KABUL, Afghanistan — AFTER decades roaming the margins of power — as a close aide to the revered resistance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, as a foreign minister and later as Afghanistan’s perennial opposition leader — Abdullah Abdullah may finally be arriving at the center of it all.
Since his electoral loss to President Hamid Karzai in 2009, Mr. Abdullah, who is of mixed Pashtun and Tajik ethnicity, has widened his political base, having used persuasion and energy to forge alliances built on the core of ethnic Tajik supporters he made during his days as part of the Northern Alliance mujahedeen coalition.
His critics have seized on that history and say that as president he will be a threat to national unity. They argue that his close relationships with powerful regional warlords raise the specter of more of the cronyism and corruption that the Afghan public resents, and will risk alienating ethnic Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in the country.
But the true response to that criticism, his supporters say, is in his widening coalition, and in his commanding lead during the first round of presidential voting in April.
Mr. Abdullah garnered 45 percent of the vote in the first round, compared with 33 percent for his closest competitor, Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister and World Bank official. The result proved wrong the analysts who said that it would be impossible for a candidate not viewed as an ethnic Pashtun to fill the front-runner role.
Now, as he faces a runoff election against Mr. Ghani, a Pashtun, on Saturday, nearly every significant presidential candidate from the first round — all of them Pashtuns — has endorsed Mr. Abdullah’s ticket. Despite that rallying of support, some analysts predict that the runoff vote will be much closer than the first round, as many Pashtun voters line up behind Mr. Ghani because of shared ethnicity.
Mr. Abdullah rejects that notion, arguing that he is a unity candidate capable of stitching together the country’s myriad groups with a message of national resilience.
“There will be a lot of news about this issue,” he said in an interview, “but among the people I don’t think it will be a big deal.”
He has pushed ahead by excelling at the central skill of Afghan political leadership: making deals. He has brought potential rivals aboard and turned them into supporters. That was in evidence just hours after the polls closed in the first round of voting in April, when he recognized an opportunity in the disappointment of the third-place candidate, Zalmay Rassoul, and called him. Over breakfast the next morning, the two sealed a deal to give Mr. Rassoul a role in Mr. Abdullah’s administration should he win, according to people familiar with the negotiations.
HIS political skills have also allowed him to pull off a tight balancing act, by appealing to Western leaders who appreciate his outspoken support of the United States and his fluent English, even as he has gained points with the Afghan public for being a political leader who remained tethered to the country through years of war, when others stayed abroad.
That has given him an advantage against Mr. Ghani, who earned a doctorate at Columbia University and for years held dual citizenship in the United States. For his part, Mr. Ghani has accused Mr. Abdullah of lacking the reformer’s ethic and the economic expertise the country needs to move ahead.
Mr. Abdullah dismisses such claims with a classic politician’s argument: He is a leader, and he can build the expertise base the country needs.
“This gentleman has just finished his doctorate,” he said, pointing to the back of his opulent living room, where a young man sat clutching a notebook. “This gentleman has just finished his master’s,” he said, pointing to a corner of the room, where another staff member stood, before producing a list of individuals with advanced degrees whom he planned to speak with about jobs in his administration.
After a brief pause, he drove home his dig at Mr. Ghani: “It’s not that somebody has the monopoly of expertise.”
Mr. Abdullah, 53, was born in Kabul to a father who was appointed to the Afghan Senate by the king, Mohammad Zahir Shah. He went to school in Kabul, and later returned to the city to earn a medical degree.
After a brief stint working at an eye clinic for refugees in Peshawar, Pakistan, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, Mr. Abdullah decided to return and join the mujahedeen resistance. He became a close aide to Mr. Massoud, who is widely revered among ethnic Tajiks as the military leader of the Northern Alliance, and was serving as foreign minister for the alliance when suicide bombers killed Mr. Massoud shortly before the Sept. 11 attacks.
That association has been a major draw among Afghans who believe that the jihad — meant specifically in Afghanistan as the resistance to the Soviets — was one of their nation’s greatest achievements.
“One of the reasons behind our decision to support Mr. Abdullah is to protect the values of jihad,” Wahidullah Shahrani, a former vice-presidential candidate and minister of mines, said at a recent news conference.
But other Afghans find those mujahedeen alliances worrisome. Some of the warlords made up factions at the core of the nation’s devastating civil war in the 1990s, and their persistence in power has held Afghanistan’s progress back, some Afghans say.
“If they win, it will be very dangerous for security, progress and democracy in Afghanistan,” said Wadir Safi, a law professor at Kabul University.
Another question looming for both candidates, but especially for Mr. Abdullah, is how they would approach the Taliban insurgency, and whether and how to pursue the possibility of talks and political reconciliation.
In the past, Mr. Abdullah had expressed consistent opposition to any negotiated settlement. “Whether we like to talk to them or we don’t like to talk to them, they will continue to fight,” he said in a 2010 interview with National Public Radio. “So, for them, I don’t think that we have a way forward with talks or negotiations or contacts or anything as such.”
But Mr. Abdullah says he has changed his stance in recent years. In light of the prisoner swap between the Americans and the Taliban for the sole United States prisoner of war late last month, some Afghan and Western officials believe that there could be a break in the impasse when a new president comes into office.
“We genuinely want to enter negotiations, but at the same time we are here to protect the rights of our citizens and their achievements,” he said. “Postelection, there is an opportunity. Whether they seize it or not, we cannot judge it at this stage.”
Western officials also suggest that Mr. Abdullah would be a more credible interlocutor than Mr. Ghani and Mr. Karzai given his history of resistance to the Taliban. Precisely because he represents much of the country’s Tajik north, the Taliban, which are drawn largely from the southern and eastern Pashtun tribes, might view him as a legitimate broker on behalf of the entire country.
EVEN for those who are suspicious of his factional alliances, the fact that Mr. Abdullah has spent nearly his entire life in Afghanistan, through good times and bad, goes a long way with Afghans.
“They say, ‘If there is a hard day tomorrow, this guy will be with us,’ ” Mr. Abdullah said of his supporters.
As if to prove that point, Mr. Abdullah arrived at a news conference last week less than three hours after a suicide bombing attack on his convoy in Kabul, a close call for him that killed three of his bodyguards and several civilians.
Hundreds had gathered somberly in a ballroom to see him, and erupted into a standing ovation as he walked toward the stage, wearing a brown suede jacket over a light blue shalwar kameez (the traditional tunic and pants outfit) beneath.
A series of speakers extolled Mr. Abdullah for his intelligence, his leadership and his association with the mujahedeen. Mr. Abdullah, for his part, sat silently, occasionally clutched his phone and appeared slightly shocked.
But when it was finally his turn to speak, Mr. Abdullah, ever the politician, kept his focus on a simple message.
“The wise response to this conspiracy,” he said, “is to go and vote.”
Source: New York Times