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The Men (and One Woman) Who Might Be Afghanistan's Next President

President Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai essentially just had a Skype breakup. According to The New York Times, the "slowly unraveling" relationship between the two reached a "new low" when Karzai unloaded on Obama in a video conference for negotiating with the Taliban without him. This falling out comes at a fraught moment, just as Obama is finalizing his endgame plans in Afghanistan. He promised earlier this year that military operations would cease by the end of 2014. But now, in a fit of frustration over Karzai, Obama might pull out the troops ahead of schedule—as soon as next summer, the Times says. He is also considering a complete withdrawal, which would not leave behind even a small force to prop up the fragile Afghan state. 

These threats are supposed to exploit Karzai's fear that his government will crumble without U.S. support. The Afghan president has been pressuring Obama for a security deal for 2014 and beyond. One of his key demands is a treaty for the U.S. to defend Afghanistan from any Pakistani aggression. A hasty pullout would tank any such deal. But some analysts say Obama is bluffing. The U.S. wants stability in the region just as much as the Afghans do. And even if Obama is fed up with the petulant, erratic Afghan president, he won't have to deal with him much longer. Karzai, who is term-limited, steps down next spring—at least, he is supposed to.

Next April's presidential election will be a key test for Afghanistan's democracy, and it's yet entirely unclear what will happen, says Vanda Felbab-Brown, a expert on international and internal conflicts at the Brookings Institution who spoke to me from Afghanistan. Obama cannot risk undermining this crucial transition, which is already falling behind schedule and rumored to be in jeopardy. Karzai has repeatedly insisted that he will make a graceful exit, but many still believe that he will try to hold onto power somehow. One way, Felbab-Brown says, would be to cancel or delay the election over security concerns. If next summer the U.S. decides to take the "zero option"—to completely pull out, as it did in Iraq—that would play into his hand. "It would make an even bigger mess," she says.

This is just a conspiracy theory about Karzai, of course, but fears of a bloody election are real. Taliban fighting season begins in the spring and escalates over the summer. The election in summer 2009 that gave Karzai a second term struggled with legitimacy, marred by violence and intimidation at the polls that scared away voters, many of them women. The 2014 election was originally scheduled for April 5, but it's looking likely that it will happen in the summer when the fighting is full throttle. And if the rounds of runoffs take too long they will bump up against the late fall deadline when the mountainous provinces become impassable. To avoid undoing all the progress that Afghanistan has made, Obama has to hold his gaze at the region at least until this process resolves in a new leader, with the real possibility the proceedings could bleed into 2015.

Meanwhile, though the official election date is only nine months away, there are still more rumors in Afghanistan than there are solid contenders. The massive uncertainty over when (and on what terms) the election will take place means that many are still biding their time. "The realistically viable candidates will not become visible until the last minute," says Steve Biddle, a defense expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. "Right now if someone sticks his head above the parapet, he becomes the target of all the fire. It's an interesting game theory problem." Biddle instead expects much of the campaigning in the upcoming months to happen secretly in front of the country's party and tribal leaders, who may try to streamline the election by winnowing a shortlist of candidates. 

Of those power brokers, Karzai is key. Whoever secures his blessing will immediately become a front-runner in the race, probably the leading candidate of the Pashtuns, the majority ethnic group. But waiting around for Karzai to anoint a political heir could take a while. "Karzai is the least likely to come out and back anybody any sooner than he needs to because that makes him an instant lame duck," Biddle says. It's expected that this candidate will eventually come from Karzai's inner clique. Some of the possible candidates are:

Farooq Wardak, the education minister. Wardak was born in Afghanistan but went to college in Pakistan, where he worked for five years as an officer for the United Nations during the Taliban era. Wardak is a divisive figure. He's widely seen as a Taliban apologist, says Ahmad K. Majidyar at the American Enterprise Institute. "He will not get any support from the non-Pashtuns. He's not like Karzai who could get support from all parts of Afghanistan."

Omar Daudzai, the ambassador to Pakistan and Karzai's former chief of staff. Daudzai is said to be one of Karzai's closest confidants, and the posting to the crucial Pakistan job is a sign of the president's favor. Two years ago, Daudzai was caught accepting millions of dollars (bags of cash, literally) from Iran. Karzai later said that Daudzai was acting on his orders. Daudzai has remained comically vague about his intentions to run. “I cannot say that I am a candidate. Also I cannot say that I am not a candidate,” he told a newspaper in Pakistan. 

