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

Karzai's Biggest Gamble

By dropping a minister of defence as his first vice president, President Hamed Karzai has made the job of winning re-election and keeping the peace in the country even harder.
By Peter Eichstaedt

The blaring voices of the mullah’s morning call to prayers had barely faded when armoured vehicles of the coalition forces thundered down the congested streets of Kabul on July 27 and took strategic positions throughout the city.

It was the day after interim President Harmed Karzai had announced his long-awaited candidacy for the country’s highest office. But something had gone wrong.

Instead of naming Defence Minister Marshal Mohammed Fahim - a man considered to be Afghanistan’s most powerful warlord - as his choice for vice president, Karzai chose the little-known brother of the late Afghan resistance hero Ahmad Shah Massoud to be his chief running mate.

Because foreign forces were already on edge due to a recent spate of rocket attacks in the capital, they took to the streets following Karzai’s announcement as a precautionary measure.

Karzai’s announcement sent shock waves across the country as people in this war-weary country realised that Karzai had finally drawn a line in the sand and distanced himself from the cadre of Afghanistan’s warlords who still command private armies that outmatch the fledgling Afghan National Army.

Only a week earlier, Karzai had warned that the militia commanders, who so far have refused to disarm their troops, posed a greater threat to the future security of the country than the Taleban.

As defence minister, Fahim commands the national army and is the country’s first vice president. But he is also in charge of an extensive network of heavily armed private battalions posted across northern Afghanistan, including some in the capital of Kabul.

Fahim’s reputation is well known. After taking over as the leader of the Northern Alliance when the popular and charismatic Massoud was assassinated just two days before the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York, Fahim went on to rout the Taleban with the help of US forces.

Fahim was considered by most to be Karzai’s clear choice and a necessary ally to counter the country’s two other notorious warlords: Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum in the north and Ismail Khan of the western province of Herat.

Karzai has taken a large gamble by naming Ahmad Zia Massoud, a relative unknown who has been Afghanistan’s ambassador to Russia, to run as his first vice president. He also named Karim Khalili, a leader of the ethnic Hazaras, to run as second vice president. The Hazaras are the country’s third largest ethnic group behind the Pashtuns of the south and the Tajiks of the north.

While these moves have played well in the West, they did little to reassure residents here who have already survived nearly 25 years of constant warfare,

People remember that it was the warlords, still known as the jihadi commanders, who ousted the Russians in a US-backed, 10-year war during the 1980s. It was the jihadi commanders who decimated the country during a protracted civil war in the early 1990s. It was the jihadi commanders who battled the Taleban during the late 1990s and eventually emerged victorious in 2002.

No one expects the jihadi forces or their leaders to go away, and they haven't.

In an 11th hour declaration, Karzai’s education minister, Yunus Qanuni, resigned his post and announced his candidacy for president, letting it be known that he enjoyed the unqualified backing of Fahim. Qanuni also quickly picked up the support of Foreign Minister Abdullah.

General Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek, also announced his candidacy.

Karzai is the clear and popular favourite for this election. In the minds of most people, he is associated with keeping a general peace and improving conditions of the past two years.

But this relative calm is being maintained by the presence of US and NATO forces that occupy the capital and can be seen daily patrolling the city and surrounding countryside.

Across the north, which is dominated by the ethnic Tajik and Uzbeks, coalition forces have a minimal presence consisting of highly fortified outposts of several hundred soldiers who work with civilian contractors on provincial reconstruction teams. These teams perform small reconstruction projects or provide security for others involved in aid work.

Enforcing the relative calm is the presence of US and coalition forces that occupy the capital and can be seen daily patrolling the city and surrounding countryside.

The bulk of the US military, some 20,000 strong, is concentrated in the south-eastern provinces and along the remote and rugged mountainous border with Pakistan. Here, the Taleban actively engages US forces, regularly inflicting casualties and attacking government buildings and civilians.

Less than a month ago, suspected Taleban militia murdered a dozen Afghanis at a makeshift checkpoint in the south central mountains because they were carrying voter registration cards. The Taleban has vowed to disrupt the election.

In the recent weeks, the intensity of such attacks has increased, underscoring serious doubts that Karzai can control this factious country and emphasising the fragile nature of the calm that hovers over most of the country.

In the north, which is generally considered the safest region, 11 Chinese road workers were recently slaughtered as they slept in their tents at night. The Taleban was immediately blamed, but further investigation revealed that a local commander, infuriated that he did not receive the lucrative road-building contract, may have been responsible.

Three doctors and two Afghan workers with the French-based Doctors Without Borders were killed when their vehicle was destroyed while on the road to provide medical care to remote villages. The incident has prompted the organisation to permanently withdraw from Afghanistan, citing faulty security and an inept investigation into the incident.

Last week, two election workers were killed, including one UN election worker and one Afghan, as they registered voters in a mosque in the city of Ghazni, south of Kabul.

Karzai must answer why, after more than two years, coalition forces have been unable to root out remnants of the Taleban, who daily inflict casualties on the military, foreign aid workers and local civilians whose only crime has been to register to vote.

Karzai is an ethnic Pashtun, which is the dominant group in the southern half of the country. While this may help attract that ethnic vote, many in the south, where the Taleban and other anti-coalition forces are active, see Karzai as a coalition puppet and foreign presence as something to be resisted.

As his first vice president, Ahmad Zia Massoud could bring Karzai a portion of the ethnic Tajik vote in the north. But that is doubtful. Qanuni also has strong Tajik backing from the north.

Karzai’s second vice president, Khalili, is the leader of the Shiite faction of another political party, Hizb-e-Wahdat, which was part of the Northern Alliance. His faction has been accused of committing atrocities during Afghanistan’s civil war in the early 1990s.

Less than a day after Karzai’s announcement, Human Rights Watch condemned the nomination, saying “it’s not in Karzai’s interest or the interest of the Afghan people to have candidates for office who may be implicated in serious human rights abuses”.

Despite the clear and active support from Washington, Karzai now appears to be standing alone and in opposition to some of the most powerful political and military figures in Afghanistan.

By isolating himself from the country’s political and military leaders, he has fractured his power base and significantly altered the fragile balance of power that has kept the peace in this highly factionalised country.

With Fahim’s backing, Qanuni represents a serious and formidable force in the political landscape. He also stands squarely on a traditional and non-foreign Afghan power base.

Afghanistan leaders have a habit of shifting alliances depending on the prevailing winds of power. It is highly likely that the country’s warlords, who see their power being undermined by Kazai’s presidency, will form a broad and powerful alliance against him.

An alliance of Fahim’s forces, along with those of Dostum and Ismail Kahn, coupled with a portion of Pashtun support in the south, could easily claim victory come October 10.

By setting himself apart from the warlords, Karzai has made his already difficult job even harder. And if he fails to be elected president, it may mark a return to the pre-Taleban days of factional fighting.

For the US, a Karzai defeat would hand the Bush administration, which desperately needs a foreign policy victory, yet another failure to add to the morass in Iraq.

Peter Eichstaedt is a veteran American journalist and author. He’s currently an IWPR editor and trainer in Kabul.