KABUL: Burhanuddin Rabbani turned over the presidency of Afghanistan to Hamid Karzai with a hug and his blessing seven years ago. Now, like many Afghans, Rabbani says he’s counting the days until Karzai is turned out of office. “We thought he was a young man who should be given the opportunity to work as president in a period of transition,” Rabbani, 66, said in an interview at his Kabul home. “Unfortunately, he failed. It is a great tragedy.”
Rabbani, who was president from 1992 to 1996 and for a month after the Taliban regime fell in 2001, shares a growing concern that sending more U.S. soldiers to Afghanistan won’t improve security unless the central government fights corruption, slashes opium production and stops squandering reconstruction aid. `There is a lot of anger and frustration,” said Paul Fishstein, director of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit. “People want decisive action taken against corruption. They are looking for strong leadership. Instead they see impunity for people involved in the biggest crimes.”
Voter registration is set to begin within weeks for a presidential election in the second half of 2009. In a national opinion poll conducted by the San Francisco- based Asia Foundation in October, the most recent data available, 64 percent of Afghans said Karzai’s government is doing a poor job of controlling corruption. Of the more than 6,000 Afghans questioned, 53 percent said Karzai hadn’t done enough to rebuild the country.
Afghans who gave 55 percent of their votes to Karzai in 2004 saw him as a consensus candidate who could unite ethnic factions after 15 years of strife. He’s a 50-year-old Pashtun, the group that represents 40 percent of Afghanistan’s 30 million people.
Karzai initially made a positive impression on the world stage, where he was greeted as a charismatic leader whose colorful capes and peaked karakul cap landed him on Esquire magazine’s list of best-dressed men. His stature helped attract pledges of more than $25 billion in reconstruction aid.
Afghan confidence in Karzai has faded amid the Taliban’s resurgence, and he is increasingly at odds with the U.S. and its European allies. Karzai vetoed the appointment in January of Britain’s Paddy Ashdown as the United Nations’ top envoy to Afghanistan, saying he would be too intrusive, criticized allied forces for air strikes that killed civilians, and said Taliban and al-Qaeda safe havens in Pakistan should be attacked.
Both U.S. presidential candidates fault Karzai’s leadership while pledging to send more troops to Afghanistan. The U.S. contributes about 17,500 of the 53,000 troops under North Atlantic Treaty Organization command and has 18,500 other troops in an American-led counter terrorism force. Democrat Barack Obama, an Illinois senator, said on July 10 that Karzai has not “gotten out of the bunker” to rebuild the country. Republican John McCain, an Arizona senator, said on July 14 that Karzai “has not been effective.”
The loss of confidence in Karzai is compounded by a lack of candidates with the background and national standing to defeat him, according to Haroun Mir, founder of the Afghanistan Center for Research and Policy Studies. Possible contenders such as Afghan native Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the UN and former envoy to Afghanistan, have been out of the country too long to understand the current challenges, Mir said. Others are tainted by human-rights abuses during the civil war, he said.
“Everyone recognizes there is no alternative to this president,” Humayun Hamidzada, Karzai’s top spokesman, said in an interview. “We are putting our house in order. Afghanistan’s problems are linked to the situation in the region, and they are a legacy of the Soviet invasion and civil war for decades.”
Rabbani stroked his well-trimmed gray beard and with a smile suggested he would be open to a draft by the United National Front, the political coalition of Tajik militias that helped the U.S. oust the Taliban and which he now leads. The party’s nominee, to be named in about six months, is likely to pose the most serious threat to Karzai’s re-election. “In the past that was a decision I made,” said Rabbani, who led the mujahedeen fighters that drove the Soviet Union’s army out of Afghanistan in 1989. “Now it is up to the National Front, and my life is for my country and my people.”
The campaign gathered steam when Attorney General Abdul Jabar Sabit declared his candidacy on July 16 and was ousted from the Cabinet because of a law that ministers can’t simultaneously serve and run for office. Other potential candidates include former Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalili, Mustafa Zahir, grandson of Afghanistan’s last king, and Younis Qanooni, speaker of the parliament’s lower house.
Rabbani’s problem is that he was the first leader of Afghanistan in 250 years to be a Tajik, the group that makes up only about 25 percent of the population, and that his presidency was marked by ethnic conflict that destroyed much of Kabul and led to his being deposed by the Taliban. “The Afghan people are looking for a change,” Rabbani said. “Each day they are counting the final days of the administration, even more than Americans.-SANA