Challenger to Afghan president emerges from pack

Yunis Qanooni is running against Karzai, who escaped assassination Thursday.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

As Afghanistan's first-ever democratic presidential election gains steam, incumbent Hamid Karzai's biggest challenger is emerging from the pack of 17 other candidates.

Yunis Qanooni, who has served in President Karzai's government, represents a core faction within the powerful Northern Alliance militia that fought alongside the US to topple the Taliban regime. Since their triumphant sweep into Kabul in 2001, top Northern Alliance commanders have seen their power gradually challenged by the increasingly assertive Karzai. After the president dumped a key alliance player from his ticket, Mr. Qanooni announced his candidacy.

The power struggle is only one of many being played out in this election. Just Thursday, a rocket narrowly missed Karzai's helicopter as he was arriving in Gardez, an area were insurgents have been active. The assassination attempt prompted calls to postpone the Oct. 9 ballot.

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Most observers say that despite the instability here, challengers like Qanooni are unlikely to prevail because they do not command Karzai's national stature. But Qanooni is determined to put up a fight.

"The best way for a new Afghanistan is through a peaceful political struggle ... and I am [going] to show that Karzai has failed in his experiences of the last three years," says Qanooni at his home in the Khair Khana district of northern Kabul.

Dressed in a dark gray business suit and wearing wire-rimmed glasses, the father of six is an eloquent speaker with a degree in Islamic Law from Kabul University.

Qanooni, Minister of Defense Mohammad Fahim, and Minster of Foreign Affairs Abdullah Abdullah have been touted as "The Three Panjshiris," referring to the northern province of Panjshir which was the base for the Northern Alliance.

However, the wider alliance is a broad coalition of minority and regional commanders, some of whom are backing Karzai, some of whom are running themselves. Political analysts say that Qanooni has potential to be a good leader if he convinces the people of Afghanistan that he will work for them and not just for his own ethnic Tajik group.

Qanooni has experience on the national stage as the interior minister and, more recently, as minister of education.

"Qanooni has held key positions in the past, he was a Bonn conference delegate and has been involved in Afghanistan's outside affairs. He has met with the Americans, the Germans, and many other countries interested in Afghanistan," says Quadir Amiryar, a professor of law at Kabul University.

Qanooni also served as the spokesperson for the Northern Alliance during the late 1990s, when it was headed by Ahmad Shah Masood who was killed two days before Sept. 11, 2001. Many see Qanooni as trying to broaden his appeal by running on the legacy of Mr. Masood.

"Masood is a national hero, we saw how his death was remembered [this month] and his life honored. Qanooni is part of that legacy. Qanooni was next to Masood at all times," says Taj Mohammad Wardak, Qanooni's running mate and a former Karzai interior minister.

Like Karzai, Mr. Wardak is an ethnic Pashtun and analysts say Qanooni brought him on board to take away from Karzai's Pashtun supporters.

But Qanooni insists that he is not playing the ethnicity card but rather looking at the larger picture of national unity. Asked how he would deal with the debilitating problem of nepotism in government ministries and institutions, he says, "The minister positions should be political decisions and the lower ranks based on technical skills and qualifications."

Although Qanooni, Fahim, and Abdullah have long been criticized for infiltrating the ranks of key ministries with ethnic Tajiks, mainly Panjshiris, Qanooni says the problem is from up top.

"Karzai has set the example of placing unqualified people in high places to appease different political groups," Qanooni says.

Asked how he would bring change, Qanooni did not propose a detailed plan beyond suggested administrative reform. Like most of Afghanistan's presidential candidates, Qanooni's platform and policies are unclear and sometimes contradictory.

On the issue of whether foreign troops should remain, he says, "I want independence for Afghanistan, but that doesn't mean isolation. We see the presence of Coalition Forces as a tool for bringing stability in Afghanistan."

What many see as progressive in Qanooni's position is his vision of Islam.

"We want a type of Islam that is a moderate Islam, far from extremes. With this moderate concept of Islam we will be successful in domestic and international affairs," he says. But his definition of moderate, he says, will be revealed over his four week presidential campaign.

Rahim Mujadidi, a shopkeeper in Kabul's Manadayee market says he is nervous about the meaning of moderate Islam. "This is really shaky ground for candidates. Islam and politics don't mix well," says Mr. Mujadidi.

If Qanooni doesn't win the presidency, many see him as a shoo-in for the parliament. Those elections are planned for the spring.

"It is an unusual environment for elections, we should be happy that Afghans are using the ballot and not the bullet," says Amiryar.

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