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.
Abdullah Abdullah, a trained ophthalmologist who is challenging the incumbent, Hamid Karzai, is a sophisticated intellectual and a skilled diplomat.
But he’s “less of a natural politician” than 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 colorful and lacks the charisma and “personal touch” of his opponent.
Even if the 49-year-old Abdullah wins the presidency in a runoff, a possibility many analysts consider remote, 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 Center for Research and Policy Studies, a Kabul-based think tank. “It’s inevitable.”
Afghanistan’s electoral commission is expected to announce as early as today whether Karzai will face Abdullah in a runoff. Preliminary results of the August vote showed Karzai won with more than 54 percent. But election officials may order a second-round vote if investigators probing fraud allegations void enough of Karzai’s votes to drop him below 50 percent.
Karzai’s ambassador to the U.S., Said Tayeb Jawad, said Thursday a runoff was 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. airstrikes 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 neighboring 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 nation 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.