Don’t write off Karzai
By Imtiaz Gul
The Express Tribune, March 12, 2014
Ever since Afghan President Hamid Karzai became vocal in his criticism of the US role in the last decade and publicly made signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) conditional, American officials and media began peddling the perception that Karzai is making these statements only because of fear of becoming irrelevant once his tenure ends in less than two months. But some analysts contend that he remains very much relevant to Afghan politics — both during the presidential election and beyond the December 2014 US-led international troops drawdown.
Afghan watchers know that except for Dr Abdullah Abdullah, most of the remainingpresidential aspirants are either Karzai’s loyalists or have fielded their nominations under a cleverly tailored strategy to prevent Abdullah from winning the polls. It seems that most pro-Karzai presidential hopefuls will pull out of the polls one by one in favour of his desired candidate. Observers believe that the phased withdrawal of candidates in the presence of a large number of television channels will leave a strong impression on voters. The apparently surprise pullout of the president’s brother, Qayum Karzai, in favour of former foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul, lent even greater credence to the perception that the president has, indeed, carefully choreographed the campaign of his ‘favourite’. Karzai-watchers based in Kabul say that Qayum Karzai’s withdrawal in favour of Rassoul has come as a surprise for many because the brother comes from an influential background compared with Dr Abdullah, and respect for clans and family affinities remains very much intact in Afghan society.
Rassoul lacks the ingredients that are essential for success in Afghanistan — he is not charismatic, cannot boast of any national achievement and lacks a strong traditional support base. Analysts also believe that the controversy that stemmed from last June’s opening of an Afghan Taliban office in Qatar under a US-initiated peace process, sowed seeds of suspicion in Karzai’s mind that he was being sidelined. This stand-off with Washington gave Karzai an opportunity to devise his political survival strategy and position himself beyond his tenure. Soon after the Qatar fiasco, Karzai initiated contacts with the Afghan Taliban without consulting the US, and also persuaded leadership of the second largest insurgent group, Hezb-e-Islami, to take part in the election. He also reached out to Islamabad, toning down his usual Pakistan-related rhetoric and conveyed his willingness to foster closer future coordination. The Hezb-e-Islami has urged its supporters to vote for presidential candidate Qutbuddin Hilal, a chief of the group. Moreover, Abdul Rab Rasool Sayaf has teamed up with the former Herat strongman, Mohammad Ismail. Both of them are respected senior jihadi leaders in Afghanistan, and are suspected to be part of Karzai’s game plan. This is likely to significantly deprive Abdullah of support of jihadi elements and particularly the Pashtun groups opposed to US presence. To what extent do the new alignments dent Abdullah’s youth vote also remains to be seen. In the previous elections, a majority of the Afghan youth rallied behind Abdullah.
However, some Afghan observers say that the Pashtun vote stands divided because of the candidature of the highly-educated Ashraf Ghani. The former finance minister has introduced national projects that he is showcasing in his election campaign and is among the top runners, along with Abdullah. That is likely to help Karzai’s favoured candidate in the ultimate analysis.
Interestingly, Ghani has fielded the Uzbek commander, Abdul Rasheed Dostum, as his vice-presidential candidate, while Abdullah supports the Hazara Ustad Mohaqiq for this position. Both Dostum and Mohaqiq are known for switching sides whenever needed. In case they live up to their past records, and switch sides at the last moment, that can impact the vote bank of both Ghani and Abdullah, which will also benefit the presidential hopeful supported by Karzai. All these realignments promise an exciting presidential election.