Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghan Presidential Candidates 2014

Who's who in the April 5 election.
  • Voting in Mazar-e Sharif in the 2010 parliamentary election. (Photo: Majid Saeedi/Getty Images. © Getty Images)
    Voting in Mazar-e Sharif in the 2010 parliamentary election. (Photo: Majid Saeedi/Getty Images. © Getty Images)

Many of the candidates running for president on April 5 are familiar faces in Afghan politics, as are some of the people they have nominated for the post of vice-president. 

As of March 27, the list stood at eight candidates, after Abdul Rahim Wardak, Qayyum Karzai and Mohammad Nader Naim dropped out.

Each candidate has named two running-mates, one for the post of first vice-president and the other as second vice-president. These choices are tactical, designed to appeal to different constituencies than the candidates’ own, in a country where regional, ethnic and political affiliations matter.

Here are profiles of the candidates, ordered as they appear on the Independent Election Commission’s official list.


Abdullah Abdullah

Abdullah Abdullah

A former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah came second in the 2009 presidential election with more than 30 per cent of the vote but withdrew from a head-to-head runoff with the incumbent Hamed Karzai, claiming he lacked confidence that the ballot would be free and fair.

(Photo: US embassy Kabul/Flickr)

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Born in 1959, Abdullah is a trained ophthalmologist who left Afghanistan in 1985 to work for a refugee hospital in Pakistan. Shortly afterwards, he joined the Jamiat-e Islami faction and became a senior aide to its military commander Ahmed Shah Massoud.

Abdullah was in charge of foreign affairs for the shadow government led by Burhanuddin Rabbani in northern Afghanistan in 1999-2001, and became foreign minister in the post-Taleban administration.

Leaving government in 2006, he moved into opposition and became leader of the National Coalition of Afghanistan.

As Massoud’s spokesman, Abdullah worked closely with international journalists, and in the period after 2001, he was often interviewed as he is fluent in French and English.

Abdullah is half-Tajik and half-Pashtun, and he has chosen Hazara and Pashtun politicians as his first and second vice-presidents in the event that he wins. The former is Hajji Mohammad Mohaqeq, a former commander from the Hezb-e Wahdat faction, made up of Shia Hazaras. His second vice-president would be Mohammad Khan, a Pashtun formerly with Hezb-e Islami.

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Mohammad Daud Sultanzoi

Mohammad Daud Sultanzoi

Mohammad Daud Sultanzoi is a Pashtun from Ghazni province. When Soviet troops entered Afghanistan in 1979, he was working as a pilot for the national carrier Ariana, and diverted his plane to Germany. He settled in California and spent 22 years as a pilot for United Airlines.

(Photo: Mohammad Daud Sultanzoi’s Facebook page)

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After 2001, Sultanzoi returned to Afghanistan and became involved in politics as head of the Grup-e Mustaqel (Independent Group). In 2005, he was elected to represent Ghazni province in parliament, serving as chairman of the economics committee where he championed the free market. He lost his seat in the 2010 election, and went on to host a popular weekly chat show on TOLOnews television.

Fluent in English, Sultanzoi is seen as a moderate technocrat who worked hard to get out the female vote in previous elections, and has emphasised the importance of democratic institutions.

His choice of first vice-president is Farid Ahmad Fazli, a Tajik, with university teacher Kazima Mohaqeq, a Hazara, as his second. 

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Mohammad Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai

Mohammad Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai

Ashraf Ghani is a former anthropology professor and World Bank executive who has done extensive work on rebuilding nation states. Following the defeat of the Taleban in 2001, he served as special advisor to United Nations envoy Lakhdar Brahimi and helped draw up the Bonn Agreement that shaped structures for the new Afghan state. He went on to serve as finance minister in the transitional government.

(Photo: US embassy Kabul/Flickr)

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He stood in the 2009 presidential election and came fourth.

Currently chairman of the Institute of State Effectiveness, which he founded in 2005, he was recently ranked second in the Prospect magazine’s World Thinkers list.

As well as being a technocrat, Ashraf Ghani is a member of an influential family within the Ahmadzai, a powerful Pashtun tribe. His brother Hashmat Ghani is a tribal leader and heads the council of Afghan nomadic tribes; he too wanted to run for president but was disqualified in October.

Ashraf Ghani has defended himself against the perception that lacks the ability to connect with voters, telling Al-Jazeera that he was “immersed” in Afghanistan and shunned the kind of heavy security that would cut him off from ordinary people.

His choice of first vice-president is a prime example of the kind of coalition-building that candidates have resorted to. In this case, though, the presence of Uzbek strongman Abdul Rashid Dostum on the ballot paper could also alienate many voters, given his role in past conflicts. Sarwar Danish, a former justice minister of Hazara background, is Ashraf Ghani’s second choice.

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Qutbuddin Hilal

Qutbuddin Hilal

Running as an independent, Qutbuddin Hilal is the only candidate not to have served in any post-2001 Afghan government. Instead, he comes from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e Islami, a group that is still fighting alongside the Taleban.

