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.

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

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

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.

The message can play well in America, too.

President Obama's strategic review of the Afghan war was keyed by fears that the Karzai administration has become so rotted by corruption that it could not be a reliable partner in helping to build a secure Afghanistan. The concerns came to a head after the Aug. 20 election, which involved widespread corruption, largely in Karzai's favor.

One major US newspaper, The Boston Globe, has called on the Obama administration to work behind the scenes for an Abdullah victory Nov. 7, saying "the United States can no longer be associated with the corrupt, abusive government of Hamid Karzai."

Abdullah's appearance on US television appeared to be an attempt to leverage these doubts to his advantage.

He said Sunday that corruption in Karzai's government mean it cannot be reliable partner that the United States needs in order to send 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan.

"There is no doubt that the partnership has not been working well in the past few month and the past few years," Abdullah said.

"Everybody knows the record of the past eight years. There was a golden opportunity" to establish security after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, he said. "That golden opportunity we missed" because of the failures of the "incompetent" Afghan government, he added.

What Abdullah wants

Abdullah also said he would refuse any overture to become a part of the Karzai government, dismissing talk of a behind-the-scenes power-sharing deal. If true, the statement is significant, in that much of Afghan politics is founded upon deals between opponents to share the spoils of power.

Indeed, one of Abdullah's primary criticisms of the Karzai government has been it is prone to cronyism.

It is a result, he and others say, of how the international community designed the Afghan government in 2001. By creating a strongly centralized government – with the urbane, Westernized Karzai at its head – Afghanistan's tendency to splinter along ethnic lines would be suppressed. Karzai, for example, chooses the governors for all of Afghanistan's 34 provinces.

But the situation leaves him ideally placed for doling out favors, and the corruption that has resulted has doomed the Afghan political experiment, he says.

Abdullah wants power in Afghan politics to be disbursed more evenly among the president, legislature, and local authorities. The platform is self-serving, since Abdullah is a member of the opposition. He is backed by the National Front, a group of former warlords now pushed to the margins of power.

Yet the commander of US forces in Afghanistan agrees with at least one aspect of Abdullah's assessment: Afghanistan's centralized government goes against the country's political traditions and is in part responsible for the lack of law and order in rural areas.

"The top-down approach to developing government capacity has failed to provide services that reach local communities," Gen. Stanley McChrystal wrote in his battlefield assessment. "The Afghan government has not integrated or supported traditional community governance structures – historically an important component of Afghan civil society – leaving communities vulnerable to being undermined by insurgent groups and power-brokers."


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