The South Asia Channel

‘Who’s Who?’ A Primer on Afghanistan’s Presidential Candidates

Most of the recent talk on Afghanistan has focused on whether or not Afghan President Hamid Karzai will sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States by the end of 2013, distracting Afghans and the international community from paying attention to an ultimately more important, but not as sensational, issue — the 2014 ...

Majid Saeedi/Getty Images
Majid Saeedi/Getty Images

Most of the recent talk on Afghanistan has focused on whether or not Afghan President Hamid Karzai will sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States by the end of 2013, distracting Afghans and the international community from paying attention to an ultimately more important, but not as sensational, issue — the 2014 Afghan presidential electoral landscape and process.  After weeks of high drama over the BSA, it is time to focus less on the negotiations’ rhetoric and more on the real legacy of the nascent Afghan democratic progress. 

After all, a "good enough" presidential election outcome in April 2014 will offer a measure of hope and could signal the end of a troubled beginning for the 21st century Afghan state.  It could also reenergize commitment from an international community whose interest in Afghanistan is waning.  A "bad enough" election result — a contested or tainted outcome that is not accepted by the Afghan people — will likely force most remaining coalition partners and Afghan elites with foreign passports to rush for the exits, leaving the Afghans who remain to look for protection along ethnic, tribal, and political interest boundaries.  The stakes are high, primarily for the Afghan people, but also for the international community, whose 12-year involvement has not yet yielded a peaceful outcome.

Of the original 27 presidential candidates and their vice presidential running mates who registered their nominations with the country’s Independent Election Committee, 11 remain.  The list ranges from obscure figures to high-profile former government officials, with principles ranging from strong anti-Taliban sentiment to inclinations towards accommodation.  From these presidential hopefuls, only five candidates hold exciting promise. 

Abdullah Abdullah remains the leading contender, with respected BBC reporter David Lyon considering him "the man to beat."  This former foreign minister and head of the National Coalition of Afghanistan has managed to create an impressive team.  His running mates include Hizb-e-Islami icon Mohammad Khan, a Pashtun from the Qarabach district of Ghazni province, as the first vice president, and Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, the head of the Hizb-e-Wahdat party, as the second vice president.  With additional backing from the Jamiat-e-Islami party, Abdullah unites many northern allies in a strong national movement and his selection of Mohaqiq brings the Hazara minority vote into the mix.  He also has the critical support of Mohammad Atta Noor, the powerful governor of Balkh, and, if early indications are accurate, the backing of the current first Vice President Marshal Fahim Qasim, giving Abdullah what Lyon accurately describes as "wide support."

Former Minister of Foreign Affairs Zalmai Rasool’s team is also impressive.  A well-respected moderate with royal ties, he now appears to be one of Karzai’s favorites in the election.  Rasool is a respected, honest, and humble diplomat who has tried to articulate his vision for Afghanistan in recent interviews, receiving positive feedback from both Afghans and the international community.  Rasool has picked his key running mates wisely. His choice for first vice president, Ahmad Zia Massoud — a former first vice president, the brother of the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, and the current leader of the National Front of Afghanistan — challenges Abdullah’s primacy in the north.  Former Bamyan governor Habiba Surabi, Rasool’s pick for second vice president, is a popular and reasonably successful former governor who can appeal to both Hazaras and women’s rights groups.   

Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, who also ran in 2009, has put together a much stronger coalition than during his previous bid for the presidency.  Ghani, a brilliant, charismatic, and hard-working perfectionist is perceived by many as one of the few Afghan leaders who have laid out a basic framework of how to "fix" Afghanistan.  This former finance minister, well-regarded economist, and "transition czar" — responsible for the shift of security responsibilities from NATO soldiers to the Afghan security forces — is well known to the international community and is considered by Afghans to be one of their brightest scholars.  Interestingly, he has picked Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former jihadi commander with the ceremonial role of Chief of Staff (of the Army) to the Commander in Chief and de-facto leader of the Junbush party, as his first vice president.  There are rumors that Karzai orchestrated this arrangement in order to take the Uzbek vote away from Abdullah’s team.  Whether or not this is true, Dostum is a controversial figure with enormous influence.  Although Ghani once condemned him as a "killer," Dostum can deliver the majority Uzbek vote. 

