Hamid Karzai's decision to reshuffle his election ticket for Afghanistan's presidential vote constitutes a major political gamble. In striving to deliver a decisive blow against Afghan warlords, Karzai appears to be increasing the risk of election-related tumult. Despite the potential danger, some analysts in Kabul believe that the presidential vote, scheduled for October 9, offers Afghanistan a chance to make a break with its violent past.
On July 26, minutes before the deadline for nominations expired, Karzai took the surprising step of dumping his first vice president, Gen. Mohammad Fahim, who is also Afghanistan's defense minister. Reformists in Karzai's interim administration had viewed Fahim, an ethnic Tajik, as an enemy of reform and as a protector of the warlords who control many of the country's provinces. Fahim's position in recent months had been damaged by rumors of cronyism and corruption, including land grabbing and involvement in the drugs trade. Nevertheless, many in Kabul were caught off-guard by Karzai's decision to cut ties with Fahim, believing the defense minister's influence over the Afghan military establishment would be sufficient ensure a place on the election ticket.
In Fahim's place, Karzai announced that another Tajik, Ahmed Zia Masood, the Afghan ambassador to Russia and the brother of the slain anti-Taliban commander Ahmed Shah Masood, would be his running mate. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The other vice-presidential candidate on Karzai's ticket will be Karim Khalili, from the Hazara ethnic group. Karzai also has presented a slate of reform-minded ministers and politicians who would back him.
From Karzai's perspective, the choice to replace Fahim, given his reputed warlord ties, was one of necessity. Within Karzai's administration, many blamed Fahim for the disappointing results of a program to disarm warlord groups. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive]. "Militia armies are posing a great threat [to Afghan stabilization efforts] and we have to address and resolve it," Karzai said.
There are already indications that Fahim and his political allies, most of them ethnic Tajiks, intend to fight back against Karzai's effort to sideline them. [See related EurasiaNet story]. Just before the registration deadline for the presidential election, Yunus Qanooni, a Tajik who served as education minister and who has strong ties with Fahim, declared his candidacy. Qanooni resigned his cabinet post upon announcing that he would challenge Karzai.
In all, 23 candidates will run in the presidential election, which has twice been postponed due to logistical problems, as well as a chronic lack of security in Afghanistan's provinces. The parliamentary vote, which has been decoupled from the presidential election, is expected to occur in April. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
In addition to Karzai and Qanooni, one of the most prominent candidates is the notorious Uzbek warlord Rashid Dostum. Experts believe the lack of unity among Karzai's political opponents will allow the interim president to secure a popular mandate for his administration.
As election day approaches, security conditions in many areas remain tenuous. Taliban fighters launch several attacks every day in southern Afghanistan from their bases in Pakistan, and have vowed to disrupt the elections. More than 650 Afghans and foreigners have been killed in Taliban-related violence this year, including two dozen civilians who were shot for carrying their voter registration cards. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Meanwhile, Afghanistan's booming narcotics trade continues to pose a security threat, fuelling corruption and generating revenue for both the Taliban and warlord militias. UN officials say the 2004 harvest of opium could be 20 percent higher than last year's 3,600 tons. [For additional information see the Eurasia Insight archive].
Despite these problems, Afghans still have huge expectations concerning the elections. An estimated 7.5 million of the country's estimated 10.5 million eligible voters have registered to vote - 41 percent of them are women. "Ordinary people have shown a remarkable enthusiasm for elections as a means for change and greater security," says Reginald Austin, chief technical adviser to the Afghan-UN Joint Election Management Board (JEMB). "We now have a mandate from the people to carry out these elections rather than international agreements."
Karzai will depend heavily on international security assistance to deal with potential election-related violence. Since August 2003, NATO had promised to expand the 6,500-strong International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Kabul, and to deploy more troops outside the capital. But at the NATO summit in Istanbul at the end of June, NATO pledged only 3,500 troops. Of those, only 1,800 will be actually deployed in the country, and for only eight-week span over the election period. The remainder will be most likely based in Italy.
A 700-strong Spanish rapid reaction force with air transport will be based in Kabul for emergencies outside the capital. "Having more forces would allow me to reduce the risk and support the elections better," said the Canadian head of ISAF, Lt. Gen. Rick Hillier.
Karzai would also like more from NATO. "Whether the troops NATO are sending us now are going to be enough, is something we have to see," he said diplomatically. Even more worrying for Karzai is that there is no NATO or US commitment yet, to cover the parliamentary elections in April.
Ahmed Rashid is a Pakistan-based journalist and author of the book "Taliban: Militant Islam and Fundamentalism in Central Asia."