Karzai rival Abdullah would bring new style in Afghanistan

The Associated Press ~ staff The News
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KABUL - He could bring a fresh face to the pinnacle of Afghan politics for the first time in eight years, replacing a discredited president grappling with corruption, a flourishing narcotics trade and a Taliban insurgency growing more powerful by the day.
The 49-year-old Abdullah Abdullah, a trained ophthalmologist, is a sophisticated intellectual and a skilled diplomat. But he's "less of a natural politician" than incumbent Hamid Karzai, said James Dobbins, who served as president George W. Bush's first envoy to Afghanistan.
Karzai was chosen to lead Afghanistan's first post-Taliban government in 2001 "because he was a conciliator, somebody who could get along with a wide range of factions and not antagonize them," Dobbins said.
Abdullah, on the other hand, is less colourful and lacks the charisma and "personal touch" of his opponent.
Even if Abdullah wins the presidency in a run-off, his administration would risk ending up much like his predecessor's - hobbled by warlords, ethnic alliances and corruption.
"Everybody wants responsible government, but unfortunately the next administration is likely to again be weak and dysfunctional, a coalition of warlords and bad guys, no matter who is in charge," said Haroun Mir of the Afghanistan Centre for Research and Policy Studies, a Kabul-based think-tank. "It's inevitable."
Afghanistan's electoral commission is expected to announce as early as Saturday whether Karzai will face Abdullah in a run-off. Preliminary results of the August vote showed Karzai won with more than 54 per cent. But election officials may order a second-round vote if investigators probing fraud allegations void enough of his votes to drop him below 50 per cent.
Karzai's ambassador to the U.S., Said Tayeb Jawad, said Thursday a run-off was very likely.
Karzai's relations with the U.S. have become increasingly strained in recent months, a deterioration attributed in part to American frustration over government corruption and U.S. air strikes that have inflicted civilian casualties - eating away at Karzai's popularity at home.
As president, Abdullah would likely mend ties with Washington. At the same time, relations with neighbouring Pakistan, whose support is essential to combating Taliban militants on both sides of the border, may only get worse, as they did when Abdullah served as Karzai's foreign minister, said Wadeer Safi, a political science professor at Kabul University.
Pakistan supported Taliban fighters in the 1990s when they were battling the ethnic Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance, of which Abdullah was a prominent member. That baggage would make Pakistan "deeply suspicious of any Abdullah presidency," Safi said.
"How Abdullah would handle it, that's the big question," he said.
Moreover, whoever wins the presidency will assume leadership of a country in tatters. Afghanistan has lacked effective government ever since the Soviet invasion of December 1979 plunged the mountainous country into decades of war and chaos.
Mir described Abdullah as a "results-oriented" leader and said he would face high expectations to show concrete progress within six months - much more so than Karzai, whose interest is directed toward consensus-building rather than achieving results.
"Everybody has clear ideas about what needs to be done," said Ronald Neumann, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007. "The question is what they're going to do when they get in there and have to make the trade-offs."
Karzai, son of a Pashtun tribal chief, moved former warlords into civilian posts to keep a balance among regions and ethnic groups, and Abdullah would likely have to do the same, Dobbins said.
Abdullah's father was also Pashtun - an ethnic group that comprises 42 per cent of the population and accounts for the overwhelming majority of Taliban ranks. His mother was Tajik, an ethnic group in the north that makes up 27 per cent. Other groups include Hazaras, Uzbeks and Turkmens.
Despite a Pashtun heritage, Abdullah is widely perceived as a northern Tajik because of his intimate association with the Northern Alliance. Abdullah's close ties to the Alliance would make it more difficult for him to reach out to the Taliban than Karzai, who was born in the Taliban heartland of Kandahar province.
"One of the most important challenges for an Abdullah presidency would be satisfying Pashto aspirations and calming fears that this represented a Tajik ascendancy," Dobbins said.
Neumann believes Abdullah would have to balance the demands of his former Northern Alliance colleagues for a major share of jobs and power against those of the Pashtuns and other groups "to achieve some kind of tribal balance."
Karzai has built a support base across the nation's myriad ethnic groups not by reaching out to individual voters, but by shrewdly cementing alliances with regional power-brokers and warlords, Safi said. In a country with over 70 per cent illiteracy, many voters cast ballots for whomever is favoured by their tribal leaders.
Safi doubts Afghanistan is ready for democratic elections.
"You have to have education and development, you have to have people who can think for themselves, and then you can have a real election," Safi said. "We do not have this now. There is no security, there is no free and fair. People can only hope somebody will give them a good life."

Organizations: Taliban, Northern Alliance, Afghanistan Centre for Research Kabul University

Geographic location: Afghanistan, U.S., KABUL Pakistan Washington Kandahar

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