For his part, Dostum has apologized for his actions during the Afghan civil war, and he is not the only politician running for office who is facing accusations of serious human rights violations. For his second vice president, Ghani has picked former Minister of Justice Sarwar Danish.  A lesser-known and certainly less controversial figure, Danish rounds the ticket off with his Hazara credentials. 

Representing the staunchest anti-Taliban movement, Abdul Rab Rassoul Sayyaf is another formidable presidential candidate.  Most recently, he became the Afghan Taliban’s "public enemy number one" for his open disdain of the group, and for using religion to condemn Taliban suicide bomber tactics.  Ahmad Shafi put it best, saying that, "quoting Islamic texts extensively, Sayyaf said he wanted to send a message to the militants that on Judgment Day, they would show up with "flags planted in their buttocks from the back," marking them "unforgivable" in the court of God." For Sayyaf and his running mate, Mohammad Ismail Khan — the influential "Amir" of western Afghanistan and a legend among jihadi commanders — reconciliation with the Taliban is not an option.  In fact, this is the one team that has remained consistent in its contempt of the Taliban and any accommodations towards them.

According to Sayyaf, Afghans should do their best to "eliminate [the Taliban] from the face of the earth."  But his tough talk is not the greatest source of concern for the Taliban leadership.  More worrying for them is Sayyaf’s use of Islamic text and belief in challenging their religious right to fight against the Afghan government and their foreign allies.  In fact, Sayyaf’s religious credentials from the prestigious Cairo-based Al-Azhar University make him an authority on religious issues, and thus capable of countering Taliban ideology at its core.  But Sayyaf comes with baggage. 

Human Rights Watch has extensively documented allegations of war crimes against Sayyaf and his party, Dawat-e
-Islami, particularly against Hazara civilians. Also, in the 9/11 Commission Report, Sayyaf was listed as Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s "mentor." Completing the Sayyaf-Khan ticket is second vice president candidate Mawlavi Abdul Wahab Irfan, a Junbush-e-Milli Islami senator from Takhar province and a Dostum confidant. Irfan brings with him both a conservative block from the north, as well as a substantial number of Uzbek votes. 

The last of the serious contenders is Abdul Qayum Karzai, the current president’s older brother.  His running mates are former Afghan mines minister Wahidullah Shahrani and former lawmaker Ibrahim Qasemi.  Although Qayum Karzai — a former member of parliament with a horrible attendance record — has little real experience in government, he is a "Karzai" and should therefore not be underestimated.

Shahrani, an Uzbek, and Qasemi, a Hazara, seem to offer a good ethnic balance to Karzai’s strong Pashtun credentials, but this group is unlikely to win much of the popular vote amongst ethnic constituencies.  Most of the Uzbek vote should be secured by Dostum, Irfan, and then perhaps Abdullah.  The Hazara vote will be split between Mohaqiq, Danish, and Suhrabi.  Karzai’s team, however, has a lot of money. 

There are other groups with strong financial backing, but they are not in the same league as the Karzai team.  Between Qayum, Mahmud, and Shah Wali, the Karzai brothers are spending most of their time in Kandahar, where there is a significant financial reserve they can tap into for support.  Shahrani also has his own group of financial supporters who will undoubtedly contribute to Qayum Karzai’s campaign. 

It is still uncertain if President Karzai will back his older brother or pick another candidate in the 2014 race.  The president’s motives appear to be less about a continuation of the "Karzai dynasty" and more about his own survival and continued influence over his successor.  In fact, four of the top five candidates have received significant support from the president.  By actively encouraging Rasool, Sayyaf, and Ghani to run and providing tacit support to his brother Qayum, Karzai has split the vote amongst "his favorites" in such a way that he could prevent Abdullah from winning the necessary 51 percent of the vote needed to win in the first round of the election.  In a place such as Afghanistan, where conspiracy theories run wild, many think that he orchestrated the candidacies of four of the top five presidential contenders to ensure that, in a runoff election, at least one of the two candidates would owe him some allegiance.  Rumor also has it that Karzai plans to rally the candidates who don’t make the run-off behind his preferred candidate to ensure his own post-election survival and continued influence over Afghan politics.  

