2:03am

Tue October 8, 2013
Afghanistan

As Afghan Presidential Race Begins, Warlords Are Prominent

Originally published on Tue October 8, 2013 7:26 am

As the war in Afghanistan enters its 13th year, the political and security situation there remains precarious. But the country is hoping to reach a milestone next spring: the first democratic transfer of power in the country's history.

And there's no shortage of candidates vying to succeed President Hamid Karzai — who is barred from running for a third term.

The short list of serious contenders includes Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayyaf, the long-bearded Islamist warlord who is credited with bringing al-Qaida to Afghanistan. He has been accused of human rights abuses, and his candidacy has worried many Afghans as well as the international community.

Abdullah Abdullah is a Western-educated, former foreign minister who came in second in the 2009 election.

Another technocrat is the soft-spoken former World Bank official and former finance minister, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, who came in fourth in 2009. In an unexpected move, his lesser-known brother also registered to run.

There's also the president's brother Qayoum Karzai, and Gul Agha Shirzai, a former provincial governor accused of drug trafficking and pedophilia.

Former Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul is viewed by many as an early front-runner. Rassoul's running mate for second vice president is Habiba Sarabi, Afghanistan's first female provincial governor.

There is one relatively unknown woman running for president, and a total of eight female vice presidential candidates.

So many candidates came out of the woodwork at the last minute that the election office stayed open until midnight on Sunday to accommodate them all. Backroom talks have been going on for weeks as various power brokers tried to assemble winning coalitions.

"Some of those who have joined last-minute [indicate] that the political horse-trading may have not worked," says Nader Nadery, head of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan.

"It is a much more selfcentric political bargaining," he adds.

So it comes as no surprise that in the end, Nadery says, 27 different tickets were registered.

The Karzai Question

One bit of intrigue is the question of whether President Karzai is supporting any of the candidates. Analysts say that they expect Karzai to ultimately back someone he sees as a safe successor who will both listen to him and look after his interests.

For his part, Karzai says he will not support anyone.

Of course, there is still the persistent concern that Karzai will somehow scuttle the elections and stay in office. For example, if there are serious security issues in the run-up to the April vote, Nadery says, Karzai might postpone the elections.

It would be a risky move, however. The international community has staked significant amounts of future aid to Afghanistan on the country's holding free and fair elections next year.

But even the notion of free and fair elections is a bit different in Afghanistan. Historically, Afghans vote based on directions they receive from tribal elders, religious leaders, powerful politicians or warlords.

That's why there was such a scramble in the waning days of the candidate registration period as people negotiated over slates of running mates. Many of the presidential candidates do not have large constituencies of their own, hence their selection of former warlords or leaders of ethnic groups who are believed to command large numbers of loyal followers.

Despite their ethnic, religious and tribal differences, there is one issue all the candidates seem to agree on: Afghanistan's need to sign a long-term security pact with the U.S. Almost every candidate has mentioned the issue in recent speeches.

But at a news conference on Monday, Karzai said that he still has objections over provisions of the security deal, and he might not sign it — leaving it to the next president to resolve.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

American military involvement in Afghanistan has entered its 13th year. The war has cost the United States the lives of more than 2,000 troops, as well as three-quarters of a trillion dollars, yet the political and security situation remains precarious at best. The country is hoping to reach a milestone next spring: the first democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan's history.

As NPR's Sean Carberry reports, there is no shortage of candidates vying to succeed President Hamid Karzai.

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: They might as well have put a red carpet outside the office of the Independent Election Commission in Kabul. For the last few days, a veritable who's who of politicians, technocrats and former warlords have been pulling up to the office in seemingly endless caravans of armored SUVs. They're all hoping to be Afghanistan's next president and vice presidents. Afghanistan has a first and second VP.

So many candidates came out of the woodwork at the last minute, the election office had to stay open until midnight on Sunday to accommodate them all. Backroom talks have been going on for weeks, as various power brokers tried to assemble winning coalitions.

NADER NADERY: Some of those who have joined last minute indicates that the political horse trading may have not worked.

CARBERRY: Nader Nadery is the head of the Free and Fair Election Foundation. He says he's not surprised that the political opposition failed to unite behind a single ticket.

NADERY: It is a much more self-centric political bargaining.

CARBERRY: He says, at the end of the day, everyone is really in it for himself, which is why 27 different tickets were registered.

ABDUL RASOUL SAYYAF: (Foreign language spoken)

CARBERRY: The short list of serious contenders includes Abdul Rasoul Sayyaf, the Islamist warlord who's credited with bringing al-Qaida to Afghanistan.

DR. ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: (Foreign language spoken)

CARBERRY: Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, a Western-educated former foreign minister who came in second in the 2009 election.

There's President Karzai's brother Qayoum, and also Gul Agha Shirzai, a former provincial governor accused of drug trafficking and pedophilia.

ZALMAI RASOUL: (Foreign language spoken)

CARBERRY: Former foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul is viewed by many as an early frontrunner. Rassoul's running mate for second vice president is Habiba Sarabi, who was Afghanistan's first female provincial governor.

There's one relatively unknown woman running for president, and a total of eight female vice presidential candidates.

NADERY: It's a very fragmented number of candidates.

CARBERRY: Nader Nadery says that, in part, reflects the fragmented nature of Afghan politics. There's no real party structure or primary system. Many of the dozens of political parties and coalitions are based on religion or ethnicity. Almost all of the presidential candidates are Pashtun, the majority ethnic group in the country.

Despite their ethnic, religious, and tribal differences, there's one issue all the candidates seem to agree on: Afghanistan needs to sign a long-term security pact with the U.S. Almost every candidate has mentioned the issue in recent speeches.

PRESIDENT HAMID KARZAI: (Foreign language spoken)

CARBERRY: But at a news conference on Monday, Karzai said that he still has objections over provisions of the security deal, and he might not sign it, leaving it to the next president to resolve.

Sean Carberry, NPR News, Kabul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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