The attempted assassination of Afghan presidential front-runner Abdullah Abdullah June 6 killed six people and injured 22 others in Kabul. But the candidate himself emerged unscathed—befitting a man who is nothing if not a survivor.
A former eye surgeon who joined the mujahedeen to fight Afghanistan’s Soviet-backed government in the 1980s, he later became a spokesman for the Northern Alliance that battled the Taliban in the 1990s. After the Taliban’s 2001 ouster, he became foreign minister in Hamid Karzai’s government—and then Karzai’s political foe.
“The response to today’s attack is going to the ballot boxes,” Abdullah told reporters, following the suicide bomb attack that destroyed a vehicle in his motorcade. “And we will continue our election campaign as normal.”
The dangers of public life in Afghanistan are not foreign to Abdullah, who faces a June 14 run-off after winning 45 percent of the vote in the first round of elections in early April. Indeed he has considerably more experience in Afghan politics than his opponent, Ashraf Ghani, the Western-educated former World Bank anthropologist who won 32 percent.
Yet as a member of the political establishment, the real challenge for Abdullah, should he win, will be to bring reform to a nation fraught with corruption, ethnic tension and insecurity. The Taliban has warned voters to stay away from the polls and threatened further attacks.
Decentralizing power in Afghanistan to a more federalist model that would empower provincial and district governments is a large part of Abdullah’s platform. If elected, Abdullah plans to hold a Constitutional Loya Jirga, a meeting of tribal and religious leaders to discuss changing the constitution, he told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in an interview in April.
“Changing the system from a presidential to parliamentary system is part of our political platform,” Abdullah said. “Of course, that can't take place automatically because quite a few things need to be done first.”
Corruption is endemic in Afghanistan. The country is tied for last place, alongside North Korea and Somalia, in Transparency International’s annual corruption perceptions index. As such, promises of reform are common among politicians of all stripes.
“The top candidates have spoken about cleaning up corruption, because that is one of the major challenges facing the country,” said Michael Kugelman, a South Asia researcher at the Washington, D.C.-based Wilson Center, in an interview with the Global Journalist. “How substantive and well-meaning Abdullah’s promises are, we don’t know yet. But he is seen as a relatively clean, well-meaning politician compared to the outgoing government.”
Although knowing how to make deals and how to navigate Afghan patronage networks gives Abdullah an advantage, it does not bode well for bringing change to the country’s governance, said Massoumeh Torfeh, a former director of strategic communications at the United Nations assistance mission in Afghanistan.
“You want to fight corruption, but you have people [in the government] who are known to have broken all the rules,” Torfeh said, in an interview. “It’s difficult for security because these men have their own mafias and their own forces… You cannot tackle these problems with such warlords on the team, but whoever becomes president has to give them good posts, just as Karzai has done for the past 13 years.”
Abdullah, like his opponents, has allied with former warlords. This is seen as a political necessity given that warlords—including those accused of major human rights violations and drug trafficking—have long controlled local governments and security forces. Following the first round of voting, Abdullah aligned himself with Gul Agha Sherzai , a former mujahideen whose terms as governor or Kandahar and Nangarhar provinces were marked by corruption and violence, according to Global Security.
Former Deputy Water Minister Mohammed Ismail Khan and former lawmaker Abdul Wahab Erfan endorsed Abdullah in early June. Khan and Erfan, the former vice-presidential running mates of former mujahideen and warlord Adbul Rasul Sayyaf, gave their endorsement after Sayyaf came in fourth in the first-round vote.
“We’ve entered a period in which any relationship with them is seen as tolerable if it can help politically,” Kugelman said.
In a diverse country such as Afghanistan, these political alliances are often aimed at appealing to members of different ethnicities. Both candidates in the June 14 runoff election have been accused by the Independent Election Commission of stoking ethnic tensions to mobilize voters, Tolo News reported. Abdullah, who is typically identified as a Tajik though he is half-Pashtun, swept the predominately Tajik Northern provinces. Ghani, a Pashtun, did well in the country’s east.
There is some ethnic crossover. About a quarter Pashtun voters indicated support for Abdullah, according to a poll by Langer Research Associates. This matters because the Pashtun, which account for 42 percent of the population, have historically ruled the country and the Taliban draws much of its support from Pashtuns. The endorsements of Pashtuns loyal to Sherzai and Sayyaf will only help the former foreign minister.
Other major issues facing the next Afghan president are security and the economy. As the U.S. plans a troop withdrawal for the end of the year, there is concern that decreased military aid will further weaken the economy and endanger what stability the gradually improving Afghan security force has achieved.
Both Abdullah and Ghani have said they will sign a controversial bilateral security agreement with the U.S., which will allow the continued presence of American and NATO forces in the country. The BSA was negotiated by former President Karzai, but he refused to sign it amidst souring relations with Washington.
With the Afghan economy all but dependent on foreign investment and aid money, the next president must be able to repair relations with its military partners and foreign donors. In this regard, Abdullah is expected to repair frayed relationships with Washington, key for the economy, and with Pakistan, who’s relationship to the Taliban make it a necessary partner in Afghanistan’s security.
“As foreign minister during Karzai’s term he seemed to become very modern and in tune with Western methods,” says Torfeh.
One thing is clear: if elected, Abdullah will need to draw on his survival instincts to negotiate the demands of Afghanistan’s powerful warlords, anxious foreign donors and international military allies. After 12 years of rampant corruption and continuing strife under Karzai, some are at least cautiously optimistic that he will be no worse than the current president.
“Abdullah has been saying all the right things; he will root out corruption, his security forces will target insurgency, he will create jobs,” says Kugelman. “There hasn’t been all that much substance, but he has a lot of experience as a politician and a statesman, and he is in a good position to come up with solutions.