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Afghanistan: The Men Who Would Be King | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Afghan presidential candidates (L-R) Abdullah Abdullah, Qayum Karzai, Abdul Rahim Wardak, Zalmai Rassoul and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai participate in the first presidential election debate at a local TV channel studio in Kabul February 4, 2014. (Reuters/Omar Sobhani)

Afghan presidential candidates (L-R) Abdullah Abdullah, Qayum Karzai, Abdul Rahim Wardak, Zalmai Rassoul and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai participate in the first presidential election debate at a local TV channel studio in Kabul February 4, 2014. (Reuters/Omar Sobhani)

Afghan presidential candidates (L-R) Abdullah Abdullah, Qayum Karzai, Abdul Rahim Wardak, Zalmai Rassoul and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai participate in the first presidential election debate at a local TV channel studio in Kabul February 4, 2014. (Reuters/Omar Sobhani)

Kabul, Asharq Al-Awsat—One of the longest presidential election campaigns in the world is under way in Afghanistan. It precedes an election that is widely seen as being crucial to the nation’s future stability. Should it prove to be free and fair, it could be the first time in Afghanistan’s turbulent history that power has passed peacefully from one democratically elected president to another. However, given the levels of corruption in the country’s political systems, its ethnic and political divisions and the ongoing violence across the state, the odds do not look good.

The incumbent president, Hamid Karzai—suspected by many analysts of fraud in the previous election of 2009—is barred by term limits from standing again, leaving the field open for the 11 candidates approved last year by the country’s Independent Election Commission. Each candidate has two running mates, as Afghanistan has two vice-presidents at a time.

The election will be held on April 5, three days after the end of the campaigning period. The candidates are an eclectic group of former Jihadist leaders, Islamists, relatives of Afghanistan’s former king and western-educated technocrats.

Zalmai Rassoul

A Kabul-born Pashtun and former associate of Afghanistan’s last king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, Rassoul originally pursued a career in medicine, after training as a doctor in Paris. Over the past 12 years he has been a close confidant of outgoing president Karzai, and has served variously as minister of aviation, national security adviser, and minister of foreign affairs in his two administrations. In a field of technocrats and former mujahideen leaders he is seen as being rather middle-of-the-road. His personal life may become an issue in the campaign, as he remains unmarried—unusual in Afghanistan.

His running mates are Ahmed Zia Massoud, the brother of legendary former mujahideen and Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was assassinated by Al-Qaeda on September 10, 2001, and one of only two women in the race, Habiba Sarabi, a qualified hematologist and former governor of Bamyan province.

Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai

A Pashtun from an influential family, he holds a doctorate in Cultural Anthropology from Columbia University and worked as an advisor to the World Bank during the 1990s. Since the fall of the Taliban he has been special adviser to the UN special representative in Afghanistan, chief adviser to Karzai, finance minister and chancellor of Kabul University. He stood as a candidate in the last presidential election, and was placed fourth. Since then he has worked on the program to transfer security responsibilities from NATO to Afghan forces.

His running mates are General Abdul Rasheed Dostum, a notorious Uzbek warlord and one of the most controversial political and military figures of recent decades in Afghanistan, and Sarwar Danish, an ethnic Hazara member of the Hizb-e-Wahdat party and former minister of justice.

Abdul Rab Rassoul Sayyaf

A former warlord and professor at the Shariyat Islamic University in Kabul. Another Pashtun, he is one of the icons of the mujahideen struggle against the then Soviet Union and has been associated with groups who have been resisting the Taliban and jihadist groups, though he is also known for his hardline conservative religious views. He was a supporter of Karzai and is leader of the Da’vat party, as well as a member of parliament for Kabul. He claims to be a fervent opponent of the Taliban.

His running mates are Ismail Khan, a former jihadist and anti-Taliban resistance leader, and Abdul Wahhab Arafan, a former member of the national assembly.

Abdullah Abdullah

An ethnic Tajik and the youngest candidate at 53 years old, Abdullah was originally a medical doctor who qualified from the University of Kabul. A former senior member of the Northern Alliance, he was a close associate of the late Ahmed Shah Massoud, and served as foreign minister in the interim and transitional governments after the fall of the Taliban.

He then created the Coalition for Change and Hope in opposition to Karzai. A presidential candidate in the 2009 election, he made it to the second round, winning 30 percent of the vote before dropping out amid accusations of fraud against Karzai. In 2011, the Coalition changed its name to the National Coalition of Afghanistan after many political parties joined its ranks. Abdullah is currently its leader.

