In Afghan race, wooing votes with ethnic strongmen

Published March 24, 2014
A huge election banner with presidential hopeful Abdul Rasoul Sayyaf, (Right), with his running mates Ismail Khan, (center), a powerful warlord from Herat and Abdul Wahab Erfan, a parliamentarian, hangs from a construction building in Kabul, Afghanistan. - AP
A huge election banner with presidential hopeful Abdul Rasoul Sayyaf, (Right), with his running mates Ismail Khan, (center), a powerful warlord from Herat and Abdul Wahab Erfan, a parliamentarian, hangs from a construction building in Kabul, Afghanistan. - AP

KABUL: On the edge of a Kabul neighbourhood dominated by members of Afghanistan's ethnic Hazara minority, an election poster of presidential candidate Abdul Rasul Sayyaf is damaged — partially scraped away by someone trying to remove it.

The vandalism could be his past as a warlord coming back to haunt him.

During Afghanistan's civil war in the early 1990s, Sayyaf's militia killed tens of thousands of Hazaras, a community who are mostly Shia Muslims.

Warlords like Sayyaf with a violent past have played a role in influencing Afghan politics since a US-led coalition helped oust the Taliban in 2001. But they are emerging to play an overt political role in next month's presidential elections as President Hamid Karzai leaves the scene.

Some, like Sayyaf, are running. Others are being courted by the candidates because many of the warlords command strong followings, particularly along ethnic lines. Candidates are choosing well-known strongmen as running mates to win support in their communities — despite their violent histories. Even the most urbane and international savvy of the presidential candidates, a former World Bank official, has tied his hopes to a warlord whose violent history has been condemned by the US and other Western governments.

The result is a mixed effect on Afghanistan's politics. The courting of warlords shows their political strength. On the other hand, it also shows that, unlike in the past, candidates are trying to reach out across ethnic lines in this deeply divided country and balance among communities.

For the ethnic minorities, it is also a mixed bag. Candidates are trying to appeal to them. But now the communities are more internally divided than ever over whom to support. In the 2004 and 2009 presidential elections, a single ethnicity dominated each ticket. Ethnic Tajiks had one ticket — as did Hazaras, Pashtuns and Uzbeks.

Not this time around.

Each presidential candidate can take two vice presidential candidates on his ticket — and each has sought to spread the ethnic appeal. All three top front-runners in the April 5 vote have prominent Hazaras as running mates.

Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, also has a Pashtun vice presidential candidate; Zalmai Rassoul has a Tajik; Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, the former World Bank official, has a powerful Uzbek warlord, Gen. Rashid Dostum, as his main running mate. Despite a violent past in the civil war, Dostum has emerged as the single leader behind whom Afghanistan's Uzbeks, who make up roughly nine per cent of the country's 32 million people, will rally.

Some in the Hazara community, about nine per cent of the population, are worried about splits.

"I'm not happy with the fact that Hazara leaders are going to different candidates," said Rahmat Ula Karimi, a 56-year-old Kabul resident from the community. "Hazaras should be one voice to protect their rights. All the Hazaras should back one leader so they can have a unified voice."

The ethnic minority Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and Turkmens dominate in northern Afghanistan. The country's largest ethnic group is the Pashtuns, who make up 42 per cent of the population, according to the CIA Factbook. Pashtuns, who also make up the backbone of the Taliban movement, dominate in the south and east of Afghanistan.

The outgoing Karzai is a Pashtun, as are most of the nine candidates in the upcoming vote — though Abdullah has combined Tajik-Pashtun heritage.

Faheem Dashty, an Afghan analyst and journalist, said the ethnic balance on the tickets "is a positive change."

Still, many of the candidates or their running mates have violent histories. Several have been named by the US-based Human Rights Watch as responsible for mass killings during the 1992 to 1996 civil war, fought between Islamic insurgents-turned-warlords who turned their guns on each other after throwing out the invading Soviet military. The chaos of the civil war helped pave the way for the Taliban to take power, and they ended up controlling all of the country except for a small portion of northern Afghanistan.

A storekeeper on Kabul's Chicken Street, where carpet sellers bump up against antique dealers and traditional jewellers, Mohammed Qasi Zazai, said he is disappointed with the presence of warlords on the ballot.

"It's the younger generation, who are educated, who are really sad to see all these warlords, their pictures everywhere, who were involved in the civil war," he said.

Political transformation is slow in a country emerging from nearly four decades of relentless war, where the measure of one's strength has been the size of one's militia or the guns one owns, said Nader Nadery, executive director of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan.

But positive changes are occurring, he said.

"Those who used to once use only guns to show their power, now are discovering that the gun alone is not enough, they have to ask people to vote for them to get power, to have legitimacy. That is a step in the right direction," he said.

The ethnic choices for running mates stem from political expediency.

Ghani, for instance, needs votes in the north of Afghanistan, where most Uzbeks live and where Abdullah is believed to dominate.

Abdullah has strong appeal in the north because he was a close ally of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance that fought the Taliban and a powerful anti-Soviet commander. Massoud was killed by an Al Qaeda suicide bomber two days before the Sept 11, 2001 terror attacks in the United States.

But that history could hurt his support among some Pashtuns — thus his choice of a Pashtun to run on his ticket.

Rassoul, meanwhile, took the bold step of choosing a woman as one of his two running mates — seeking to appeal to female voters. Still he, too, has the support of those with a bloody past, including former loyalists of Hezb-e-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, also blamed for widespread carnage during Afghanistan's civil war.

Daoud Sultanzoi, a presidential candidate and former Parliamentarian from the central Ghazni province, where a stubborn Taliban insurgency still rages, said that having an ethnic balance is good but only if the candidates are professional and qualified, not strongmen with what he called a "notorious" history.

He says he's infuriated by arguments he hears from some Afghans that the presence of warlords and ethnic strongmen is the best that can be expected in Afghanistan and that the county is not ready for Western-style democracy.

"I do not buy this mumbo jumbo that people say 'good enough for Afghanistan'. No. We live in the 21st century. In Afghanistan, or Africa or the United States, we are all human beings," he said.

"Afghanistan needs to grow into an adult country in the community of nations ... And warlords and notorious powerbrokers cannot allow that sort of growth and evolution."



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