KABUL, Afghanistan — The list is out: Barring any radical developments during the vetting process, more than 44 candidates will stand in Afghanistan’s second post-Taliban presidential elections, scheduled for August 20.
Don’t let the plethora of names fool you. The roll may contain a prince or two, a self-proclaimed genius, a corrupt local police chief and a former Taliban with a talent for rocket launching, but by all accounts there is really only one serious contender — the incumbent, Hamed Karzai.
Karzai is no favorite of the new U.S. president, Barack Obama, or, indeed, of many of his own countrymen. But, according to Kabul insiders, attempts to groom a successor just did not pan out.
“Karzai will be made president,” said Ahmad Saeedi, political analyst and former diplomat, who at various times served in Pakistan, India and Iran. “But if the ballots were counted fairly, no one would vote for him.”
Ali Ahmad Jalali, a frontrunner who was widely supposed to be the choice of the U.S. State Department, dropped out of the race at the last minute, giving rise to speculation that he was loath to part with his American passport, or perhaps was afraid of the close scrutiny of the campaign.
But according to Saeedi, the real reason is a bit more complex, and has its roots in Washington, D.C.
“I was there when Jalali took a call from Holbrooke,” he said, referring to U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Holbrooke. “When he out down the phone, he said ‘I will not be a candidate.’ ”
Holbrooke has said, publicly and repeatedly, that the United States would not back any single candidate for the elections. But the assurances sound a bit hollow to Afghan ears.
“Washington has made its choice,” Saeedi said. “There is no real alternative to Karzai.”
While Karzai may have the title, he may not have much else, say Afghan and U.S. officials. There is a push on to install Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan-born former U.S. ambassador to Kabul, as the power behind the throne.
On May 19, the New York Times stated that Khalilzad was in negotiations with Karzai over the post of Chief Executive Officer, which would give him the authority of Prime Minister without the bother of having to report to Parliament. It would also allow Khalilzad to retain his U.S. passport.
Known as “the viceroy” for his firm control of Afghanistan during his tenure as envoy, from 2003 to 2005, Khalilzad had long been rumored to be thinking of running against Karzai for the top spot. He organized a gathering of prominent politicians in Dubai earlier this year that seemed sure to herald an announcement of his candidacy.
But a series of “spontaneous” demonstrations in support of Khalilzad during March fell a bit flat, and in the end he did not meet the Independent Election Commission’s May 8 deadline.
According to Saeedi, the U.S. is still determined to see Khalilzad at the head of the new Afghan government.
“Holbrooke wanted Khalilzad in a high-ranking position,” Saeedi said. “Originally the thought was to make him vice president.”
But Karzai pre-empted that maneuver by announcing Marshal Mohammad Fahim as his running mate.
The choice of Fahim, former defense minister with a fierce reputation as a “warlord” during Afghanistan’s brutal civil war, has raised eyebrows with both Afghans and the international community. U.N. Special Representative Kai Eide has publicly expressed concerns over Fahim’s human rights record.
The choice was a shrewd one, however; Fahim was a major figure in the National United Front, an organization whose entire raison d’etre is opposition to Karzai. With Fahim co-opted, the Front all but fell apart, and its candidate, Dr. Abdullah, fell down several notches on the believability scale.
During Karzai’s visit to Washington in early May, officials made their displeasure known, and reportedly imposed the CEO option on Karzai, which may have accounted for the Afghan president’s somewhat strained demeanor during a joint press conference with Obama and Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari.
But once back on his own turf, Karzai attempted to disavow the deal. His spokesman, Siyamak Herawi, told reporters on May 20 that there was no truth to the Times’ piece.
Saeedi insisted that, like it or not, Karzai had little choice but to accept the unusual choice of a CEO for his government.
“Khalilzad is stronger than Karzai,” said Saeedi. “He has more influence with Washington. Karzai is against him. But if he opposes Khalilzad, he will not be president.”
Saeedi just laughs when asked how the vote could be manipulated.
“What the people of Afghanistan want or don’t want does not matter,” he said. “Western-style democracy in Afghanistan is a lie.”
When then-candidate Obama visited Afghanistan in July, 2008, he met first of all with Gul Agha Sherzai, the bombastic governor of Nangahar, who is known, sometimes affectionately, as “the bulldozer.”
Tongues began to wag that Sherzai was Obama’s anointed successor to Karzai, and Sherzai himself plainly stated that he would run. He had even chosen as his running mate Karzai’s first vice president, Ahmad Zia Massoud. But days before the filing deadline, after a long meeting the Afghan president, Sherzai announced with a catch in his voice and a tear in his eye that he could have no part in chasing Karzai and his young son out of the presidential palace. What else may or may not have been discussed remains a mystery.
If nothing else, the race promises to be a colorful one. IEC chairman Azizullah Lodin has complained publicly that the majority of the 44 candidates have no real qualifications for the top office.
He told reporters that during the registration procedure, one potential contender listed his major qualification as “fortune teller.”
“You laugh,” he chided his audience. “You should be crying.”
More on the Afghan elections, set for August 20: