The election comes at a crucial moment, as foreign troops prepare to withdraw by the end of 2014 and with U.S.-Afghan relations at a gridlock that could prevent a long-term security agreement from being signed. A well-run election and a qualified victor would help sustain the gains of the past 10 years, Western officials say. But with the stakes so high and the candidates so divisive, an electoral dispute could have devastating consequences.
More than two dozen presidential candidates — each with two vice-presidential running mates — are registered for the election, which is scheduled to take place in April. Among those running are President Hamid Karzai’s brother; a religious scholar accused of leading a bloody campaign against the Hazara minority ethnic group; one of the country’s most powerful and controversial provincial governors, nicknamed “the Bulldozer”; a former militia leader whom Human Rights Watch accused of “widespread looting and violence”; and an Uzbek leader widely accused of war crimes.
Also on the list are some of the technocrats who have ascended the ranks of Afghanistan’s government over the past decade: the country’s foreign minister, a World Bank official who became finance minister, a former defense minister who frequently lectured at Washington think tanks, and a sharply dressed ophthalmologist who became a vocal opposition leader after serving as a top diplomat.
In some cases, those who have led ministries and those who have led militias or shadowy patronage networks are running together.
Ashraf Ghani, the former World Bank official, chose Gen. Abdurrashid Dostum, the Uzbek warlord, as his running mate.
Abdullah Abdullah, the ophthalmologist and a former foreign minister, chose Mohammad Mohaqiq, the former militia leader.
Some chose running mates from different parts of the country but with similar positions in Afghan society. Abdurrab Rasul Sayyaf, the religious scholar turned mujahideen commander, chose Ismail Khan, who once commanded a large swath of western Afghanistan. Khan, suggesting that Afghan civilians take security into their own hands, told Der Spiegel last month: “What good is this army? It has only been provided with rifles.”
With so many candidates — and tickets comprising such odd bedfellows — it’s hard to discern a clear favorite. For now, Abdullah; Zalmay Rassoul, the current foreign minister, and Qayum Karzai, the president’s brother, are seen by many as the front-runners. Each will struggle to develop a broad voter base in a country still divided by ethnicity, tribe and geography. Rassoul is the only viable candidate with a female vice president on his ticket: Habiba Sorobi, governor of Bamyan province.