Interview with Afghanistan presidential front runner Abdullah Abdullah

The day before 9/11, Abdullah Abdullah had almost given up hope: his mentor, Afghan resistance leader Ahmad Shah Masood had been assassinated; the Taliban was battering down the last walls of opposition. In the years since, though, he became one of the architects of the new Afghanistan that emerged, serving as its Foreign Minister. Later, however, he fell out with President Hamid Karzai and has emerged as a key opposition leader. In the 2009 elections, characterised by large-scale malpractice, Mr. Abdullah came in second. This time around, he hopes to the front runner, though some commentators believe the perception that he is not Pashtun — he is in fact of mixed Pashtun and Tajik heritage — will cost him votes in an ethnically-divided society. Excerpts from an interview given to Praveen Swami, where Mr. Abdullah spoke on his assessments of the prospects for Afghanistan’s upcoming elections.

Looking at events as they are unfolding, are you confident presidential elections will be held in 2014, and how confident are you they will be fair?

The concerns are there; they are real. The first priority is that elections be held on time, in the early months of 2014. There is no doubt they will be very different elections. The security situation, of course, is one obvious concern. Then, there is the fact that large parts of the country will still be in the grip of winter when elections are held. Finally, the kinds of electoral reforms we had hoped for have not occurred. We hope, though, that the electoral bodies, and the Electoral Complaints Commission, understand how enormous their responsibilities are. This is not just an election to choose a President, but to build a democratic Afghanistan.

The pre-election situation will obviously become more complicated if the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States is not signed soon. There are even fears that the International Security Assistance Force may then pull out before the elections, and that western aid might be cut sharply.

Whatever President Karzai’s reasons are for not signing the BSA — and I think they are not the stated reasons, but personal ones, which I do not want to go into — I do not feel what he is doing is in the interests of the country. Let us face it: there is no ideal agreement that will satisfy all the desires of the Afghan people, and there will not be an ideal agreement tomorrow. To say, as President Karzai is saying, ‘let the United States bring peace today and we will sign’ is meaningless. The negotiations were done; a text agreed on. To question the merit of signing it now will obviously generate a lot of concern, and the Afghan people are paying the costs. Food and fuel prices have shot up on panic buying. The little money investors were bringing in has been put on hold. Now, because this element of uncertainty about the post-2014 situation has been gratuitously injected on this situation, there is even volatility.

There have been some fears that in addition to all these problems, ethnic tensions are mounting, and that the election may end up contributing to the fragmentation of the nation. Do you share these concerns?

There are some people who want exactly this to happen. There are people who are instigating violence through hate speech, which inevitably provokes a response, pre-planned or spontaneous. I am not, however, concerned about the people. Afghans have learned that national unity is the key to our survival. So, while there are efforts to incite tensions, I think there is also a deep wisdom among the people, which will prevail.

A year ago, there were hopes that the election process would become more inclusive with the reconciliation process, which hoped to bring the Taliban, or a section of them, on board. Is there still any life in these hopes?

Whatever our desires or wishes might be, I do not see that the elements are there to make peace with the Taliban. While we should keep doing whatever is needed to work towards peace, realistically, the prospects of the desired outcome are not high.

Do you think, therefore, the election will be marred by violence? There are all kinds of conflicting reports on the reach of the Taliban.

It is how you look at these reports — the truth is that there are improvements in the security situation in some areas, and setbacks in others. I should candidly say that, yes, there are risks. It would be highly misleading if we say there is no security risk to the elections. Hopefully, though, with the joint efforts of the Afghan security forces and the people, we can have a good election.

Finally, in your view, is greater Indian involvement in Afghanistan something that is desirable, or does it hinder things by getting Pakistan’s back up?

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s government has sent the right signals and used the right words. I’m not going to be quick to judge though about what this means, but it is always good to hope for the best. Now, I think it is in Pakistan’s best interests to help stabilise the situation in Afghanistan. They cannot, for this, claim a veto over Afghanistan’s relationship with India. It is for Afghanistan and India to decide what their relationship should be like. It is for Afghanistan and Pakistan to decide what their relationship should be like.

praveen.swami@thehindu.co.in

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