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Who is Abdullah Abdullah?

The challenger in the Nov. 7 presidential runoff election in Afghanistan, Abdullah Abdullah, said Sunday that he might withdraw unless Hamid Karzai takes steps to ensure that the runoff will be fair.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 25, 2009

Abdullah Abdullah, the challenger in the Nov. 7 presidential runoff election, speaks during a gathering with his leading supporters in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sunday.

Farzana Wahidy/AP


Abdullah Abdullah, the challenger to Afghan President Hamid Karzai, suggested Sunday that he might not participate in the runoff election scheduled for Nov. 7.

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Mr. Karzai must meet a list of demands in order to avoid the widespread fraud that marred the Aug. 20 presidential election, Dr. Abdullah said on CNN's "State of the Union" Sunday.

Without these assurances of a fair election, Abdullah said he "was not going to take the country through this saga again."

Echoing the sentiments he made to The Monitor Friday, he noted that "people lost their lives" in violence that erupted during in the first election: "I don't want this opportunity to turn into another waste."

The comments are undoubtedly – at least in part – overseas electioneering, Afghan style. Abdullah is playing upon Washington's doubts about corruption in Karzai's government in hopes of finding an ally. He has said Karzai must ensure the impartiality of the election commission and eliminate the "ghost polling sites" at the center of the fraud – demands the US is likely to support.

Yet he is no typical Afghan power-broker – seeking a sweet deal from Karzai or backing his threats with cadres of rifle-carrying followers. In many respects, Abdullah is a uniquely complex character in Afghan politics.

A mixed past

On one hand, his past is tightly wound with the warlords who cast Kabul into civil war during the early 1990s and have been accused of war crimes, killing thousands and leaving the capital in ruins. In 2007, when the international community balked at an Afghan bill that would have given these warlords immunity from past crimes – a law written by the warlords themselves – Abdullah was at the rally supporting his colleagues.

Yet, by nature, he is more technocrat than holy warrior. The son of a senator who served during the reign of King Zahir ShahAfghanistan's last period of peace – Abdullah was an eye surgeon before the Soviet invasion plunged him into resistance and then politics.

He served as Afghanistan's first post-Taliban foreign minister – five years under Karzai – partly because he is respected throughout Afghanistan for his reason, moderation, and intelligence. He speaks English and French, he has a Facebook page, and his background straddles Afghanistan's biggest ethnic fault line – his father was Pashtun (the dominant ethnic group in the south) and his mother was Tajik (the dominant group in the north).

(His repetitive name is one result of this mix. Many Pashtuns in the south use only one name. But apparently, confusion at a news conference led to the mistaken supposition that his one name, Abdullah, was actually both a first and last name.)

Abdullah's message

He has brought all the peculiar facets of his life to bear in a campaign that most experts predict he has virtually no chance of winning. In many respects, he is portraying himself as the Obama of Afghanistan – offering change from the past eight years, in which Afghans have become increasingly disillusioned with Karzai.