KABUL — Trying to keep score in Afghanistan’s presidential race is enough to induce vertigo. The cast of characters changes daily, along with the date of the poll. The incumbent either has no chance or is a shoo-in, depending on the time of day and the political persuasion of the analyst.
At the center of all the fuss is President Hamid Karzai, whose political fortunes have recently ebbed and flowed like a tsunami.
Just a few weeks ago, the president’s reelection bid was all but moribund, with experienced Afghan watchers predicting civil disturbance if he tried to run in the August poll. Now, many of those same voices are singing in the key of Karzai.
“It’s starting to look as if no one could beat him,” said the leader of a prominent international organization, who has been in Afghanistan for several years. “It’s almost sure to be Karzai again.”
Another Afghan expert, who has written books on the political history of the country, agreed.
“The United States is going to back Karzai,” he said, speaking privately. “The American Embassy in Kabul has been told to stop criticizing him.”
Karzai has been fighting a bitter and public battle with the United States for the past several months. Hand-picked to lead the transitional government in 2001 by then-U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, he enjoyed a close relationship with Washington during the Bush administration.
But as the Afghanistan conflict went from “good war” to “quagmire,” both sides of the partnership began to back away. Karzai tried to distance himself from an increasingly unpopular foreign presence, while Washington adopted a new and tougher stance toward its erstwhile ally.
Barack Obama has publicly criticized Karzai for being out of touch and ineffectual, while his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, called Afghanistan a “narco-state” whose government is “plagued by limited capacity and widespread corruption.”
Karzai’s spats with Vice President Joe Biden have become the stuff of legend in Kabul — two meetings in one year ended with either Biden or Karzai storming out, according to palace insiders.
So when U.S. Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke visited Kabul in February, most western and Afghan observers took for granted that he had come to urge Karzai not to run.
“(Holbrooke) told Karzai that it was over,” said one western election worker, who met with high-ranking members of the Afghan government. “He also told the United National Front that the United States would support whichever candidate they chose to put up.”
That might have been the turning point. The United National Front, formed in 2007 to bring together the political opposition to Karzai, has not lived up to its name. Insiders say that the bloc is hopelessly divided over the elections, with several warring factions insisting on their own candidate.
The former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, the speaker for the lower house of parliament, Younus Qanuni, and Vice President Ahmad Zia Massoud, have all laid claim to the United Front mantle.
Added to this is the failure of the former front-runners to catch the popular imagination. With less than six months to go before the Aug. 20 poll, there may not be enough time to build up support for those who just a few months ago looked like they could sweep to victory.
Former Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai lack the tribal connections and popular appeal that helped Karzai cement his hold on power seven years ago.
A dark horse in the race is Zalmay Khalilzad himself. Last year he steadfastly denied widespread rumors that he would run for president, but the former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and to Iraq arrived in Kabul last week and promptly convened a conference in Dubai, bringing together a group of Afghans to discuss the road forward.
Khalilzad, if he does not run himself, will most likely play the role of kingmaker in the campaign, so Afghans were watching him closely to see who he tapped for the Dubai gathering.
Touted as a “pure Afghan” forum, the keynote speakers included Khalilzad, Jalali, Ashraf Ghani, Abdullah Abdullah, and the foreign minister Rangin Dadfur Spanta. Out of the quintet, only Abdullah Abdullah does not have foreign citizenship.
“I think they are going to squander this chance,” said one of the conference attendees, speaking on condition of anonymity. “It was a farce.”
The conference issued a declaration, calling for — among other things — national reconciliation, a strong central government, good relations with regional neighbors and a robust counter-narcotics effort. The document was long on rhetoric and short on concrete action plans, and received little attention in Kabul. But it did establish Khalilzad as a central figure in the increasingly murky waters of Afghan politics.
So far, many potential candidates have indicated that they intend to run. The list of hopefuls is long and diverse, including a self-styled “genius,” a prince of the royal family, and a man who plotted a coup against the communist regime.
Most analysts predict that there will be at least a dozen candidates on the ballot on Aug. 20. In 2004, for the first post-Taliban election, 18 candidates vied for the top spot, with Karzai winning an easy first-round victory.
This year, things could be different: Most watchers predict that a runoff of the two top vote-getters will be necessary.
The antic nature of the campaign so far accords poorly with the seriousness of Afghanistan’s situation. A growing insurgency, lagging reconstruction, a weak government, and a foreign presence that is provoking more and more anger and violence have left the population disillusioned and confused. Many may not vote at all.
But things could change radically over the next few months.
“In Afghanistan, you cannot tell from minute to minute what the political situation will be,” laughed Hafizullah Gardesh, a journalist and political analyst. “It is not in our hands. The kingmaker machine is in Washington, D.C.”
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