With U.S. and coalition forces withdrawing from Afghanistan, all eyes are on the country’s presidential election, scheduled for April of next year. The country’s post-Operation Enduring Freedom future is at stake, and the elections will — potentially — mark the first peaceful transfer of power between civilian governments in Afghanistan’s history. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has the chance to establish his place in history as the arbiter of that transition, the father of the new Afghanistan. But he may have just signaled how far he is willing to go for leverage, and the results could be grim.
Speculation over who, if anyone, Karzai will support in next year’s election has been building for months and with formal nominations due in less than a month, the guessing game is reaching a fever pitch. Last Wednesday, for example, Afghanistan’s Pajhwok news service reported that during a meeting with political party and jihadi leaders, Karzai had endorsed Abdul Rasul Sayyaf for president, a 67-year-old Pashtun Wahabist commander who is allegedly responsible for, among other things, the 1993 Afshar massacre, an operation Human Rights Watch calls a war crime. One week later, the same media outlet cited Karzai’s denial that he is backing any specific presidential candidates, though sources present at the initial meeting say his support for Sayyaf stands.
According to a source inside the presidential palace, Karzai’s prospective ticket also includes two vice presidential nominees who enjoy credibility mostly, if not solely, from their time as jihadi commanders fighting against both the Communists and the Afghan Taliban. "Marshal" Mohammad Qasim Fahim, who currently serves as Karzai’s first vice president, and Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, an on-again, off-again political candidate, both came to prominence fighting the Soviets in the 1980s. The ticket, in other words, is a caricature of Afghanistan’s jihadist past and an homage to the old way of assigning political legitimacy just when it appeared to be expiring.
The good news, however, is that this ticket has virtually no chance of winning.
Tajiks and Hazaras won’t vote for Sayyaf because of his war record, and his conservative religious views will likely make him unpopular among women and the more technocratic part of his own Pashtun ethnic community. Even in the most conservative, ethnocentric Pashtun areas, political support for Sayyaf will be weak, because those are the areas where the Taliban and other insurgent groups like Hezb-e Islami are popular. In those militant groups, Sayyaf is regarded as a traitor since he sided with the Taliban’s avowed enemy, Ahmad Shah Massoud, up until Massoud’s assassination on September 9, 2001. Sayyaf does have religious authority (he has the title mohadith, an expert in the acts and sayings of the Prophet), but he has no political base.
The bad news is that Karzai almost certainly knows this, so there is more to the endorsement than meets the eye.
Consider first that Karzai himself is at a critical juncture. One cannot lead a country like Afghanistan, especially during a decade like the one it’s just completed, without making some enemies. Karzai faces legitimate, justifiable concerns about his legacy, his property, even his safety, any one of which might be in jeopardy once he no longer enjoys the protection and immunity afforded by the presidency. Afghanistan, after all, has not historically been kind to its former leaders, so Karzai is playing the cards he has; cards that include an administrative system that spans from the grassroots to the presidential palace — think of it like a tribal "get out the vote" network — and the ability to mobilize resources for the candidate he chooses. Karzai’s endorsement could be decisive for the right candidate, so his decision to endorse Sayyaf is a stark reminder to anyone paying attention that Karzai is not to be trifled with. He’s established the stakes, and now we’re waiting for the ransom demand.
Meanwhile, until the demands are made and met, we can expect Sayyaf to exert an influence disproportionate to his actual political prospects. Some of the other names that have been circulated as potential presidential candidates are accomplished technocrats with sophisticated visions for their country’s future, but standing on a debate platform next to an Islamic scholar with jihadist credentials, they will likely be compelled to apologize for their records, rather than compare their policies. Take, for example, Mohammad Hanif Atmar and Ashraf Ghani. Atmar has a sterling record running three different ministries, and Ghani is an accomplished academic, presidential advisor, and the man who literally wrote the book on fixing failed states.
But Atmar fought with the Communists while Sayyaf was leading a group of mujahideen against them and Ghani never fought at all. He studied in America, received his PhD, and became a professor, while Sayyaf was taking up arms to defend his country. Sayyaf, by his mere presence in the race, has the power to make serious candidates look like bad Muslims who shirked their duties.
Karzai’s move is not a stupid one, and he is not necessarily deserving of scorn for simply doing what he can to protect his interests. But the problem it creates goes beyond Sayyaf’s presence in the race for the presidency. Even once Karzai changes tack and endorses a more reasonable ticket — which he likely will — it’s unlikely Sayyaf will go quietly into the night. He is a seasoned veteran of this game, and he will demand his own guarantee of influence in the next administration.
Karzai, then, is presenting everyone involved in Afghan politics — especially serious candidates — with two equally bad options: either standby and let Sayyaf reduce the political debate to a contest of jihadi prowess and Islamic piety, or perpetuate the mafia-style politics of influence-peddling to get him out of the race.
The real cost though — the one Karzai may not himself be considering — is what happens after his plan is realized, after he gets whatever guarantees he is seeking, and convinces Sayyaf to withdraw. When Sayyaf drops out of the race, Fahim and Mohaqiq, Sayaff’s two vice presidential candidates, will look like they were strung along just so Karzai and Sayyaf could get what they wanted. They’ll be compelled to save face, and they’ll do what others have done before them in similar situations — they’ll rile up their ethnic bases (Fahim is a Panjshiri Tajik; Mohaqiq is Hazara) and stoke anger against Pashtuns, of which Karzai and Sayyaf, they will claim, are only the most recent examples. The same scenario unfolded during the 2009 elections, when Gul Agha Shirzai, a popular provincial governor and a Pashtun presidential candidate, dropped out of the race and his two non-Pashtun vice presidential nominees, Ahmad Zia Masoud (brother of famed Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Masoud) and Sayyed Hussain Anwari (a famous Shiite warlord) claimed it was a conspiracy.
While endorsing Sayyaf may seem like a harmless tactic for Karzai to extract guarantees for his future, if he doesn’t dispense with it soon, it could become destructive. In a country with an already uneasy stability, the Sayyaf ploy could eliminate any chance the election has of being more than just a civil war fought along ethnic lines. And if that happens, the election may not represent the first peaceful transition of power between civilian governments in the country’s history, but the spark that ignites a new era of ethnic violence.
Jeffrey E. Stern — http://www.JeffreyEstern.com — is a writer and development worker whose reporting from Afghanistan, Kashmir, and elsewhere has been published by The Atlantic, The New Republic, Esquire, Time, newsweek.com/The Daily Beast, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. Reporting for this piece was made possible by the support of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. The opinions are the author’s own.