Monday July 26 was the deadline for candidates to register for Afghanistan’s upcoming presidential elections. The cut-off date brought several surprises for the Afghan electorate and for the international community observing the process. In an unexpected move, President Hamid Karzai called a press conference late Monday to announce his candidacy and name his two running mates. He chose Ahmad Zia Masoud and Karim Khalili as first and second vice presidents, respectively (Reuters, July 26). Marshal Qasim Fahim, the current first vice president, was conspicuously left out.
Ahmad Zia is the youngest brother of the late Ahmad Shah Masoud, the legendary commander of the Afghan resistance that fought against the Soviets and later against the Taliban. Masoud was assassinated by an al-Qaeda affiliate on September 9, 2001. A Panjshiri Tajik, Zia Masoud is in his mid thirties and has virtually no experience in government. His latest job, as ambassador to Russia, was essentially given to him by virtue of his lineage rather than qualification. His older brother, Ahmad Wali Masoud, was ambassador to Great Britain.
After the collapse of the Taliban regime, the Panjshiris moved into Kabul, and they have essentially controlled the capital ever since. The most powerful group inside the Northern Alliance is Shora-e-Nezar, a party formed by Ahmad Shah Masoud; it was the military wing of Jamiat-e-Islami of Rabbani. Almost the entire membership is Panjshiri Tajik. The Bonn agreements gave three key cabinet posts to Panjshiris: defense, interior, and foreign affairs. Specifically, the three ministers are Marshal Qasim Fahim, defense; Mohammad Younos Qanooni, interior (and later education); and Dr. Abdullah, foreign affairs. In addition, they control the directorate of intelligence and the chief of the armed forces.
Karim Khalili, the current second vice president, is a Hazara from the Behsud district, in the central province of Maidan and Wardak. He was the leader of Hizb-e-Wahdat Islami Afghanistan (Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan). In the early 1990s, HWIA, under the leadership of Abdul Ali Mazari, had considerable support among the Hazaras. Mazari was assassinated by the Taliban when they captured Kabul in 1996. Since Khalili took over, the party has been on the decline.
Karzai has assembled an intriguing ticket for the elections. At the moment, none of the three candidates has any substantial backing or power base in their ethnic constituencies. Many Pashtuns feel abandoned by the government and consider Karzai to be illegitimate and weak. He is criticized for two reasons: first, he was brought in by the Americans and, second, because he has been a figurehead in a government that is actually run by Tajiks. Karzai has been so insecure that he asked for American security protection. He survived an assassination attempt in his own hometown, and he is unpopular across the country. The entire south, southwest, and southeast of the country is not hospitable for him or for his government, and for the last two years he has not been able to win the hearts and minds of his people. His popularity is even eroding in his hometown; Kandahar province has almost become an operational base for the Taliban.
Ahmad Zia Masoud is an unknown commodity in Afghanistan. He is not a charismatic leader and does not have a strong backing from his people. His only connection with the Tajik regime is his kinship to Ahmad Shah Masoud and his relation to Burhanuddin Rabbani, the former president of Afghanistan and his father-in-law (RFE/RL, July 26).
Since Karzai did not include Marshal Fahim on his ticket, Education Minister Younos Qanooni tossed his hat into the ring, declaring, “The main leaders of Afghanistan are with us” (AFP, July 26). His claim is partly right, because Marshal Fahim has thrown his weight behind him, as did Dr. Abdullah and Ahmad Wali Masoud, the elder brother of Ahmad Zia Masoud. This leaves Zia Masoud with virtually no backing (Reuters July 26).
Since becoming vice president two and half years ago, Karim Khalili has been isolated from his people, who back candidate Mohammad Muhaqqiq, another Hazara. Muhaqqiq had been the planning minister under the Bonn agreements, but he was sacked after an open row in the cabinet with Karzai and his powerful finance minister over the rights of the Hazaras. His stand against the establishment and his candidacy opposing Karzai have made him a hero among his people. He was one of the last two remaining resistance fighters against the Taliban. The other was Ahmad Shah Masoud. He has the backing of almost the entire Hazaras, roughly 19% of the population.
At the moment, Karzai has scant chance of winning the presidential race. Although immensely popular outside the country for his flamboyant character, the Pashtuns will not vote for him en masse. Nor will the Tajiks, the Hazaras, or Uzbeks, all of whom have strong ethnic leaders as their candidates. If the three non-Pashtun ethnic groups unite in a coalition — a feasible scenario — Karzai could not mathematically win even with the backing of his entire tribe. By the same token, if Karzai manages to get the backing of the Tajiks or the other two ethnic groups, he may be able to secure a slim majority.
With more than two months until the election, there may be more surprises to come. One factor that may influence the outcome of the election is the role that the United States will play through its special representative in Afghanistan. Zalmay Khalilzad is quite adept in the wheeling and dealing of Afghan politics.