of the widespread belief that Dostum ordered the 2001 massacre of thousands of Pashtun Taliban in his fiefdom.

There is, however, an upside to the candidates’ shortcomings. Their deficits make it crystal clear how much each could gain from an alliance. Together, Abdullah and Ahmadzai are far stronger than they are apart. Moreover, a coalition has the potential to bring about unprecedented political equilibrium by recognizing the legitimacy of both Pashtuns and Tajiks, respectively the nation’s largest and second-largest ethnic groups. Most importantly, they have the opportunity to put the focus where it belongs: combatting corruption and terrorism and fueling jobs and economic growth.

Unfortunately, there is little sign that a coalition is in the offing. Indeed, Abdullah signaled just the opposite last month when he told The New York Times he had no intention of forging an alliance. “Now the issue is how to strategize for the second round — no matter what it will go to the second round.”

This is a mistake — and one with potentially tragic consequences. The future of Afghanistan will hinge on whether it is possible to move beyond ethnic conflict to a culture of opportunity for all. An alliance would mark a major stride in this direction, a step toward the stable and prosperous future that the Afghan people deserve.

Wahab Raofi is a graduate of Kabul Law School and worked at various levels for the Ministry of Justice in his native Afghanistan. He emigrated to the United States but currently works with the NATO/International Security Assistance Force as an interpreter in Afghanistan. The opinions expressed in this piece are his alone and do not necessarily represent those of NATO.

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