Late last month, Afghan President Hamid Karzai received the blueprints for a new home he hopes to occupy in 2014, vacating his official residence at the Arg — the royal citadel built in 1880 after British troops levelled the historic Bala Hisar Fort. There appears to a blueprint for little else concerning the country’s looming political transition, though — least of all the critical question of who might move into the Arg once Mr. Karzai leaves.
Even as the first snow of the winter falls on the Hindu Kush mountains, Mr. Karzai’s opponents are huddled together in Kabul to shape the course of the 2014 presidential election, the last that will be held before western troops leave the country.
They are facing up to a bizarre reality: the next President may be picked to represent Afghans who don’t vote — not those who do.
“For all of us,” says key Opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah, “the challenge is to ensure the integrity of the political system and the legitimacy of government after 2014. That will be the key to Afghanistan’s future.”
Leading the race to represent Afghanistan’s southern Pashtun tribes in the Arg are two men who cut their political teeth trying to kill each other: Muhammad Umar Daudzai, now Afghanistan’s Ambassador to Pakistan, and Hanif Atmar, Mr. Karzai’s former Interior Minister.
Mr. Daudzai was a member of the Hizb-e Islami militia of Islamist warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, elements of which still battle the government. Mr. Atmar lost his leg fighting the Hizb-e Islami during the savage 1987 battle of Jalalabad when he was serving in Afghanistan’s communist-era intelligence service, the Khidmat-e Etelaat-e Dawlati.
For both men, their élite ethnic-Pashtun credentials are key. Even though an estimated 48 per cent of Afghanistan’s population now lives in its relatively secure cities, few are likely to vote in the insurgency-hit southern and eastern countryside. In 2009, voter turnout was independently estimated at just 30 per cent; this time around, it will almost certainly be lower.
Ensuring the new President enjoys nationwide legitimacy means picking a candidate who speaks for ethnic-Pashtun dominated southern and eastern Afghanistan.
The former Afghan Foreign Minister, Abdullah, who picked up 31.8 per cent of the vote to Mr. Karzai’s 47.48 in the 2009 elections, leads arguably the most powerful of these northern formations. Backed by key Opposition ideologue Yunus Qanuni, Mr. Abdullah represents the most visible political face of the pre-9/11 anti-Taliban resistance.
There are other influential contenders. Ahmad Zia Masood, brother of anti-Taliban commander Ahmad Shah Masood, in alliance with the Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, has a powerful rival block. The cerebral former Afghan intelligence chief, Amrullah Saleh, constitutes a third pole.
Ethnic Hazaras, a traditionally underprivileged community who have leveraged post-9/11 aid to emerge as one of Afghanistan’s most dynamic and educated communities, will also play a key role. Hazara leaders like Muhammad Mohaqiq —whose predecessor Abdul Ali Mazari was stripped, mutilated and dropped to his death from a helicopter by the Taliban in 1995 — have been bitterly critical of Mr. Karzai’s efforts to seek peace with the Pakistan-based jihadist group.
Mr. Daudzai, Mr. Karzai’s former chief of staff, hopes his Hizb-e Islami connections will help him position himself as a buffer between the Taliban and the north. He has also, sources in the President’s staff say, received informal assurances from both Pakistan and Iran of their support for his candidacy. In 2010, The New York Times alleged that he was the manager of an Iran-funded slush fund for Mr. Karzai, which was used to bribe “Afghan lawmakers, tribal elders and even Taliban commanders to secure their loyalty.”
Mr. Atmar, who was Interior Minister until he was sacked by Mr. Karzai in 2010, also hopes his anti-Taliban credentials will make him acceptable to the powerful political groupings of the north.
A welter of second-string candidates hopes to cash in if these two heavyweights fail. The former United States Ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, and scholars Ashraf Ghani and Ali Jalali are exploring the possibility of securing opposition backing for a presidential bid. So is Mr. Karzai’s brother, Abdul Qayyum Karzai.
Last week, Mr. Karzai initiated meetings intended to hammer out the terms of the political transition. Mr. Abdullah Abdullah led a delegation of 21 parties — five of them in government — to seek guarantees of a fair election. Mr. Ahmad Zia Masood, held a similar dialogue.
“No one knows just where the pieces are going to fall,” a senior Afghan politician told The Hindu, “but for the first time since 9/11, a serious dialogue between political actors inside the country has begun. We can only hope all of us show the wisdom that is needed to go forward.”