13 years have past since 9/11, and there might be many who, by this time, have forgotten who Abdullah Abdullah is or what role he played in Afghanistan's recent history. An ethnic Pashtun and Tajik who is also a physician, Abdullah was, by many, considered Shah Massoud's right hand. It was Abdullah who, at Massoud's assassination a month before 9/11, took over the leadership of the Pashtun fighters in Afghanistan. It was Massoud's assassination that the Taliban, and Al Qaeda, had to accomplish before the 9/11 strikes on American soil, to ensure their 'victory' in Afghanistan, since Massoud was the last bastion that remained against total Taliban rule of Afghanistan.
The division that marred Afghanistan during and before the Taliban rule were marked by ethnic strife and tribal divisions. Abdullah, who was only 40 years old when he was elected as MInister of Foreign affairs in the cobbled up government that succeeded the US invasion, is a staunch Western ally, even more so than Karzai is or ever was.
Why is it then, that the Afghani people are overwhelmingly voting for the youthful intellectual with such a prestigious past? That question is even more puzzling if one considers that Abdullah was, in many's opinion, sidelined by Karzai's cronies, in the last election of 2009. Even with Karzai's efforts at running away with the election in 2009, he was able to garner almost 31% of the vote before he withdrew his candidacy in light of the mounting and evident electoral fraud.
Karzai is now out of the picture. Constitutionally he cannot run again, and the Afghani people are ready for change, which would not come under Karzai who has become erratic and beholden to tribal interest, especially his own. Abdullah, although he is so identified with a secular, western leaning political agenda, has the credentials, and the mixed ethnicity to please everyone. Or does he?
In his latest incarnation, Abdullah is firmly at the helm of the National Coalition of Afghanistan, a party born of Massoud's search for inclusiveness and neutrality following his estrangement in the last elections. It is also the party that formed the strongest and better orchestrated opposition to Karzai's party.
One of the main points on which his party is running, is the fact that they do not wish to allow the Taliban to have a part in the new government. To Abdullah, the Taliban has no interest in being part of any government and are only tolerating avances from candidates in the hopes of parlaying their position into a coup from which to retake total control of the country. In that sense, Abdullah and his party have a clearer and less unpredictable stance regarding the Taliban. To them they are enemies of the state, and hence of any democratic process. Abdullah's resolution to the Taliban's non compliance is to deal with them militarily, which he would prepare to do once elected. But he also believes that once he is in government, that he can deal with separate cells of the Taliban on the ground and from there to promote inclusion once they have laid down their arms.
His main opponent in these present elections is Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank economist.
In the latest round, although Abdullah seems to retain his lead at 44.9, neither candidate has enough votes to pull away and show a clear path to victory. A candidate needs to pull in a majority vote of more than 50% even if it is by a small margin.
What Abdullah and his opponent are both facing, is the daunting task of dismantling the Taliban at a moment when the US is getting ready to depart. They would also have to deal with an economy that has never found its footing and has relied in great part on US aid.
Some allegations of fraud are already surfacing, but it is not known whether they are founded. Some are alleging that Karzai is trying to support his candidate, and former foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul. Ballot stuffing is in fact one of the accusations levied by observers.
The runoff is slated for the end of May. However, some fear that violence may erupt at the runoff and appeals have been made to Abdullah to share power and avoid both the expense of the runoff and the possible violence. But Abdullah has declined any overture to share power.
One of the things that distinguishes Abdullah against other candidates is his willingness to sign a bilateral agreement with the US, which would allow 10,000 troops to remain there and to receive aid money. This is the same agreement Karzai refused to sign last year.
But these elections are a blatant demonstration of the people's will, whether it is misguided or not. One of the things the Afgani fear the most is a return to Taliban rule. In fact, the number of voters in this election is much higher than it was in 2009 when the incumbent Karzai was running for re-elections and there is a very telling reason for it: women. 36% of those who voted in this election were women, and it is they who have the most to lose if an islamist regime is re-established in Afghanistan.
Although Afghanistan is considered a very conservative Muslim country, such an assertion does not reflect the historical reality of the country. Before the Taliban made inroads and imposed their islamist rule, Afghanistan was one of the more modern and secularized of the Asian provinces. In fact, women before the Taliban enjoyed a relative degree of freedom and were allowed to study and join important positions in society.
After 13 years of American occupation, women have gotten a measure of freedom protected by the US troops and a government that was increasingly forced to recognize the rights of women. Right before his term ran out, Karzai in fact nearly signed a law that would have severely impacted the rights of women. It is probably this incident, and the fact that the US troops are leaving, that is making women much more involved in the elections. And what they want is a pro-Western, moderate candidate. In that sense, Abdullah fits the bill, whether or not his tenure is concerned with sovereignty issues or not. But the fact that he opposes the Taliban fiercely is what is propelling him to the top of the election list.
Sources: Dawn/ 4:27:14