360° Analysis

The Unwanted (Part 1/2)


March 24, 2013 14:40 EDT

A Look at the Fractious Upcoming Presidential Election in Afghanistan

On February 15 2013 U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham appeared with Nangarhar Governor Gul Agha Sherzai in a joint press conference to announce the U.S.’s plans to support fair and free Presidential and provincial elections in Afghanistan in 2014. Although it is clear that Afghanistan is the junior partner in the relationship, it was Sherzai’s hulking presence that dominated the room. At over six feet tall and 350 pounds, Sherzai cuts an imposing physical presence, and an imposing political one as well. As Governor of Nangarhar Province, he has made a name for himself as a point man for the Americans and as a sort of political machine boss for the Afghans. He is also a possible candidate for President of Afghanistan in 2014.

Elections are slated to take place in Afghanistan in April 2014. It will be the first time that President Hamid Karzai will be legally barred from running—assuming, that is, that he does not find some way to remain in power. It is widely agreed in foreign policy circles that the winner will be known by January or February, and that the loser of the election will have to leave the country. It is also widely agreed that any serious candidate will have to be a Pashtun. The goal that Cunningham and Sherzai pledged to strive for—“fair and free elections”—is a problematic one, given recent history in Afghanistan. Polls in 2009 and 2010 were marred by serious corruption, falling turnout and a rise in security problems as the Taliban targeted election booths, voters, poll workers and candidates.

The Presidential election of 2009 was a complete fiasco. On September 8 2009 a UN-backed commission in Afghanistan stated that it had found “convincing evidence of fraud” in the election. Although polls closed on August 20, it remained unresolved for two months until, after American cajoling, a run-off vote was announced between Hamid Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah, the diminutive former Afghan Foreign Minister who took in 30% of the vote, while Karzai barely took half. In frustration, Abdullah quit the race before voting began, citing his belief that a fair election could not be held. In a report dated October 21, 2009, issued after the release of the final certified election results for the August 20 vote, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) stated that on Election Day Afghanistan had suffered the highest number of attacks and intimidation the country had seen in some 15 years.

There are many potential candidates for President of Afghanistan. Candidates are already lining up. Some have a serious chance, some don’t. Some are noble, some are corrupt. All represent different dimensions of a complex and rapidly changing Afghanistan.

The rivalry between Karzai’s tribe, the Popalzais, and Sherzai’s tribe, the Barakzais, is the most famous tribal feud in Afghanistan. The Popalzais produced Afghan rulers who dominated from the founding of the Durrani Empire in 1747 until 1818, while the Barakzais ruled Afghanistan from 1826 to 1978. The story of the Karzai family is a long and complicated one. Filled with intrigue, vendetta, scandal, and rivalry, they dominate the political landscape of Afghanistan, and polarize political opinion in the country. The story begins with President Hamid Karzai’s father, Abdul Ahad Karzai. A member of the Pashtun dynasty that founded the modern state of Afghanistan and a native of Kandahar, he served as Deputy Speaker of Afghanistan’s parliament during the 1960’s, under King Zahir Shah. In 1999 he was fatally shot by a motorcyclist as he was returning from evening prayers in Quetta, Pakistan. This led his son Hamid Karzai to throw his support behind the Northern Alliance. Hamid Karzai, educated in India and fluent in several languages, seemed well positioned to win over the international community in his bid to lead Afghanistan. Just prior to the American invasion of Afghanistan, he traveled extensively in Europe and the United States to build support for an anti-Taliban movement. After September 11, the United States prepared to invade Afghanistan. Entering the country almost alone, he was met by a contingent of supporters who protected him from the Taliban and the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI. The loya Jirga of June 13 2002 appointed Karzai as interim President. However, he quickly learned that his power was limited. Derisively called the “Mayor of Kabul” due to the limited reach of his power, Karzai struck out to make deals with local leaders outside of the capitol. This inevitably led to making compromises with corrupt figures, and having to turn a blind eye to drug production, smuggling, crime, and warlords. This was exemplified in 2004, when Karzai refused an international proposal to end poppy production in Afghanistan through the spraying of herbicides.

