Amid all the excitement and policy announcements of the new United States administration, four key players in the race to be Afghanistan’s next president were meeting officials in Washington last week, fuelling speculation that Hamid Karzai’s days in charge are numbered.
International support for Mr Karzai has waned spectacularly since 2001, amid worsening violence, endemic corruption and weak leadership. But until very recently, diplomats insisted there were no viable alternatives to the incumbent regime.
Now there is talk of a “dream ticket” that would see the main challengers run together to unite the country’s various ethnic groups and wrest control away from Mr Karzai.
“The Americans aren’t going to determine the outcome of the election, but they could suggest people put their differences aside and form a dream ticket,” a senior US analyst in Kabul said.
The unofficial delegation to Washington comprised Dr Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister; Dr Ashraf Ghani, who served as finance minister; Ali Ahmad Jalali, an ex-interior minister, and Gul Agha Sherzai, governor of the eastern province of Nangahar, where US troops are based. Individually, they risk splitting their support base. Together, diplomats are cautiously optimistic they could win an election and reinvigorate Afghanistan’s jaded population.
“We need to create a new momentum, like in 2001,” said Haroun Mir, co-founder of the Afghanistan Centre for Research and Policy Studies in Kabul. “Change will bring hope, because right now the momentum is with the Taleban.”
The group are all Pashtun – Afghanistan’s majority ethnic group – apart from Dr Abdullah, who is half Pashtun, half Tajik. He was a senior figure in the Northern Alliance and is best placed to deliver votes in the north of the country. Dr Ghani is an academic. Mr Jalali spent 20 years as a journalist. Both have spent long periods in the West, which could cost them support. Mr Sherzai is a US favourite but is dogged by allegations of corruption and human rights abuse.
When Barack Obama visited Afghanistan in July, he met Mr Sherzai in Jalalabad, before he saw Mr Karzai in Kabul. It sent a clear signal that the former warlord was someone he wanted to do business with.
Richard Holbrooke, a former US ambassador who is President Obama’s special envoy to the region, said in May that the decision on whether to support Mr Karzai would be “one of the half-dozen most important tactical decisions” the next president would have to make.
Karzai officials had hoped Hillary Clinton, now the secretary of state, would be their ally in the White House. But those hopes were dashed last week when she branded Afghanistan a “narco-state” with a government “plagued by limited capacity and widespread corruption”.
Key Players in the Race to be Next President
• Ali Ahmad Jalali
In 1987 he became an American citizen, and he spent 20 years working for Voice of America as a broadcaster. He left in 2003 to become minister of the interior, but left citing a lack of political will to deal with corruption.
• Abdullah Abdullah
In 1986, he joined the anti-Soviet resistance and fought alongside the fabled Mujahideen commander Ahmad Shah Massoud. Although he is half Pashtun, he is considered a leader of Afghanistan’s Tajik population.
• Gul Agha Sherzai
He was appointed governor of Kandahar, but criticised for human rights abuses and accused of drug smuggling. He is an ethnic Pashtun and his support base is in Kandahar.
• Ashraf Ghani
In 1991 he joined the World Bank, leaving only in 2001 when he returned to Afghanistan. The following year he was appointed finance minister and oversaw the successful transition to Afghanistan’s new currency. He left in 2004.