Afghanistan’s Presidential Contenders:
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
By Michael Hughes
The coming presidential election in April 2014 could be a seminal moment for the people of Afghanistan. Will a new leader emerge who can shine a light on a potential path to stability? Or will another corrupt despot seize the reins and plunge Afghanistan further into darkness? Most of the eleven presidential candidates lack the requisite acumen and character to navigate Afghanistan through a post-NATO era likely to be marked by civil war and economic malaise. The roster is stacked with the same old warlords, jihadist extremists, corrupt politicos and yet another Karzai kleptocrat. However, there is at least one candidate with the wherewithal to potentially steer Afghanistan into the right direction. He represents a ray of hope for a number of reasons, not the least of which being that he springs from the royal bloodline.
Take, for instance, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, a crony of Osama bin Laden whose brand of radical Islam inspired a Philippine-based terrorist outfit to such a degree it named the group after him. The 9/11 Commission Report named Sayyaf as the ‘‘mentor’’ of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the principal architect of the 9/11 attacks. Although he adheres to the same tenets as the Taliban, because he turned on them after the 2001 invasion the West esteems him as an untouchable ally. Even more horrific is the fact he is considered a credible contender for the throne, yet another jihadi warlord with enough money and power to manipulate the electoral machinery to his favor.
Another potential frontrunner is Abdullah Abdullah, a member of the former Northern Alliance who nearly defeated Karzai in the previous election. It is hard to believe an Abdullah presidency would usher in an era of reform considering, if elected, he would seat two warlords as his vice presidents. More importantly, his ticket symbolizes a return to the ugly years of civil war in the 1990s which made conditions ripe for the rise of the Taliban. Then there is the rapacious Gul Agha Sherzai, a former provincial governor who used to drive to work in a tank. He is well known for his penchant for imprisoning and torturing adversaries along with his skill at skimming money off development projects.
Another sinister yet very real possibility is president Karzai’s brother, Qayum, a predatory power broker who runs entire industries in Afghanistan like a mob boss while sitting in his home in Maryland. hpw He has forcefully driven competitors out of business and even tried to have one business rival assassinated. Qayum’s bid has been an unspoken subplot of the recent standoff between Hamid Karzai and the U.S. over the consummation of a long-term security agreement. Karzai sees the agreement as his last ounce of leverage to convince the Americans to support his efforts to essentially name an heir via the same type of brazen electoral chicanery that allowed him to prevail in 2009.
Ashraf Ghani certainly has the technocratic credentials to be a decent leader yet, assuming a free and fair election, he would struggle in shaking the stigma of being aligned with the Karzai administration. And, unfortunately, he announced that one of Afghanistan’s most notorious warlords, Rashid Dostum, would be one of his running mates, a fateful decision Ghani sees as a necessary evil. Less than five years after describing Dostum as a “killer,” Ghani explained to AFP his selection in the most Machiavellian of terms: “Politics is not a love marriage, politics is a product of historic necessities.”
Given that most of the tickets are laden with warlords, Prince Nadir Naim’s campaign seems like a breath of fresh air. The 48-year-old prince is the grandson of King Zahir Shah, the famous king who presided over a 40-year era of stability, which was shattered by the outbreak of a superpower proxy war in the 1970s. Prince Nadir is running on the populist premise that he represents “the voice of the silent majority,” while claiming that he is uniquely qualified to heal the country’s ethnosectarian divide.
He is one of the few politicians who dare to venture through the streets of Afghanistan without an entourage of bodyguards and armored vehicles. The prince not only has the advantage of pedigree, he also has an unblemished reputation, hands free of blood and the critical support of tribal elders in the south and east who remember Zahir Shah’s tranquil reign with fondness.
The prince may be unproven and may lack the political battle scars worn by his more hardened rivals and there is certainly a ton of risk in putting an unknown into office as Afghanistan still struggles with internecine warfare, poverty, extremism, Pakistani meddling and a booming drug trade. Yet, if he is anywhere near as sincere and capable as his grandfather and is honest about serving the Afghan people, he will likely do much better than the other ten candidates who have a long track record of not serving anyone but themselves.