The other five presidential candidates who qualified to run for the 2014 election (Gudbudin Hilal, Rahim Wardak, Gul Agha Sherzai, Nader Naeem, Hedayat Amin Arsala, and Daud Sultanzoi) do not, for a variety of reasons, have a chance of getting a significant number of votes.  At the same time, they will play critical roles in both the election itself and the government that follows.  For example, Sherzai, the powerful tribal leader of the Barakzai tribe from Kandahar, may not have a chance at winning the presidency, but his support of another candidate will carry significant weight amongst Pashtuns in the south.  Similarly, endorsement and support from Arsala — one of the most respected political figures in Afghan politics, with impeccable credentials as a technocrat and as a Pashtun tribal leader — will go a long way in building confidence and validating a mandate in a leading candidate’s camp of supporters.

Although the election campaign season will not officially start until February 2014, the political maneuvering is already in full force, and candidates are laying out their primary campaign plans, along with contingency plans for all sorts of outcomes.  These include scenarios in which there is no election and in which the election result is so heavily contested that the Afghan population becomes disenfranchised, disgruntled, and drives the country to the brink of civil war.

While all the candidates are considering the most dangerous scenarios in earnest, the truth is that most Afghans remain cautiously optimistic that this next election will move the country forward.  Time will tell which scenario unfolds, but the international community needs to remain vigilant to prevent some of the more perilous scenarios from occurring.  Otherwise, the modest — if not minimal — gains of the past 12 years will quickly disappear.

With six months to go to, one thing is certain: The road to the April 2014 election will be bumpy.  From shifting alliances to politically-motivated assassinations, the run-up to the election will be both bloody and hard to predict.  Additionally, one should expect nuanced meddling and bet-hedging from regional powers who want to guarantee their influence, regardless of the election outcome.  And Afghan elites who have benefitted significantly from a decade of instability will likely offer their support to candidates in hopes of securing their own prominence once the race is over.  These shifting allegiances and manipulations will keep everyone guessing as to who is working with whom, and to what ends. 

Finally, the way the U.S. and Afghan governments behave between now and the elections will either put a burden or alleviate pressure on Karzai’s successor.  As noted earlier, the BSA has been getting too much attention.  That said, one cannot ignore the fact that Karzai’s behavior during the jirga and his propensity for controversy continue to put unnecessary stress on already strained U.S.-Afghan relations.  Perhaps he is deliberately trying to maintain focus on the BSA to keep the United States from meddling in the 2014 elections, as they did, in his mind, in the run up to the 2009 vote. 

Regardless of his motives, Karzai’s actions this week highlight the fact that no matter who wins Afghanistan’s elections, salvaging the deteriorating U.S.-Afghan relations will be the top priority.  Faced with "Great Game" politics characterized by external actors meddling in Afghan affairs, a flourishing narco-trade, a fragile economy that is as inefficient as it is corrupt, and a raging insurgency in rural areas, just to name a few challenges, the new Afghan administration cannot afford to alienate those same international actors who must provide the donor funding necessary for Afghanistan’s economic survival.

While the international community has signaled that it will not abandon Afghanistan after 2014, Karzai and those hoping to replace him should remember that this support will come with conditions.  Years of unaccountable waste and corruption must give way to a true commitment to stability and economic progress in ways that honor the memories of the Afghan and NATO  fallen (and their families) who sacrificed their lives to give Afghanistan a second chance.  In the end, the April 2014 election offers another fork in the road in Afghanistan’s journey as a natio
n.  Depending on the outcome, the newly elected administration will serve either as a source of hope for a better, brighter future or it will flicker out and Afghanistan will descend into the chaos of civil war …again.

Ioannis Koskinas was a military officer for over twenty years and now focuses on economic development projects and innovating solutions to challenging projects in Afghanistan.

Ioannis Koskinas served as a special operations officer for over 20 years. Currently, he is a Senior Fellow at New America and runs a bespoke consultancy firm that focuses on political risk mitigation strategies in frontier markets.

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