Op-Ed: In Afghanistan election, three plausible presidents

Supporters of Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai listen to his speech during an election rally in Jalalabad.
Supporters of Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai listen to his speech during an election rally in Jalalabad.
(Noorullah Shirzada / AFP/Getty Images)
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Negative early headlines about Afghanistan’s April 5 presidential election are easy to imagine. Some candidates are already trying to foster a simplified view among Westerners that they can fail to make the likely second-round runoff only if there is fraud. This is a deliberate attempt to provoke U.S. interference, whatever the facts.

A peaceful transition of power to a new president broadly accepted as legitimate by the Afghan people is essential for several reasons: to secure future Afghan stability; to maintain support for Afghanistan in the U.S. Congress; and, above all, to achieve a key strategic goal — that the nation does not again become a base for terrorism against the United States.

Extensive fraud could undermine the goal of an acceptable transfer of power. But it will be important not to discredit the legitimacy of the Afghan election simply because it falls short of perfection. The international community should concentrate on a practical standard that recognizes the challenges that young democracies inevitably face in holding elections, and not let preconceptions write the story in advance.


In fact, this election is too close to call. There are entirely plausible reasons that any of the three main candidates — former Foreign Ministers Abdullah Abdullah and Zalmai Rassoul and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani — could win. Ghani and Rassoul are, like President Hamid Karzai, ethnic Pashtuns (the largest ethnic group). Abdullah is considered primarily Tajik (the second-largest ethnic group and provider of many of the military leaders).

Consider each:

Abdullah Abdullah: The runner-up to Karzai in the 2009 presidential race, Abdullah has many strengths. Of the three, he has spent the most time in and near Afghanistan during its troubles in the 1980s and ‘90s, working for a time as a close political advisor to the Northern Alliance and the famous mujahedin leader Ahmed Shah Massoud. He has a platform committed to political reform, beginning with a proposal for the direct election of governors (now presidential appointees), and reform of the Senate. His ticket is multi-ethnic, with a Pashtun and a Hazara. He appears to have considerable support not only in Tajik-dominated parts of the country, where security is fairly good and therefore voter turnout likely to be relatively high, but also in segments of the country’s Pashtun belts.

Abdullah’s possible liabilities include his ethnicity. Although Afghans are not as sectarian as Iraqis or Syrians have proved in recent times, there is a strong tradition and expectation of Pashtun leadership. He is still seen as a Tajik candidate despite being half-Pashtun by virtue of his father’s ethnicity. Because he fought with the Tajik-led Northern Alliance, Pakistan may find his leadership troubling and escalate its support for the Taliban should he win. Because of his past rivalry with Karzai, his election could also raise concerns about major tension between them.

Ashraf Ghani: Ghani is a brilliant man who spent many years in the West. He moved back to Afghanistan after the Taliban’s overthrow and has been a crucial figure in the government. He is probably its best economist and is well equipped to attack problems of economic management, which will worsen because of the withdrawal of NATO combat forces. He has built a broad national base over the recent past, when he led the Afghan side of the transition process, and has attracted significant enthusiasm in his recent rallies.

But Ghani also has significant negatives. Many fear his temper would hinder his working with key power centers. The main challenge is that he selected Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, the brutal Uzbek leader, as his first vice president (undoubtedly to gain much of the Uzbek vote). Dostum is considered a war criminal and reviled by many, especially Pashtuns. In addition, Ghani lacks a Tajik on his ticket and is viewed by some as an anti-Tajik Pashtun chauvinist. Some also characterize him as a crypto-communist; this charge, even if unfair, would cost him votes.

Zalmai Rassoul: A gentle man who spent much of his life in Italy as the personal physician to Afghanistan’s exiled king, Rassoul was until last year the nation’s foreign minister (a position Abdullah held earlier in the Karzai presidency). His greatest strength is that he is seen as the candidate least likely to provoke radical change. In this sense he is reassuring (non-threatening) to power brokers and perhaps some entrenched criminal elements, but also to ordinary Afghans who feel buffeted and threatened by constant change. His running mates are reputable individuals who provide good ethnic balance on his ticket.


As for liabilities, Rassoul is often viewed as too weak to confront the country’s problems. He is a latecomer to the race whom many view as Karzai’s preferred candidate, especially since Karzai’s brother Abdul Qayum recently dropped out of the race and endorsed Rassoul. This means that Karzai might greatly influence a Rassoul presidency, and that Rassoul might not attack the corruption and bad governance that have implicated many in Karzai’s inner circle. It also raises worries, shared and sometimes stoked by the Ghani and Abdullah camps, that any Rassoul victory would be the result of government-led fraud. In fact, our soundings on a recent trip to Afghanistan suggest that there is growing support for Rassoul in several parts of the country, although we cannot gauge its depth.

Each of the three candidates would be a plausible president of Afghanistan — or a plausible first-round loser. Each would be more comfortable for the West than Karzai. So when complaints about fraud are voiced by the camps of whoever falls short in the first round, we should not jump to conclusions or declare the Afghan project a failure.

It is important that fraud be less than it was in 2009, and that the independent bodies holding the elections and vouching for their integrity be willing and able to do their jobs effectively. It is important that whoever wins work hard to create inclusiveness and stability in his government, and to take governance responsibilities seriously. But it is also important in coming weeks to keep perspective, check the facts and quietly press the Afghan contenders to reach agreements they can all live with. There is much about this process that is hopeful. We should not rush to judgment.

Ronald Neumann was U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 through 2007 and is the author of “The Other War”; Michael O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the coauthor of “Toughing It Out in Afghanistan.” They recently traveled to Afghanistan at the invitation of the U.S. military.