Win or Lose, Abdullah May Play Pivotal Role in Afghanistan

Abdullah Abdullah received about half as many votes as the incumbent, but his aides rule out a coalition government.
Abdullah Abdullah received about half as many votes as the incumbent, but his aides rule out a coalition government. (By Farzana Wahidy -- Associated Press)
By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 15, 2009

KABUL -- Abdullah Abdullah stood before a roomful of supporters at a hotel here last week, slamming the failings of the Afghan government like a man still on the campaign trail -- which, the presidential candidate insists, he is.

"It doesn't seem to me we can avoid a second round," Abdullah, President Hamid Karzai's former foreign minister, said in an interview, repeating what has become his refrain since Afghanistan's fraud-marred election in August.

Abdullah may yet be proved right. Though he polled about half as much of the vote as Karzai's 54 percent, according to a preliminary tally, an ongoing recount by a U.N.-backed commission could disqualify enough fraudulent ballots to push Karzai below the majority he needs and force a runoff.

But many Western officials doubt that will happen -- a view some observers suspect Abdullah shares despite his assertions to the contrary. And how he reacts to a Karzai victory, analysts say, could determine whether Afghanistan erupts in clashes between Abdullah's Tajik supporters and Karzai's Pashtun followers or whether it calmly transitions to a coalition government -- albeit one potentially hamstrung by division.

Abdullah and his advisers say they will decide their next step only when the recount is finished, as is expected this week. But they insist any alliance with Karzai is not an option. Abdullah, who was dismissed from the cabinet in 2006 and has drawn support from Karzai opponents of various stripes, is running for president and nothing else, they say.

"When we decided he should be a candidate, we did not decide in order for him to have a position in government," said Ahmed Wali Massoud, an Abdullah confidant and former ambassador to Britain. "This is very naive, I think."

But in a nation where ethnic divisions often spur violence, fears abound that Abdullah's rejection of a Karzai win could stoke an uprising by his supporters, particularly in the increasingly unstable north. Abdullah has urged calm, a call he said he would repeat if the recount affirms a Karzai victory. But, Abdullah said in the interview, he would "not be in a position to guarantee anything."

"If we are going to protest, there must be tight security," said Mahmood Shah, 34, a tailor sitting at his sewing machine in Kabul's Khair Khana, a heavily Tajik neighborhood and Abdullah stronghold. "Even if they say it will be a peaceful protest, it will not be."

Analysts said they do not expect Abdullah to incite strife, citing his vows not to. But one of his northern allies, Balkh province governor Atta Mohammed Noor, is another matter. Noor, a Tajik, has accused the central government of distributing weapons to northern Pashtuns in preparation for post-recount conflict. A Karzai aide denied the allegation.

"Abdullah's standing has gone up quite considerably, I think, both in Afghanistan and internationally," said a Western diplomat in Kabul. "If he was seen to be instigating violence, that would go against him. We feel he's unlikely to create any problems."

Abdullah might be open to a deal with Karzai, analysts said, a possibility that nervous Western officials are said to be pressuring Abdullah to consider, though the candidate denied that. Arsala Jamal, a Karzai campaign manager, said members of Abdullah's camp had approached the president about the idea.

"I believe [Karzai] will be sitting at the same table as Abdullah. That is his nature," Jamal said. "Political diversity, we need it."

Abdullah may have little choice but to negotiate, said Haroun Mir, director of the Afghanistan Center for Research and Policy Studies in Kabul. In the impoverished country, he said, power is tied to government money and access, stunting the influence of any opposition figure who does not have massive outside funding. Abdullah might not seek a government position for himself, but he would probably want spots for his allies as ministers or governors, who are appointed, Mir said.

What's more, Karzai, who has been tainted by accusations of fraud, probably needs Abdullah's support to regain credibility. Yet while a pact might be the least volatile outcome, it would be no victory for Afghanistan, Mir said: Karzai is beholden to various warlords and power brokers, and a unity government would bring more of the same paralysis.

"It's nice to bring people together, but the problem is we need a functioning government," Mir said. "Karzai is not a manager. . . . He wants to satisfy everyone at the detriment of having good governance. This is the problem we have had, unfortunately, the past five years, and this is the problem we might be headed for the next five years."

Raz Mohammed Dalili, a member of Abdullah's campaign team and a former governor, put it another way: "As long as Mr. Karzai has the leadership, there won't be any unity in this country."

To campaign- and strife-weary Afghans interviewed on a recent morning in Khair Khana, however, an Abdullah-Karzai handshake did not sound so bad. In Khair Khana, the West-- with its support for a democratic process widely seen as being marred by rampant fraud -- is the main subject of scorn.

"If there is a coalition government, we will be happy. That will prevent violence," said Agha Shireen, 25, an Abdullah supporter who was hawking round loaves of golden bread. "All we care about is security and peace."

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