His running mates are Mohammad Khan, a graduate in electrical engineering from the University of Kabul, and Mohammed Mohaqqiq, a well-known figure from the war against the Soviet Union who studied at a seminary in Qom, Iran.

Mohammad Dawoud Sultanzoi

A Pashtun former airline pilot married to the former—and so far only—Miss Afghanistan, Sultanzoi left Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion and moved to the US, where he worked for United Airlines.

He moved back to Afghanistan after the downfall of the Taliban and served as the member of parliament for the district of Ghazni between 2005 and 2010. Many attributed his victory in the election to his efforts to register as many women voters as possible. He was briefly president of the parliament’s economics committee, and was known as an outspoken critic of Karzai and official corruption, and also hosted his own TV talk show.

His running mates are mining engineer Farid Ahmed Fazli and Kazmiyeh Mohaqqiq, a political scientist.

Abdul Raheem Wardak

A Pashtun and former minister of defense, he served as an officer in the Afghan army prior to the Soviet invasion and received training in the US and Egypt. He became a lecturer at Kabul Military Academy.

After the Soviet invasion he fought with the Mujahideenn and joined the National Islamic Front of Afghanistan under Ahmad Gailani. He then joined the “Rome group” associated with the former king Zahir Shah, and was appointed Minister of Defense in 2004. He was dismissed by parliament in 2010. He subsequently served as Karzai’s chief adviser on defense and military reform.

Sixty-year-old Shah Abdulahad Afzali, a former mujahid, and Sayed Hussein Anwari, 57, a former jihadist, are his running mates. They are both former member of the national assembly.

Abdul Qayyum Karzai

The elder brother of President Karzai, Qayyum was born in Kandahar in 1957 and lived in the US before the fall of the Taliban. He returned to Afghanistan after they were toppled and was elected to the national assembly as a representative for Kandahar. However, following long absences and complaints from other representatives, he resigned in 2008, citing “ill health.” Having spent much of his adult life as a restaurateur in Maryland in the US, Karzai is not as well known inside Afghanistan as some of the other candidates.

He is campaigning with Wahidullah Shahrani, 40, a graduate in finance and banking, former minister of commerce and current Minister of Mines, and former national assembly member Mohammed Noor Akbari, 50.

Mohammed Nader Naeem

Born in 1965, he is a grandson of Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan. Following the coup that overthrew the monarchy in 1973, he moved to London, where he continued his studies in computer science. He returned to Afghanistan with his grandfather in 2001 following the fall of the Taliban, and began his political career.

His running mates are 60-year-old Taj Mohammed Akbar and 56-year-old former mujahideen member Azizullah Puya.

Qutbuddin Hilal

A 61-year-old from Eastern Afghanistan, he studied engineering at the University of Kabul. Following the communist takeover he left for Pakistan and joined the Hizb-e-Islami under the notorious Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. He served as deputy prime minister under Hekmatyar between 1993 and 1996, before the devastating civil war that brought the Taliban to power. He says he is still a member of Hizb-e-Islami but claims he is standing as an independent in this election.

He is running with Inayatullah Inayat, a former member of the supreme criminal court and Mohammed Ali Nabizada, a medical doctor who was formerly a member of jihadist organizations.

Gul Agha Sherzai

Also known as Mohammed Shafiq, Sherzai was born in Kandahar. During the communist era he was a member of the National Islamic Front of Afghanistan. Following the fall of the Taliban regime he served as the governor of the provinces of Kandahar and Nangarhar. He is known as ‘the bulldozer’ because of the many construction projects he has undertaken in Nangarhar and his ownership of the Jamal Baba Construction Company.

His running mates are Sayyed Hussein Alami Balkhi, who has a degree in Islamic jurisprudence and is a former member of the Islamic Jihad Unity party, and Mohammed Hashem Zari, a former member of the National Islamic Salvation Front.

Hidayat Amin Arsala

Born in 1942, he studied economics in Kabul University before transferring to Southern Illinois University in the US, where he obtained a BA and MA. He subsequently completed a PhD in George Washington University, and was the first Afghan to join the World Bank in 1969. He left in 1987 to join the struggle to expel the Soviet Union, and co-founded the National Islamic Front of Afghanistan. He subsequently served as the finance minister of the Mujahideen coalition government from 1993 to 1995. After the fall of the Taliban he was elected Finance Minister and Vice-President.

He is campaigning with General Khodadad, a Hazara and former officer in the Afghan army and former minister of counter-narcotics, and Safia Sidiqi, the only other woman in the race and a Pashtun Afghan-Canadian women’s rights activist with a doctorate in law. She is a former member of the Afghan national assembly.

This story was originally published in Sharq Parsi