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Abdullah vs. Karzai

A long and twisted saga of alliance and betrayal, 30 years in the making.

Kabul, Afghanistan 

The spectacle of Afghanistan’s presidential elections seems to be finally entering its final act. Pulling out of the runoff race at the last minute, Abdullah Abdullah has cleared the way for Hamed Karzai to be the winner by default. 

Both men appear to have achieved many, if not all, of their original goals. Karzai, of course, has retained his seat for another five years. Abdullah, the underdog, has denied Karzai the much-needed legitimacy that a second round of voting was supposed to confer. Now the Afghan president will be serving under the cloud created by the massive fraud that characterized the first round of voting in August.

Is Abdullah’s latest ploy just a shrewd way to undermine Karzai--and force the president to offer him a post as way to establish the new government’s credibility? While there are still rumors that the two may join in some sort of power-sharing arrangement, neither man seems disposed to discuss the possibility for cooperation. Their present face-off is just the latest chapter in a long and twisted saga of alliance and betrayal between the two, spanning nearly 30 years. 

The beginning of Afghanistan’s modern history can arguably be pegged to the Soviet invasion in 1979, when Moscow tried to restore order to the factionalized country. The Soviet offensive sparked the mujaheddin movement--bands of “holy warriors” dedicated to expelling the infidel occupiers from Afghan soil. During that period, Abdullah was the right-hand man of legendary commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, military leader of one of the seven mujaheddin parties, Jamiat-e-Islami. Massoud’s men were based in the Panjshir Valley, from which they conducted operations against the Soviets and defended the all-important Salang Pass, which connects northern Afghanistan to Kabul and which was the Soviets’ main supply route. 

Karzai was the charming, Westernized face of one the less militant parties, headed by Sibghatullah Mojadeddi, who spent more time in diplomatic circles than on the front lines. Karzai was involved in cultivating international contacts, raising money, and forging friendships. He was perceived as a “lightweight” by the more militant groups, which included Jamiat-e-Islami, according to Pakistani writer Ahmad Rashid. When today’s mujaheddin talk proudly of their role in saving the motherland, it is Abdullah who stands a bit straighter, not Karzai. 

After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 and the eventual collapse of the communist government in 1992, the situation rapidly deteriorated. Karzai joined the mujaheddin government, which was dominated by Jamiat-e-Islami, but he was not trusted by the battle-tested warriors. In 1994, he was arrested and interrogated by security chief Mohammad Qasim Fahim on suspicion of being a spy for Pakistani intelligence. He barely escaped with his life, and did so only because a rocket tore the building apart as he was being beaten. (This is the same Fahim who is now Karzai’s first vice-president; politics in Afghanistan does indeed make strange bedfellows.) 

Karzai spent the rest of the 1990s in Pakistan, where he flirted with the Taliban, largely in reaction to his treatment at the hands of the mujaheddin government. He gave them money and weapons, and briefly entertained the notion of becoming the Taliban envoy to the United Nations. But by the end of the 1990s, he firmly opposed the fundamentalists, who, he insisted, were increasingly under the thumb of foreign groups such as Al Qaeda. 

Abdullah, who stayed with Massoud throughout the civil war years of the 1990s, barely conceals his impatience with those who escaped the brunt of the violence by hiding out in Pakistan. But by 2001, when it came time to form the interim government, Abdullah was willing to put differences aside and support Karzai. “Karzai is a man who shares our vision of building a modern, stable Afghanistan and creating a multi-ethnic government,” he said in late 2001. “We trust Karzai, he is a patriot who will put Afghanistan first, rather than his clan, his tribe, or his ethnic group.” 

Though Karzai did form a multi-ethnic government, it was far from successful. He enraged many of his countrymen by appointing some of the most hated civil war figures. To many Afghans who lived through the chaotic and violent 1990s, when rape, robbery, even murder were common, these warlords were even more unpopular than the reviled Taliban officials that they were replacing. Karzai was seen as a prisoner of the Northern Alliance--the group of warriors whose predations caused untold misery in the country during the mujaheddin government. It was Karzai’s “warlord cabinet” that first diminished him in the eyes of his constituency. 

The tensions between the various factions kept Karzai’s government unfocused, unstable, and unable to accomplish much. Fahim, for example, became the Minister of Defense, and promptly staffed his offices with cronies from the Panjshir. They were unable to work with the Pashtuns, who dominated the police, and clashes were frequent. Abdullah became the foreign minister, taking his turn to woo the West as the charming diplomat. But he and Karzai disagreed over policy, and in 2006 the two parted ways. 

Abdullah’s candidacy was always a long shot. The prospect of an Abdullah presidency may have seemed attractive to some Western observers, impressed by his soft Italian leather jackets, sharp suits, fluent English, and polished manners. But to many Afghans, he is anathema, still the face and the voice of the Northern Alliance. Even during the recent election campaign, Abdullah traded heavily on his mujaheddin past: Election posters showed a young Abdullah side-by-side with Massoud in the Panjshir Valley, brave soldiers repelling the Soviet invader. An Abdullah victory would very likely have provoked a major backlash in the Pashtun south, where Massoud and his cohorts are almost universally reviled. 

Karzai was the overwhelming favorite from the beginning. Given the ethnic and political realities of Afghanistan, Karzai the Pashtun was destined to triumph over Abdullah the Panjsheri Tajik, regardless of the latter’s claim to a Pashtun father with roots in Kandahar. But by depriving Karzai of a chance to redeem himself with a strong showing in a second round, Abdullah has ensured that the stigma of the August elections will shadow Karzai for the length of his presidency. 

If Karzai, in search of national unity, offers a role to Abdullah in the new government, their partnership will most probably be short and tense. Abdullah is unlikely to make much progress on his one concrete political proposal to date--the limitation of presidential powers by creating a parliamentary system--considering that Karzai’s main priority since taking offices seems to have been defending his executive powers. 

There is little chance that Karzai would suffer a strong competitor in his ranks for very long. As interim president after the American invasion, Karzai systematically drove out anyone who did not agree with him or who challenged his power. One of them was Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, who held the post of finance minister from 2002 to 2004 and who can legitimately be credited with creating the post-9/11 structure of Afghanistan. (Ghani came in fourth place during the recent elections.) Based on his own experience, Ghani told me that any attempt at power-sharing is doomed to failure. “Karzai will make it impotent within three months,” he said.

Jean MacKenzie is the director of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting in Afghanistan and reports for GlobalPost News.