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Who Will Follow Hamid Karzai?

afghan president hamid karzai

By Javid Ahmad

The options are limited. Some may even undermine a decade of progress.

As Hamid Karzai’s Afghan presidency enters its final year, it’s not too early to consider the question of who will become his successor. The options are limited, with some of the potential candidates threatening to steer the country on a course toward alienation and political unrest, undermining a decade of progress.

Although Mr. Karzai has promised to step down and not seek another term—he is, in any case, constitutionally barred from doing so—he is no lame duck. He alone has managed to rise above Afghanistan’s complex ethnic and tribal divisions and will undoubtedly use that advantage to become kingmaker, creating a coalition to support his preferred successor. His recent anti-U.S. tirades suggest he is trying to gain ground with so-called nationalists and portray himself as a man of the people. He has also surrounded himself with a cohort of aides associated with the hard-line Hizb-e-Islami–Hekmatyar group.

A number of possible candidates have already emerged ahead of the April 5, 2014 election. Omar Daudzai, an ethnic Pashtun who is Mr. Karzai’s close confidant and ambassador to Pakistan, recently hinted he might run. He has long been touted as Mr. Karzai’s preferred choice to replace him and essentially follow in his footsteps.

Qayum Karzai, Mr. Karzai’s brother, is another possible candidate. A second brother, Mahmoud Karzai, has renounced his U.S. citizenship to enter Afghan politics, which would only extend Mr. Karzai’s family rule.

Others, such as former interior minister Ali Ahmad Jalali, a Pashtun, and Fawzia Koofi, a Tajik member of parliament, have announced their intention to contest the election. Mr. Jalali lacks grassroots support among Afghans, however, and not many would vote in favor of Mrs. Koofi, the lone female contender. Hanif Atmar, a Pashtun reformist leader, and Abdullah Abdullah, who lost to Mr. Karzai in the 2009 elections and now heads a coalition of Afghan opposition parties, could also run or field candidates to represent their parties.

Key leaders from Afghanistan’s National Front—the erstwhile Northern Alliance—have said they will stand behind one candidate, most likely Atta Mohammad Noor, a powerful ethnic Tajik who is now the governor of Balkh province. Although Mr. Noor enjoys strong European support, Afghan enthusiasm outside of his northern stronghold is negligible. Mr. Noor’s checkered history as a commander in the 1990s civil war and his opposition to negotiations with the Taliban will further complicate his presidential aspirations.

Other aspirants close to Mr. Karzai, such as current education minister Farooq Wardak and the head of the transition commission, Ashraf Ghani, would likely not enter the race until Mr. Karzai has made his preferences known.

Beyond these traditional candidates, another dynamic is at work. Better education and easy access to technology have enabled young Afghans, who account for nearly two-thirds of the population, to become more engaged in current affairs. While Afghan politicians often boast that more than eight million Afghans are now attending school, they rarely address what those students might do after graduation. But politicians can no longer afford to ignore the more than 25% unemployment among Afghans.

A diverse group of young people recently formed a civic-political movement called Afghanistan 1400 to transcend the traditional ethnocentric agendas harbored by most Afghan politicians. And last year Amrullah Saleh, the former head of Afghan intelligence, launched the Green Trend, another political movement that appeals to Afghan youth and sternly opposes reconciliation with the Taliban. Although these nascent movements provide a good platform for Afghan youth to voice their opinions on the country’s future, they still lack widespread support. It is unlikely they will have a notable role and impact on the election—this time.

The absence of a viable political alternative has kept Washington and its allies largely reliant on Mr. Karzai, despite his resistance to reforms. Now that this resistance has bolstered Mr. Karzai’s influence over the selection of the next president of Afghanistan, responsibility for a credible and orderly transfer of power falls squarely on his shoulders.

Javid Ahmad is a Program Coordinator for Asia at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. He is also a consultant to Pentagon’s AfPak Hands Program.

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