Editor’s note: This piece was originally published in Dawn on 4th April 2014.
The Nato withdrawal makes 2014 a year of tremendous historic importance both for Pakistan and Afghanistan.
With the troops’ withdrawal occurring by the end of this year, Afghan security forces will be solely responsible for the country’s security if the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States, which allows a fraction of US forces to remain in Afghanistan and assist Afghan security forces, is not signed by the government of Afghanistan.
President Hamid Karzai has already refused to sign the agreement despite the approval of the Loya Jirga — a traditional grand meeting of Afghan politicians, tribal leaders, activists and women that convened to take a decision on issues of national importance.
The reason behind Karzai’s refusal to sign the agreement is reportedly due to the ongoing secret peace talks between his government and the Taliban, as revealed by New York Times. Having said that, Karzai does not have enough time left in office with the elections around the corner.
It is important in this context to look at who the presidential candidates are and what promises they have made to the people of Afghanistan.
The Pakistani media, for unknown reasons, has ignored the latest developments in Afghanistan despite the fact that these developments are of grave importance to Pakistan’s future.
Afghanistan also views Pakistan with much significance, which is one of the main topics of discussions in the Afghan presidential debates.
Contrary to a popular perception in Pakistan that Afghan politics revolves around Pashtuns pitted against non-Pashtuns or South versus North, Afghanistan’s four major ethnic groups namely Pashtun, Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek have all been vying for power ever since end of the Taliban regime.
A Tajik and a Hazara have served as a first and a second vice president respectively in the palace since the first presidential elections and similar outcomes are expected in this one as well.
The Afghan constitution binds every presidential candidate to introduce his/her first and second vice presidents at the time of registration and the VPs play a pivotal role in the selection of ministers, provincial governors and other key officials.
There are eight men contesting in this year’s election. A number of televised presidential debates have been broadcast live on Afghanistan’s most popular TV channels since the official commencement of the campaign on Feb 2, 2014.
To find out who are the top favourite contestants, I contacted some prominent Afghan journalists, observers and activists and almost all of them agreed on the following names:
“Zalmai Rassoul, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Abdullah Abdullah are the favourites. Although it is really hard to predict the situation in the coming weeks as many may change their sides and new coalitions may emerge. [Hamid] Karzai is trying hard to change the arena and there are signs that he might get what he wants”
Assadullah Shefaie, a prominent Afghan journalist based in London and associated with BBC Persian
“None of the presidential hopefuls and their teams is a dream team. Nor can the big challenges in Afghanistan be addressed in the next five years. However, Ashraf Ghani, Zalmai Rassoul and Abdullah Abdullah are more popular than others…Ghani and Rassoul haven’t been directly and heavily involved in the civil war. Both of them do not seem to be in opposition with the ideas of fundamental rights of citizens and press freedom”
A human rights activist based in Kabul who wished to remain anonymous
The top three contenders
A 54-year-old eye specialist, born in a senator’s family in King Zahir Shah’s last Senate, Abdullah Abdullah is a Pashtun from his father’s side and a Tajik from his mother’s side. Abdullah has a large vote bank among the Tajiks due to his close association with Ahmed Shah Massoud, the commander of the Northern Alliance assassinated by al Qaeda just days before 9/11.
Abdullah took refuge in Pakistan in 1984 and worked at the Syed Jamal-ud-Din Hospital in Peshawar. He then joined anti-Soviet forces and treated the fighters. After the takeover of Kabul by the mujahideen, he became a spokesman for Afghanistan’s Defence Ministry. He later worked as a caretaker of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Afghan government in exile, with the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate only getting recognition by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and UAE. He was selected as Foreign Minister during the Bonn Conference in 2001 after the collapse of the Taliban regime and held the post until 2006.
Abdullah contested in the 2009 presidential election and succeeded to challenge Hamid Karzai by pushing the election into the second round but boycotted to run in the run-off with allegations against the Karzai administration.
1st Vice-President: Mohammad Khan, ethnic Pashtun, and Deputy Chief of Hizb-i-Islami Afghanistan (HIA).