(Photo: Mina Habib)

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From Khost province in the southeast, Hilal was imprisoned in the notorious Pul-e-Charkhi prison during the Soviet era before fleeing to Pakistan. He served in senior positions in Hekmatyar’s mujahedin faction. Some time after 2001, he broke with the insurgency and backed the Karzai administration, and had two brief spells as deputy prime minister. 

Hilal is in favour of an Islamic system government and peace talks with all insurgent groups.

President Karzai has held up Hilal’s inclusion in the list as proof that people of all political affiliations have an opportunity to participate.

Hilal’s vice-presidents are Inayatullah Inayat and Mohammad Ali Nabizada, of Uzbek and Tajik origin, respectively.

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Gul Agha Sherzai

Gul Agha Sherzai

Born to Mohammad Shafiq in Kandahar province in 1954, Sherzai joined his father to become a mujahedin commander fighting against the government in the latter part of President Najibullah’s rule.

(Photo: Sgt Jennifer Cohen/US Army photo)

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Sherzai was governor of Kandahar from 1992 until the Taleban captured the province in 1994. After years in exile in Pakistan, Sherzai returned in 2001 to lead an assault on Kandahar supported by United States forces.

He was reinstalled as Kandahar governor, but after accusations of collusion with local drug lords and embezzled government funds, he was moved to serve as public works and transport minister in Kabul. In 2004, he was appointed governor of Nangarhar province, where he remained until resigning to run for election.

In a recent interview with TOLOnews, he stressed the importance of a continuing security alliance with the US.

Sherzai’s choice of running-mates reflects a desire to reach out beyond his own Pashtun constituency. His first vice-president is Hazara politician Sayed Mohammad Hussain Alimi Balkhi, and an Uzbek, Mohammad Hashim Zarea, is his second.

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Zalmai Rasul

Zalmai Rasul

Zalmai Rasul is a medical doctor by training who worked for the exiled monarch Zahir Shah and returned to Afghanistan in 2002.

(Photo: Master Sgt Michael O’Connor/US Air Force)

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A former National Security Advisor to President Hamed Karzai, Rasul remains a close ally and has accompanied him on all official visits since the interim government was established in 2001.

Fluent in several European languages, Rasul was appointed foreign minister in 2010, resigning in order to run in the 2014 election.

Rasul told the Wall Street Journal recently that his team would publish a programme for driving the Afghan peace process forward, as security was a prerequisite to economic progress, democracy and better living standards.

A Pashtun himself, he has recruited a well-known Tajik figure, and a Hazara who is one of the two female nominees for vice-president in this election. As his first vice-president, he has Ahmad Zia Massoud, head of the National Front party and brother of the late Ahmad Shah Massoud. Habiba Sarobi is former governor of Bamian province, the Hazara heartland in central Afghanistan.

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Abdul Rabb Rasul Sayyaf

Abdul Rabb Rasul Sayyaf, Ismail Khan, Abdul Wahhab Irfan

Sayyaf is the only candidate who was at the head of one of the old mujahedin factions. In his case it was Ittehad-e Islami, a smallish group that punched above its weight with Saudi financial backing. In the civil war of the early 1990s, Ittehad was one of several armed factions accused of war crimes in battles that shredded Kabul.

(Photo: Mina Habib. Sayyaf is on the left, with Ismail Khan (centre) and Abdul Wahhab Irfan.)

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A Pashtun from Kabul province, Sayyaf was educated at Cairo’s al-Azhar university and is seen as a religious conservative. Despite sharing much of their outlook, he and the emerging Taleban never took to each other, and he retreated to join the Northern Alliance when the new movement took Kabul in 1996.

After 2001, he turned Ittehad-e Islami into a political party called Tanzim-e Dawat-e Islami. Despite consistently opposing womens’ rights legislation in the past, he recently allowed himself to be photographed with female lawmakers and now says he will protect women’s rights.

His running mates are Ismail Khan, the once-powerful governor of Herat province. A religious conservative like Sayyaf, Ismail Khan might appeal to a non-Pashtun electorate in western Afghanistan. If he was elected, Sayyaf’s second vice-president would be Abdul Wahhab Irfan, a theologian and elected politician who is an Uzbek from Takhar province.

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Hedayat Amin Arsala

Abdul Rabb Rasul Sayyaf, Ismail Khan, Abdul Wahhab Irfan

From an influential Kabul family, Hedayat Amin Arsala is a technocrat, a successful economist who became the first Afghan to join the World Bank in 1969 and spent 18 years working there.

(Photo: US embassy Kabul/Flickr)

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In 1987, he joined the mujahedin fighting against the Soviet occupation, as a leading member of the National Islamic Front (Mahaz-e Milli-ye Islami), a faction led by Pir Sayed Ahmed Gailani.

He became foreign minister in the mujahedin government formed in 1992, resigning in 1995 as the various factions in the coalition fought each other in a bitter civil war.

He took part in the Bonn Conference that shaped post-Taleban Afghanistan, and then served first as vice-president and finance minister under Hamed Karzai and later as trade and industry minister. Arsala is well respected abroad as the author of a number of economic reforms.

As his choice of first vice-president, he has nominated former defence ministry chief-of-staff General Khodaidad, a Hazara with a military background. His second choice is Kabul university lecturer Safia Seddiqi, a Pashtun and one of only two women nominated for a vice-presidential post in this election.

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