Accessibility links

Afghanistan: Analyst Says Karzai's Power Play Just May Work

  • Andrew Tully --> Hamid Karzai The decision by Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai not to keep his first vice president in the October elections is widely seen as a challenge to the supremacy of independent militias in many parts of his country. One analyst says Karzai's move may actually work, especially in the context of the elections.

Washington, 28 July 2004 (RFE/RL) -- "I'm pleased to stand before you here today to announce that I went to the Joint Election Commission today to present my nomination papers for the job of the president of Afghanistan."

With those words on 26 July, Karzai began Afghanistan's presidential campaign. He will face opposition not only from another presidential contender, Education Minister Yunus Qanuni, but also from other current members of his government.
"Of course, Mas'ud's brother doesn't wield any executive power, being a diplomat in Moscow, whereas Fahim does. But it [choosing Mas'ud over Fahim] could actually increase popular appeal because Fahim is universally believed to be corrupt."

This opposition includes his current first vice president, Mohammad Fahim, whom he decided to drop as a running mate. In Fahim's place, Karzai chose Ahmad Zia Mas'ud, Afghanistan's ambassador to Russia and the brother of Ahmad Shah Mas'ud, the Tajik mujahedin commander who was the military leader of the Northern Alliance and who was killed by Al-Qaeda in 2001.

As for Fahim, he is Afghanistan's current defense minister and leads the primary faction of the Northern Alliance, which helped U.S.-led forces depose the Taliban as Afghanistan's government in late 2001 and early 2002.

Many observers say Karzai's decision to drop Fahim from his electoral slate was a defiant gesture to Afghanistan's independent militia leaders, often known as "warlords," who control much of the country outside the capital, Kabul.

But this assessment is an oversimplification, according to Radek Sikorski, a former deputy foreign and defense minister for Poland who is now an analyst on Central Asia at the American Enterprise Institute, a private Washington policy center.

First, Sikorski tells RFE/RL, it is unfair to refer to the leaders of all the Afghan militias by the same term, "warlords." He points out that they played a vital role in resisting Soviet occupiers during the 1980s. Today, he says, these militias are paid by the Defense Ministry and follow a centralized military hierarchy.

Sikorski acknowledges that the militias have been slow to disarm, as demanded by Karzai and the United Nations. But he says some have good reason to stall. He notes that one such militia leader, or muhaj -- Ismail Kahn in northwestern Afghanistan -- disarmed on Karzai's orders, but was left defenseless against a resurgence of the Taliban in his area.

There is also the problem of what to do with a disarmed militia, Sikorski says. He draws a parallel with the many Iraqis who served in Saddam Hussein's armed forces, then were left unemployed when the U.S. administration decided to disband that country's armed forces. Now, he says, they appear to be involved in Iraq's resistance.

Sikorski says Afghanistan should avoid this mistake. "The [Afghan] central army is not yet ready to replace these guys. Also, I think the former muhaj [militia leaders] are justified in asking the question, 'Well, what should I do with my former fighters? They fought for several years, they won the war against the Soviets. What do I tell them now, just to go home and be unemployed?' We don't want to make the same mistake twice, do we?" Sikorski said.

Sikorski says some of these militias are run by ruthless men. But others, he says, are working to maintain order in their areas. So it is in this context that he says it may be an oversimplification to see a challenge to so-called "warlords" in Karzai's decision to drop Fahim as a running mate.

According to Sikorski, replacing Fahim with Mas'ud is in many respects nonconfrontational, from a political point of view. He says Karzai merely replaced the Northern Alliance's operations chief with the brother of its martyred military leader. And, he says, from another point of view, Karzai simply replaced one ethnic Tajik with another:

"Of course, Mas'ud's brother doesn't wield any executive power, being a diplomat in Moscow, whereas Fahim does. But it [choosing Mas'ud over Fahim] could actually increase popular appeal because Fahim is universally believed to be corrupt," Sikorski said.

This could help increase popular support for Karzai as the election approaches, Sikorski says. He adds that if Karzai wins the election -- which is seen as likely -- he could be helped further by the UN's decision to separate the presidential elections from the parliamentary elections, which are scheduled for next spring.

Sikorski says this two-stage election process could concentrate too much power in Karzai's presidency. He likened this imbalance to the disproportionate amount of power held by Kurds in Iraq's government -- something also approved by the UN.

"What may have happened [in Afghanistan] is that the UN may have been wrong again. Now it looks like the power of the presidency will be unchecked for six months [until parliamentary elections in the spring], and everybody suspects that [the time will] be used to manipulate the outcome of the parliamentary elections," Sikorski said.

On a more positive note, Sikorski says he is impressed with the registration for the coming elections. The UN says almost 8 million of the estimated 9 to 10 million eligible voters in Afghanistan have now registered.