Camp of Afghan challenger Abdullah sought top posts, officials say

An Afghan woman waits by a wall covered with electoral posters in Kabul. President Karzai said he would be open to working with his rivals.
An Afghan woman waits by a wall covered with electoral posters in Kabul. President Karzai said he would be open to working with his rivals. (Farzana Wahidy/associated Press)
By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 4, 2009

KABUL -- When Abdullah Abdullah chose to withdraw from the presidential election this week -- effectively handing incumbent Hamid Karzai a new term -- he described his position as a selfless protest against a flawed electoral system that was not fair for all Afghans.

But in the behind-the-scenes negotiations between the Abdullah and Karzai camps, less high-minded motives also were at play. Afghan and Western officials said Abdullah's representatives were seeking a power-sharing deal with Karzai, demanding several senior government positions in talks that continued until hours before he announced his withdrawal Sunday.

One Afghan official close to Karzai said that around 2:30 p.m. Saturday, an Abdullah representative handed over a document demanding 11 senior government posts, including cabinet positions, for the candidate's supporters. A Western official said Abdullah's team had earlier demanded five positions.

Among the demands was that Attah Mohammed Noor, a strong Abdullah supporter and the governor of Balkh province in the north, would remain in his post and that a son of former president Burhanuddin Rabbani would get a cabinet seat. Abdullah's camp was also pushing for the removal of the interior and defense ministers, close allies of Karzai.

This "double game" is "all about the number of cabinet posts," the Afghan official said. "That's Afghan politics."

It remains unclear whether the negotiations were initiated at Abdullah's direction or whether his supporters were acting independently. Neither side would say whether Karzai and Abdullah reached a deal on government posts or whether the talks influenced Abdullah's decision to withdraw from the race.

Abdullah's intentions

The central question now facing Abdullah is how he will use the political capital he accrued in the election. Although foreign diplomats hailed him as a statesman for his honorable campaign conduct -- appealing to his supporters to remain calm during the uncertain weeks after the first round of voting in August -- many Afghans ultimately saw him as a spoiler, surrounded by men who viewed politics as a contest of raw power.

The circumstances of Abdullah's departure from the race shed little light on his intentions. His aides insist that Karzai refused to budge on any of the demands Abdullah made to reform an electoral process that produced large-scale fraud in the first round, making withdrawal his only option. Some of his supporters say he should focus on building a political party outside the government to pressure Karzai into reforms. One top Abdullah campaign official, however, said there was a 60 percent chance that Abdullah allies would end up in the cabinet.

In his first speech since being declared the election's winner, Karzai said Tuesday that he would be open to cooperating with his rivals, although he did not say whether there would be a place for Abdullah.

"My government will be for all Afghans, and all those who want to work with me are most welcome, regardless of whether they opposed me in the election or whether they supported me in the election," he said.

Karzai also vowed to "launch a campaign to clean the government of corruption," which is a top priority for the Obama administration. He suggested that curbing corruption would not be accomplished by removing high-ranking officials but by reforming Afghan laws and strengthening an anti-corruption panel that was formed last year.

During the negotiations over potential power-sharing arrangements, Rabbani, an influential power broker in Afghan politics who had backed Abdullah, was an advocate for securing government positions for Abdullah supporters, several officials said.

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