In the midst of the controversy surrounding his brother's 11th-hour appointment as Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai's running mate in the upcoming elections, Ahmad Wali Mas'ud, Afghanistan's ambassador to the United Kingdom, told RFE/RL in an exclusive interview on 11 August in Kabul that it is no longer viable for Afghans to support a candidate on charisma alone; it is necessary to consider the candidate's political platform.
"Throughout history in Afghanistan, whenever we've backed leaders on the basis of their charisma or personality, it has often backfired," said Mas'ud, who is the youngest brother of slain commander Ahmad Shah Mas'ud, and head of the Nahzat-e-Melli Afghanistan party. "We are entering a new era in Afghanistan. We are entering the 21st century -- it is a new world. What's most important is the program of the leader and the competence of his team -- not who he is."
"I am interested in backing the candidate who shows me a program for Afghanistan that would best serve the interests of the Afghan people."
These remarks come at a critical time. Observers are keen to know whether Mas'ud will back his older brother, Ahmad Zia Mas'ud, who serves as Afghanistan's ambassador to Russia, or whether he will side with Education Minister Yunos Qanuni, who announced his candidacy soon after Karzai dropped Defense Minister Marshall Mohammad Qasim Fahim from the ticket in favor of Ahmad Zia Mas'ud.
"Personalities are not important, although I know that in Afghanistan this has usually been significant. But I am interested in backing the candidate who shows me a program for Afghanistan that would best serve the interests of the Afghan people," Mas'ud said.
Does he intend to back his brother? Without giving a specific answer, Mas'ud pointed out that his brother is a founding member of Nahzat-e-Melli Afghanistan, along with Qanuni, and this clearly puts him in a precarious position.
"My immediate job is to bridge the gap," he said, and he seems to have adopted a "wait and see" approach.
"I am responsible for Nahzat-e-Melli," he continued. "I am not acting alone. I must act through the collective decision-making process of Nahzat-e-Melli. In making the decision, we must be very careful to stick to the principles and charter of Nahzat. It is very important for me and the party because, on one side we have Ahmad Zia who is a prominent member of Nahzat, and on the other side we have Qanuni who is also a key member of Nahzat. My position -- and the position of the party -- is critical."
Observers believe that the situation may lead to a rift in the Panjsheri faction, which has played a dominant role in Afghan politics since the fall of the Taliban (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 5 August 2004). As the brother of a slain national hero, 47-year-old Ahmad Zia is likely to eat up a chunk of national support; but Qanuni is a respected politician who was a close associate of the late commander Ahmad Shah Mas'ud during the resistance. Mas'ud's decision is bound to tip the balance one way or the other.
"No, I don't think there will be a rift," he said. "It's not a question of Panjsheri and non-Panjsheri. This is a question of Afghanistan. We are all working for Afghanistan. Ahmad Zia is here to work for Afghanistan and so is Qanuni. So this is not about Panjsher [Province, situated north of Kabul]."
Mas'ud believes that the confusion is a result of inadequate consultation and hasty actions. He rejects the suggestion that the scenario was entirely prearranged as a plot to strengthen the Panjsheri hand in determining the makeup of the postelection government.
"Both of these candidates were nominated in a hasty situation. Nothing was prearranged," he insisted, adding that he did not know why Karzai suddenly dropped Fahim from the ticket at the 11th hour, and why he chose Ahmad Zia as his running mate (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 31 July 2004).
"One thing is very clear," he said. "Ahmad Zia has the name of Mas'ud, and this name is very popular in Afghanistan. Apart from that, why he chose my brother, this is a question for Karzai himself."
Mas'ud describes his brother's character as "calm, discrete, honest, and nonconfrontational."
"He is a good Muslim, but moderate in his views. He believes in democracy and social justice. He reads voraciously, all sorts of books from politics to social history," he said. "He was active in the jihad against the Soviets, and he worked very closely with our older brother, [Ahmad Shah] Mas'ud. In fact, he was probably the most important representative of Mas'ud during the time of jihad," he said.
Karzai's nomination of Ahmad Zia was ostensibly meant to win over the mujahedin, whose confidence in the president has waned in recent months. As vice president, Ahmad Zia would be contributing his illustrious brother's name to Karzai's campaign. It is worth noting that Ahmad Zia is also the son-in-law of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, whose full backing he enjoys.
"What is ironic in this scenario is that both of these candidates, Ahmad Zia and Qanuni, belong to Nahzat," Mas'ud stressed. "Except, Nahzat itself was officially registered on 27 July, one day after the nominations."
Asked how he felt about the popular perception that the outcome of the elections is predetermined, Mas'ud replied: "Holding elections in Afghanistan for the first time in our history is significant, and it can be regarded as one step toward democracy, but this alone is not enough. It doesn't prove much to the people of Afghanistan, despite its significance outside the country and to the media. What really makes a difference is a clear political platform, a national agenda, and a good team."
He added: "Words are not enough, we need people who will practice what they preach. Only if there is a commitment to a political platform and a national agenda would these elections be worth the money spent on it, and the effort invested by the international community."