City of Brass

One of the frustrating things about Afghanistan is that it’s such a mess that our expectations for the democratic process were quite low. It seemed a given that Karzai would cruise to re-election unopposed, and while that may not be a bad thing, it’s not clear how the guarantee of power would serve to induce Karzai to attempt innovative solutions to Afghanistan’s problems. Karzai has been pursuing alliances with former Northern Alliance warlords in a bid to keep the Taliban at bay, a process that is certainly not going to lead to a liberalization of human rights in the country, nor provide any kind of stable peace.

However, the human spirit always surprises the cynics – and it seems that suddenly there is a viable alternative to Karzai, one who actually has ideas for change. Meet Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, who is singing a familiar, but nevertheless fresh, tune:

“I have no doubt that people want change,” Dr. Abdullah said in an interview after a tumultuous day campaigning in Herat, in western Afghanistan, adding that his momentum was just building. “Today they are hopeful that change can come.”

Mr. Karzai is still widely considered the front-runner in the campaign for the Aug. 20 presidential election. But Dr. Abdullah, who has the backing of the largest opposition group, the National Front, is the one candidate among the field of 41 who has a chance of forcing Mr. Karzai into a runoff, a contest between the top two vote-getters if no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the votes in the first balloting.

Already well known among most Afghans, Dr. Abdullah, 48, an ophthalmologist, has a background that includes years of resistance to Soviet and Taliban rule as well as a crucial role in the formation of the new democratic government after the American intervention.

[…] After serving as foreign minister in Mr. Karzai’s government for five years, he left in 2006 and has since become a strong critic of the president’s leadership. He refused an offer to become Mr. Karzai’s running mate, and he contends that the president practices a policy of divide and rule that has polarized the country.

Today, Dr. Abdullah, with a diplomat and a surgeon as his running mates, is seen as part of a younger generation of Afghans keen to move away from the nation’s reliance on warlords and older mujahedeen leaders and to clean up and recast the practice of governing.

To do that, he advocates the devolution of power from the strong presidency built up under Mr. Karzai to a parliamentary system that he says will be more representative. He is also calling for a system of electing officials for Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and nearly 400 districts as a way to build support for the government.

Those provincial governors are now appointed from Kabul, and many have been criticized for cronyism and corruption. Influential Shiite clerics here in Herat, who supported Mr. Karzai in the last election in 2004, are now so fed up with corrupt appointees that they have said they will back Dr. Abdullah this time.

Re-engaging the people is essential to reverse the lawlessness and insecurity that have reached a critical point in much of the country, Dr. Abdullah said. “They have managed to lose the people,” he said of the current government. “In fighting an insurgency, you lose the people and you lose the war.”

Before several thousand people in Herat’s sports stadium, he raised the biggest cheer with his promise to build up Afghan institutions so that foreign troops could go home soon.

He also promised to curb the rampant corruption and review foreign assistance programs to ensure that they focused on grass-roots development and addressed poverty and unemployment. In his public meetings, he emphasized support for the rights of women, the unemployed, the disabled and the victims of war.

He said he would work seriously toward reconciliation with the Taliban, calling the current process a “joke.” Yet in an interview he retained his longtime opposition to the Taliban leadership and said he doubted that the Taliban leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, was ready to negotiate for peace.

The NYT article goes into more detail about Abdullah’s chances, which are very difficult to predict. I’m not accusing Karzai of anything, but it should be noted that he does enjoy certain institutionalized advantages, not least of which is the difficulty in ensuring that the vote isn’t tampered with, should an incumbent be so inclined (again, not implying Karzai is such). And that doesn’t even take into account the fact that much of the country is ruled by the Taliban – it’s not exactly feasible to campaign in a war zone.

It is true that Karzai has seen his popularity and support drop, due to the perception that his long tenure (eight years) have seen no improvements in the status of common folk. There definitely is an opening, but a lot has to go right for Abdullah to pull it off. Perhaps even a credible challenge is enough, however, to force change. There isn’t much time.

Related: ongoing coverage of all things Afghanistan at Talk Islam. Also, I have been particularly struck by this article in the London Review of Books, and will be blogging more about that in a few days.

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