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Analysis: Mas'ud's Legacy

On 26 July, the last day when candidates in Afghanistan's 9 October presidential elections could register their candidacy, Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai officially joined a pool of 23 hopefuls to become Afghanistan's future leader.

The fact that Karzai would announce his candidacy was a given. Moreover, many have already said that he is certain of winning. What surprised many Afghan watchers and even politicians inside Karzai's own camp was his choice for the post of first vice president.

Most observers predicted that Karzai would name the powerful United Front (aka Northern Alliance) military leader and his current first deputy, Defense Minister Marshal Mohammad Qasim Fahim, as his first deputy. Fahim was not seen as the most capable person for the job or the best representative of the Tajiks, Afghanistan's second-largest ethnic group, but was rather viewed as a powerful military man who, if not included on the ticket, would potentially create trouble for Karzai. In a conversation with RFE/RL on 20 July in Kabul, Labor and Social Affairs Minister Nur Mohammad Qarqin, who now heads Karzai's campaign, suggested that Fahim had originally been on the ticket because of security concerns.
Ahmad Shah Mas'ud's portraits adorn not only many governmental buildings, but windshields of taxis, carpets, and Afghan stamps

But Karzai, surprising many, passed over Fahim in favor of another Tajik with a more celebrated name. He named Ahmad Zia Mas'ud, Afghanistan's ambassador to Moscow and a younger brother of slain United Front leader Ahmad Shah Mas'ud, as his choice for first vice president.

Ahmad Shah Mas'ud, one of the most celebrated resistance leaders during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979-89), gained extraordinary international recognition during the Taliban rule (1994-2001) as the leader of the only military group that was not crushed. Inside Afghanistan -- and especially among the Tajiks -- Ahmad Shah Mas'ud's status as the unsung hero of the country reached its zenith when Al-Qaeda terrorists assassinated him on 9 September 2001. Today in Kabul, Ahmad Shah Mas'ud's portraits adorn not only many governmental buildings, but windshields of taxis, carpets, and Afghan stamps. And Mas'ud is perhaps the only Afghan whose likeness has been put on a foreign country's stamp -- France has issued a Mas'ud stamp to commemorate the slain Afghan hero.

By running with Ahmad Zia Mas'ud, Karzai is hoping that the glory of the Mas'ud name will give him more popular appeal -- and keep the Tajiks content. However, there is another factor that the younger Mas'ud brings to Karzai's campaign, which Fahim, by allying himself with Karzai in the last few months, has lost: the support of the powerful leaders ("jihadi") of the former Afghan mujahedin parties. Ahmad Zia Mas'ud is a son-in-law of the former Afghan president and leader of Jami'at-e Islami-ye Afghanistan, Burhanuddin Rabbani.

The jihadi leaders, while losing some of their influence during the Taliban period and being somewhat sidelined during the last two years of the Afghan transitional period, still garner respect among the more traditional segments of Afghan society -- the vast majority of the population. Moreover, jihadi leaders such as Rabbani, if not included in the future Afghan political process, could create problems.

During the resistance against the Soviets, Ahmad Shah Mas'ud was one of the commanders of Jami'at-e Islami. However, with the ouster of Rabbani's government from Kabul by the Taliban in 1996, Mas'ud became the leader of his own faction known as Shura'-ye Nezar. People such as Fahim, Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, and current presidential candidate Mohammad Yunos Qanuni are all considered to be unofficial members of Shura'-ye Nezar. These individuals, however, cannot be viewed as representing the more conservative and traditional mujahedin leadership, which Rabbani does.

Ahmad Zia Mas'ud continues the Mas'ud legacy, not only by sharing the name, but also because he fought alongside his older brother. And he has the added advantage of enjoying the full support of his father-in-law.

According to some observers, Rabbani reportedly said that either Karzai included his son-in-law on the ticket, or the younger Mas'ud would announce his own candidacy with the full support of Jami'at-e Islami and its allied jihadi parties.

With the removal of Fahim from the scene, Karzai has gained not only a more well-known running mate but the backing of a major mujahedin party. He has also given himself the chance to, in due time, rid Kabul of military units loyal to Fahim. Furthermore, Rabbani, as an ethnic Tajik, can now rally the Tajiks' support behind Karzai.

Presidential hopeful Qanuni is also banking on the Mas'ud name for success in the campaign. Qanuni reportedly enjoys the support of Fahim, Foreign Minister Abdullah, as well as Ahmad Zia Mas'ud's younger brother, Ahmad Wali Mas'ud, currently Afghanistan's ambassador to London. The test will be whether Mas'ud's legacy can withstand two brothers competing for the same recognition.