The actions of his brothers did not help matters, either. Prior to the American invasion, most of Karzai’s siblings were living in the United States. The most prominent member was President Karzai’s half-brother Ahmed Wali Karzai. The most powerful figure in southern Afghanistan, he replaced Sherzai as powerbroker in Kandahar. A balding, stocky man, Ahmed Wali Karzai was officially head of the Provincial Council, but effectively served as governor.  Before the 2009 election, Ahmed Wali Karzai was accused of vote rigging. In addition, he has been accused of being involved in the heroin and opium trade, as well as being a warlord. Ahmed Wali Karzai was seen as Karzai’s right hand man and an indispensable American ally in the south. Containing the insurgency with a Machiavellian ruthlessness, he embodied the contradictions inherent in Afghan politics, at once anti-Taliban yet very corrupt. He had been seen as a potential successor to his brother until one day in July 2011, while leaving the bathroom, one of his bodyguards shot him in the head and in the chest. While the details remain murky, the Taliban claimed credit. This dealt a severe blow to President Karzai’s power, as Ahmed had created a complex network of political and economic influence that reached across Kandahar. President Karzai swiftly appointed his half-brother Shah Wali Karzai as head of Kandahar and the Popalzai tribe. However, Shah Wali has not inspired the fear that Ahmed Wali did.

Another family member is Qayum Karzai, a businessman and sometime Afghan politician who was noted for his poor attendance in Parliament. It has been whispered that President Karzai has been setting the stage for Qayum, who dominates many sectors of the Afghan economy and is supposedly the final word behind cabinet and provincial level appointments in Afghanistan, to succeed him. Also, President Karzai’s brother Mahmoud Karzai renounced his U.S. citizenship in January 2013 to seek political office in Afghanistan. Whether or not that means he is pursuing the presidency remains to be seen. A rather sleazy figure, he was prominent in the near-collapse of Kabul Bank, and is said to have profited handsomely from illegal loans made by the bank.

One cannot talk of potential Afghan Presidential candidates in 2014 without mentioning Gul Agha Sherzai. Nicknamed The Bulldozer for his reputation as a rapid and reliable finisher of construction projects, he was born in 1955 as Shafiq, the son of a struggling café owner. During the American invasion of 2001, he led a force of men across the border from Pakistan to Kandahar to recapture Kandahar City. During his tenure as Governor of Kandahar, Sherzai tried to pit other tribes against each other, which earned President Karzai’s ire. The Popalzai, Karzai’s tribe, was in competition with the Barakzai, Sherzai’s tribe. Sherzai’s maneuvers to bring the Barakzai to prominence, along with allegations of drug trafficking and human rights abuses, led to his sacking in August 2003. He was also probably replaced in order to cement the Karzai family’s hold on power, by installing Ahmed Wali Karzai. In 2004 Sherzai was appointed Governor of Nangarhar Province. Of high importance in this province is access to the Torkham Gate, a border crossing between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and a major supply route for NATO. Building on his reputation as someone who can secure funding for construction projects in his province, Sherzai announced that The United Arab Emirates (UAE) pledged to invest 100 million dollars for building a trade port in the Torkham border town in eastern Nangarhar. This comes after a meeting of the UAE delegation with Sherzai. Sherzai had asked the visiting officials to encourage their companies to invest capital at the Torkham dry port. Sherzai has also been known to take “tolls” (read: shakedown money) at Torkham and use the money to both line his pockets, dole it out as patronage, and spend it on construction projects in his province. So far, Sherzai has shown himself to be a canny politician, able to act as an American ally while reaching out to the local police and tribes in Nangarhar.

A cable from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul sent on August 10 2009 states: “We will try to leverage his (Sherzai’s) ambitions for national power and his desire for respect, both domestically and internationally, to help us guide our agenda to separate the population from the AAF (Afghan Air Force), connect the people to the government, and transform Nangarhar to positive effect.” A further sign that Sherzai has national ambitions was his establishment in early 2009 of a commission for negotiations with the Taliban.

In the end, Sherzai is a mixed bag. Although skilled at doling out patronage, he is not particularly bright. He governed Kandahar prior to the Taliban’s rise in the 1990’s, and his tenure was marred by corruption and incompetence on a level heinous even by Afghan standards. Sherzai’s actions caused him and his cronies to be routed from Kandahar City by the Taliban, cheered on by throngs of grateful Afghans. “He’s the biggest detriment to good governance in Nangrahar,” said Lt. Col. Martin Willmarth in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, “I wish we could get rid of him.” Indeed, Sherzai has been accused of freeing Taliban prisoners, extortion, and smuggling cash earned from mafia-linked activity. Hardly presidential fiber—unless one takes a look at what Karzai has done, as we already have.

Read the final part of "The Unwanted" on April 03, 2013. 

 The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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