2nd Vice-President: Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, ethnic Hazara, and chairman of the People’s Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan, locally known as ‘Hizb-i-Wahdat, Mohaqiq’ faction.
Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai
Ghani, 65, is an ethnic Pashtun. He is an anthropologist and holds a doctorate from Columbia University. He taught at the University of Columbia and the Johns Hopkins University until 1991. He then served at the World Bank as an advisor on the human dimension to economic programs.
In 2001, he returned to Afghanistan as an advisor to Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN Secretary General’s special envoy to Afghanistan. Subsequently serving as Finance Minister, Chancellor of Kabul University and chief of the Transition Coordination Commission (transition of responsibilities from Isaf to Afghan National Security Forces).
He also contested the 2009 presidential elections but received only three per cent of the votes.
1st Vice-President: Abdul Rashid Dostum, ethnic Uzbek, chief of National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan, locally known as “Junbish”.
2nd Vice-President: Sarwar Danish, ethnic Hazara, and former minister of higher education.
A 70-year-old, ethnic Pashtun and medical doctor by profession, Rassoul worked at the Paris Cardiology Research Institute and a military hospital in Saudi Arabia. He played a significant role at the Bonn Conference and later returned to Afghanistan.
In 2002, he was appointed Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation and also served as the chairman of the National Security Council. He was the Foreign Minister from 2010 to 2013.
1st Vice-President: Ahmad Zia Massoud, ethnic Tajik (brother of late Ahmed Shah Massoud). He served as the first VP from 2005 to 2009.
2nd Vice-President: Habiba Sarabi, an ethnic Hazara, and Afghanistan’s first ever female governor (of the Bamiyan province).
The Top Three on security, corruption, governance and Taliban talks
Afghanistan’s presidential hopefuls during a live televised debate. -Photo courtesy of Tolo TV
All of the above-mentioned candidates have openly announced their support for the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the US and promised to sign it if elected.
Abdullah says “terrorist safe havens are the biggest threat” to Afghanistan, an issue he believes he has the ability to address with ‘international support’.
In a question as to whether the Taliban are the enemies of Afghanistan, he says:
The killers of innocent people, puppets of foreign countries and those who fight against the government violently are our enemies.
Although, he emphasises that “the government should listen to those who want peace.”
In addition to that, Abdullah campaigns for a decentralised system and suggests that “more power should be transferred to the provinces and political parties should be given stronger roles”.
In Abdullah’s opinion,
the Durand Line issue is a historic one which should not be an excuse for the free movement of terrorists and smugglers across the border.
Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, on the other hand, has identified the Taliban under different categories: “Ideological”, “foreign-sponsored” and “those who take up arms out of poverty and corruption in the system”.
Ahmadzai is of the view that, Pakistan and Afghanistan can solve their issues based on the France-Germany model”. He has also claimed that,
Contrary to Pakistan’s military establishment, the elected government of Pakistan has an understanding of the situation and respects Afghanistan’s sovereignty. Our first priority is the elimination of terrorism and the establishment of peace. Only then will we workout to solve the Durand Line issue.
Ahmadzai has also promised to call a Loya Jirga during the fourth year of his presidency to decide about any change in the system (from presidential to parliamentary), if elected.
Zalmai Rassoul was of the opinion that “security situations have different dimensions and must be dealt with accordingly”. Regarding the Taliban question, Rassoul appears to be harsher:
Anybody who accepts the current constitution is welcome to join the peace process but those who kill our people and burn our schools are our enemies. War criminals commit crimes against the people, and therefore, it is the people’s right to hold them accountable.
He, nonetheless, supports the continuity of the current presidential system. And he is the only candidate with a woman vice-presidential nominee.
“About 65 per cent of Afghan population is between 15 to 25 years of age,” says Rassoul, and promises to empower the youth and the country’s women, if and when elected.
Editor’s note: This piece was originally published in Dawn on 4th April 2014.
The author is a freelance journalist and human rights activist based in Quetta. He tweets at @mSaleemJaved and can be reached at dr.saleemjavid[at]gmail.com