KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — A prominent Afghan opposition leader declared his candidacy Tuesday for next year’s presidential election, a key vote that will help determine the success or failure of 12 years of U.S.-led military and political intervention in the country.
Abdullah Abdullah was the runner up to President Hamid Karzai in the 2009 elections, dropping out just ahead of a runoff vote following allegations of massive fraud in the first round.
The April 5 vote will elect a new president and provincial councils countrywide. They are considered critical in determining Afghanistan’s future following the withdrawal of all foreign combat troops at the end of 2014. The country’s international financial and military backers have said a smooth transition during the presidential election is necessary to ensure the country’s stability. U.S. and international donors have pledged more than $8 billion yearly in aid to keep Afghanistan’s military and economy running, including funds for development and infrastructure projects.
Many of those funds are tied to the Afghan government holding transparent and credible elections, something that is not certain in a country rife with patronage and corruption and a resilient Taliban insurgency that shows no signs of abating. The Taliban have asked people not to vote and do not recognize the election process.
A nation of 31 million, Afghanistan also has all the hallmarks of a narco-state and is the largest producer or raw opium in the world.
The elections will help determine if the billions spent by the United States and its allies since the American invasion on Oct. 7, 2001 to fight the Taliban, and later engage in a nation-building campaign, will have paid off, creating a country that will no longer harbor or export terrorism. The Afghan war has been one of the costliest in U.S. history and along with development aid spent here has cost its tax payers more than the Marshall plan to rebuild Europe after World War II.
Abdullah, 53, is a veteran politician from the Northern Alliance that helped overthrow the Taliban. He was the first prominent candidate to register ahead of an Oct. 6 deadline.
“Our wish is the security of our people. Our wish is a better life for our people, with dignity, for peace. We want to establish an administration with no corruption, a responsible administration that is respectful of the rules and laws. An administration that will bring a better life to the people,” Abdullah said.
His candidacy follows weeks of speculation over who will run. Ethnically fractious, Afghan politics are marked by patronage and alliances among the elite — a group that includes warlords and tribal elders who can marshal votes among the country’s various ethnic groups. The population is roughly 42 percent Pashtun, 27 percent Tajik, 9 percent Hazara, and 9 percent Uzbek along with other, smaller factions. The Taliban are predominantly Pashtun.
Alliances among those groups are expected to generate coalitions that will vie for the powerful job of president.
Karzai has not endorsed anyone yet and there are no clear favorites, but speculation in recent days has focused on two people he may favor. They are Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul, who may wind up as a consensus candidate, and Karzai’s older brother Quayum — who is a businessman and politician.
Other potential candidates include: Ashraf Ghani, a well-known academic and former finance minister who also lost the last election; Fauzia Kofi, a woman’s rights activist who is a member of parliament from Badakhshan province. She has survived several assassination attempts because of her rights campaigns. Another name that has come up is Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayyaf, an influential lawmaker with a long history as a jihadist and allegations of past links to Arab militants including Osama bin Laden. He would likely be the most controversial candidate, at least among Afghanistan’s foreign allies.
Abdullah, a Tajik, chose two other well-known politicians to fill his ballot and will run on his ticket as first and second vice presidents. They are Mohammad Khan, an engineer from the Pashtun ethnic group representing the Hezb-i-Islami political party and Haji Mohammad Muhaqiq, a member of the Afghan parliament and a powerful ethnic Hazara leader who garnered over ten percent of votes in the 2004 Presidential Elections. He had supported Karzai in 2009.
“You can very easily see all ethnic groups together this coalition, “Khan told reporters at the crowded registration office. “This is good for the future of our country, the unity and coalition of different ethnic groups.”