Qayum Karzai, the president's older brother. The New York Times speculated that Qayum was in the running, and his subsequent un-denial in The Baltimore Sun was laden with expert misdirection: "My decision depends on truly whether I can help, but running for president for the sake of being elected is nonsense in America or Afghanistan. I’m not a politician." Qayum has experience as a legislator in Afghanistan, and has served as an unofficial adviser to younger brother. But mostly, he lives in Maryland as a restauranteur, and owns a string of critically adored Afghan restaurants in Baltimore and Boston

There will also likely be an opposition candidate, probably from the Tajik minority that makes up about 26 percent of the country. Two of the top contenders are:

Abdullah Abdullah, the leader of the largest opposition party and one of Karzai's main rivals. Abdullah came in second place in the 2009 elections where he got as much as 30 percent of the vote during the runoffs. Abdullah, who accused Karzai of vote-rigging in 2009, has said he is disgusted with the political process and might not run in 2014. In a country where ethnicity trumps politics, Abdullah has an advantage in that he is of mixed Pashtun and Tajik ancestry. But most of his support is Tajik, and he has struggled to win over Pashtuns at large.

Atta Muhammad Nur, the wealthy governor of Balkh Province. Nur is the Eddard Stark of Afghanistan, widely admired in the north. He supported Abdullah in the 2009 election, but has not ruled anything out for 2014. With his money and influence, he could easily become a heavyweight contender himself, Majidyar says. But Felbab-Brown says he has little chance with the Pashtuns. She suspects that Nur is waiting for someone to buy him off with a plum position.

Majidyar emphasizes that the political parties in Afghanistan are capricious and alliances can easily fracture. "All these political leaders can be easily bought," he says. "If you just show them your candidate will be a winner, they will happily leave their coalitions and join you." Then there is the distinct possibility that infighting will set in, which would tarnish the legitimacy of an already shaky election. This is why Felbab-Brown thinks that the Afghan party leaders might try to rally around a single consensus candidate. "Karzai himself was a compromise figure," she says. "The most important thing was that he seemed unthreatening to anyone." 

Being chosen as a compromise candidate might be the only chance for a whole host of outsider presidential candidates who lack traditional power bases in the country, though it's still wildly unlikely. These colorful hopefuls include:

Ashraf Ghani, the chairman of the Afghanistan Transition Coordination Commission. Ghani is a respected technocrat who was educated in the West and spent most of his career as an academic in the U.S. He returned to Afghanistan after 9/11 to advise Hamid Karzai but ran against him in 2009, coming in fourth. As the point person for the transition, he holds a crucial job that also sidelines him to an extent and will cramp his campaigning.

Hanif Atmar, the former minister of the Interior who lost a leg as a special ops officer fighting the Mujahideen in the '80s. Atmar remains on bitter terms with Karzai, who fired him in 2010, ostensibly over a security incident. Tough on the Taliban, Atmar had clashed with Karzai daily so his sacking was no surprise. Now he runs his own political party. "People view him as non-corrupt," Majidyar says—which amounts to high praise.

Ramazan Bashardost, a parliamentarian who came in third with about 10 percent of the vote in 2009. Bashardost went to college in France and lived there until 2002. He is Hazara, one of Afghanistan's minor ethnic groups, but was popular among Pashtuns and Tajiks in 2009. Loud, idealistic, and alone, Bashardost is something like the Ralph Nader of Afghanistan. "People love him because he's big on anti-corruption," Majidyar says. "But you need alliances. You need the support of heavyweights."

Shukria Barakzai, a fierce women's rights advocate and member of parliament. Barakzai was a university student when the Taliban took control in 1996. Her family fled but she stayed in Kabul, where she was kicked out of university and forced to wear a burkha. The day the Taliban was ousted, she celebrated by throwing away her burkha. Barakzai is one of the few to have openly announced her candidacy, though she stands no chance. "Afghanistan has not reached a point where they will elect a woman," Majidyar says.

In the coming months, some or all of these characters may step forward. Or they might get bought off one-by-one in backroom deals. It will be delicate balance, Felbab-Brown says. Afghan leaders will try to narrow the field, but any consensus candidate will have to seem harmless to all the major factions. He may be too weak to keep the country together. But if too many titans remain in the race by next spring, the resulting brawl might shake apart the country anyway.

"Hopefully between these two poles there is some solution," she says. Hopefully, there will be elections to fret over in the first place.