After his Washington visit May 07 – May 09, Hamid Karzai seems to be the strongest candidate again. His vice presidential running mates will be anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, Muhammad Fahim Qasim from Panjshir and Muhammad Karim Khalili from Hazarajat. Gul Agha Sherzai, the Ningarhar governor also dropped out of the race, after powerful perusal by Karzai. This way, the incumbent president appears to have removed the major stumbling blocks from his reelection because before Sherzai’s decision to support Karzai, Sherzai was widely regarded as Obama’s favourite but after his meeting with Karzai in Kabul early May, the balance went in favour of Karzai.
Zalmay Khalilzad, former ambassador, is also out of the race because he could not register himself in time and missed the deadline. Another reason is that he probably could not ensure US support.
Marshal Faheem, former adviser to Karzai, ex-senator, brings in Tajik support in good measure, while Khalili is the unquestioned leader of the Hazara Shi’ites in Bamyan.
It seems that the Karzai-Fahim-Khalili ticket may also be enjoying a back-to-back understanding with Uzbek strongman Abdul Rashid Dostum and Hazara commander Mohammad Mohaqiq from northern Afghanistan. The Northern Alliance, as a consequence of Karzai’s maneuvering politics, now stands divided between Faheem and Dr Abdullah Abdullah, former foreign minister, who is also contesting election. Abdullah’s father was Kandahari Pashtoon and mother from Panjshir. But because of divided alliance, his chances are not good.
The combination led by Karzai is multi-ethnic, multi-cultural and inter-regional. Second, it can attract mujahideen and Taliban because a) both Fahim and Khalili were notable mujahideen leaders and b) Gul Agha Sherzai, the Ningarhar governor, a Pashtoon, has also declared support for Karzai (a Durrani Pashtoon.)
In Afghanistan, during the last 250 years, most of the time Durrani Pashtoons ruled.
(Mulla Omar, Najibullah, Tarkai and Hafeez Amin were Ghalji Pashtoons which are second to Durranis in social rank and status.)
The real challenger to Karzai would be his ex-cabinet colleague, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. Ghani is a Ghalji Pashtoon, a former minister for finance, professor of anthropology, Ghani holds a US passport but says he would give up US citizenship. Being Pashtoon and widely respected for his knowledge and honesty, politically Ghani is the strongest opposition to Karzai. Ghani has no party and is challenging Karzai in personal capacity.
He claims to have devised a long-term strategy for Afghanistan which he proposes to back his nomination, and declared on May 6 that the education curriculum for Afghanistan is translated in Dari, Pashto and Uzbaki, the three main Afghan languages.
Ahmadzai has been one of the harshest critics of the Afghan government over the past years since he quit as the minister of finance in 2004.
He was appointed as the dean of Kabul University after the ministerial post as likely he failed to reject his foreign nationality, but this time, for the top position in his birthplace, he is eager to end his American citizenship.
The presidential election set for August therefore seems tilted heavily in favour of Hamid Karzai to the backdrop of continued violence and public resentment. More than 200 civilian deaths in US-led coalition air raids underscore the continued volatility of the Afghan conditions. The website iCasualties.org reports that 90 foreign soldiers have been killed so far this year, a 67 per cent increase from the same period last year. The UN, the EU and NATO speak of an over 70 per cent spike in violence. Coalition-insurgent clashes also leave about two dozen dead almost daily. The American Security Project attributes this rise in violence to the spread of the Taliban, which it says has a “persistent presence” in about 75 per cent of Afghanistan.
The country seems to be caught in a three-way vicious cycle: a corrupt ruling elite eating up whatever little resources are available; a reticent and obscurantist religious movement shaking it to the core through its resistance to “foreign occupation forces”; and an ambitious international community – “foreign occupation forces” – keen on bending the situation according to its own whims, this time around with the help of a combination of military surge and more effective funding. The American Security Project says the Taliban have a “persistent presence” in about 75 per cent of Afghanistan. Ellis calls Kabul “the corrupt urban hellhole of ocean-going proportions”.
The surge promised by the Obama administration, advised by CENTCOM chief General David Petraeus, to go for a “surge” that will raise the number of US troops in Afghanistan to 68,000 by the end of the year, bringing the total number of foreign forces in Afghanistan to more than 90,000. (The Soviet Union had around 120,000 troops at the peak of its campaign in Afghanistan.)
Other NATO members are committing more troops to the country, hoping to stem the violence. Australia (450) and Britain (700) are also pledging more troops to the existing 32,000 from 39 countries. Of the US reinforcements, some 17,000 soldiers and marines will join the NATO force in Helmand, heartland of the Taliban, to bolster British, Canadian, Dutch and other NATO troops fighting a resurgent Taliban in the southern provinces.
Accompanying the surge is the heavy financial commitment by the US and its partners including investments in strategic infrastructure. The US Army is building nearly $4 billion worth of military bases and other facilities in Afghanistan and is planning to start projects costing an additional $1.3 billion this year. That is definitely indicative of US commitment to a long-term stay in Afghanistan.
Additionally, Camp Bastion, the main British base in Helmand, is undergoing expansion to house more than 8,000 US Marines. Four new bases, as well as several airstrips, are being constructed across southern Afghanistan.
“There is going to be a fight this summer, and where there’s a fight, you take casualties. It’s going to be a bloody summer,” British Brigadier David Hook, deputy commander of the NATO-led force in the south of the country, told Reuters early May.
At the heart of the Taliban-led insurgency lies the presence of “foreign troops”, which acts as the raison d’etre for the militants and also fuels the anti-Western sentiment. If Afghan responses to articles on foreign troops’ involvement in Afghanistan were an indicator (mostly on the internet), most Afghans want the foreigners out. When they will leave is the most frequently asked question, probably flowing from the typical Afghan aversion to foreign influence.
Peace will be hard to come by through the surge. There is also no likelihood of various competing interests pulling back in favour of peace. Pakistan, India, Iran and the United States are all involved in this theatre that now includes Pakistan.
The surge is also likely to bring more strain on Pakistan, as militants would begin escaping across the border to recuperate, reorganise and network with like-minded groups. That means continued squabbling between Pakistan and its foreign friends led by Washington.