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The Man Who Might Have Been 'King'

Ann Marlowe

“Americans should know that in the people of Afghanistan, you have a partner. Not all of our people will be as disgraceful as some of your beneficiaries.”

Abdullah Abdullah is referring to an April 2 speech by President Hamid Karzai that shook up even the normally complacent Obama administration. Addressing the Independent Election Commission, Mr. Karzai spoke of “widespread fraud” in the Aug. 20, 2009, Afghan presidential election, which was precisely what Dr. Abdullah, a medical doctor and former government minister who came in second, had charged soon after the vote.

Ultimately, the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) invalidated more than a million ballots cast for Mr. Karzai, opening the way to a runoff election between Dr. Abdullah and the standing president. But there was to be no second election: Dr. Abdullah withdrew from the race on Nov. 1, days before the Nov. 7 ballot, charging that nothing had been done to prevent a repetition of the fraud.

Mr. Karzai’s April 2 speech seems to have been the result of rage at the lower house of Afghanistan’s parliament, which a day earlier refused to approve his stunningly unrepentant attempt to replace the three foreign, U.N.-appointed members of the five-member ECC with men of his own choosing. Today, Dr. Abdullah finds a rare ray of hope in this new independence. Perhaps parliament will not allow fledgling Afghan institutions to be gutted from within.

Mr. Karzai was telling the proverbial big lie in going on to charge on April 2, “Afghans did not do this fraud. The foreigners did this fraud.” Maybe he thought that the least educated of his followers would believe him. And it was the same group he seemed to target in the rest of his speech, lashing out at the foreign military presence in Afghanistan—the very forces that are about all that stand from him and the violent end or exile common to nearly every Afghan leader of the last century and a half. He referred to our troops as “invaders.”

For many Afghans, including Dr. Abdullah, Mr. Karzai’s attack on the foreign troops propping up his regime is not just delusional, but shameful. In Afghan culture, debts of gratitude are strongly felt. To think that Americans—including the families of soldiers who have been killed here—might take Mr. Karzai’s words as representative of Afghan attitudes is painful to many. It is also obviously unwise.

“What Mr. Karzai said was against the national interest,” Dr. Abdullah says. “There are (foreign) people dying to defend the process. I don’t want this opportunity of foreign help to slip from our hands. This is the last opportunity for Afghanistan. The situation is very fragile. Now you see these institutions being destroyed.”

Elite Afghans like Dr. Abdullah—whose father was a high civil servant and a senator—often are ashamed of the political violence of the last three decades, though there are reflexes to offload most of the blame on other countries—the Soviet Union, Pakistan, Iran, the U.S. They are fiercely proud of their new status as a parliamentary democracy.

The 2004 presidential election and 2005 parliamentary election, though flawed, allowed Afghans to hold their heads high. Perhaps they had finally overcome their destructive legacy. Many were shocked and depressed at the extent of the fraud in the 2009 election. The national mood seemed grim when I visited in November. In a shame culture like Afghanistan’s, “face” is everything, and the whole country had lost face.

Dr. Abdullah is sitting across from me in the rather austere garden of the 1930s villa where he lived as a boy. It’s the sort of solid, unostentatious compound, hidden behind walls, where Afghanistan’s old upper-middle class lived in the 1960s and ’70s, the Afghan equivalent of WASP.

Many post-2001 grandees, grown rich on corruption and the siphoning of American tax dollars spent here, favor hulking mansions faced with shiny marble and as many glittering surfaces as possible. These narco-palaces rise two or three stories above the customary walls, as if to taunt. It’s a way for people who have no face to make a mockery of the Afghan tradition of modesty—and to insist that their shamelessness is actually enviable.

As we talk, a manservant brings copious trays of an unusually varied assortment of the traditional offering to guests of dried fruits, nuts and candies, as well as the inevitable green tea. Dr. Abdullah doesn’t touch his; he is intent on expressing his thoughts and talks more rapidly and fluidly than in our first meeting before the election. Then as now, he is wearing traditional Afghan dress — shalwar kameez topped by an elegant waistcoat with the Western touch of a green polka dot pocket square.

Dr. Abdullah returns again and again to two seemingly incompatible themes. The first is that there is no way forward under the Karzai government. “Living with the status quo will lead to strategic failure,” Dr. Abdullah says. “More troops are not a substitute for a real partner. Your partner will fail you.”

His words, especially his use of the term “partner,” echo those of two cables sent by U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry, on Nov. 6 and 10, only days after Dr. Abdullah’s withdrawal from the runoff presidential election on the grounds that it would be marred by as much fraud as the first round.

Mr. Eikenberry, a former commanding general here, cabled Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Mr. Karzai was “not an adequate strategic partner” and spoke of a mission “that cannot be won solely by military means.”

But Dr. Abdullah’s other theme is that any change has to come within the framework of Afghanistan’s laws. During the election debacle this fall, some of his supporters asked him if he wanted to call them into the streets to paralyze the country and demand President Karzai’s ouster. Now, as the president is increasingly blatant in his efforts to seize power by eating away at democratic institutions, the talk of regime change is more open. But Dr. Abdullah will have none of it. “Saving the political process is saving Afghanistan,” he insists. And he has a familial dog in this fight.

Abdullah Abdullah, born in 1960, was 13 when Prime Minister Mohammed Daoud, a cousin of Afghanistan’s last reigning monarch, deposed King Zahir Shah on July 17, 1973. The event seared him, along with many other budding intellectuals. “Every day, I would have breakfast with my parents over there,” Dr. Abdullah said, pointing across the small lawn to a semi-circular alcove at the back of the house. “I would then walk to school, and my father would go to work. My father was a senator in the Afghan Parliament.

“I remember how sad my father was the day that Daoud made his coup and dissolved the parliament. My father told me, ‘Don’t hurry, you will not go to school today, it is a holiday.’ And I was surprised and then he said, there is a coup.

“It took us until 2006 to get our parliament back. You see how much blood has been shed in this country. If there is one coup, the coup will be the rule in the future.

“If I wanted to destabilize Mr. Karzai, it would be very easy. It could have happened during the period between the first and second rounds this fall. It would have just meant saying ‘yes’ to a few phone calls. I got calls from several provinces, offering to block the roads, and take control of the situation. But it would have been a setback for democracy, and who will benefit? The Taliban.”

I realize that the Afghan presidency is not something Dr. Abdullah will kill for. And his years in Mr. Karzai’s inner circle seem to have shorn power of some of its glamour. “I have seen that dirty chair from this close,” he says, and makes a face.

To many foreign observers, Dr. Abdullah’s backing out of the runoff election looked like a mistake, even a confirmation that he lacked the fire and will to lead. But Afghan friends explained to me that in the Afghan context losing a second time to fraud would be the mistake. If a politician cannot protect his supporters’ votes, they will blame him, not those who commit the fraud. Think feudal: A lord is responsible for his vassals. And think culture of shame: You lose face if you support a candidate who loses.

Was Dr. Abdullah pressured by the Obama administration to back down from the runoff?

“Absolutely not! There was a concern on the part of the Americans that I might boycott the runoff. But the Taliban said that they would boycott and I would not second the Taliban! The Americans asked me if there was any way I could work with Mr. Karzai.”

Dr. Abdullah served in Mr. Karzai’s first, unelected 2002-2005 government as foreign minister, but a year after the 2005 elections he was dropped from the cabinet while he was heading a large delegation to Washington. Dr. Abdullah says he had wanted to resign earlier, because as a cabinet minister he had responsibility for the actions of the Karzai administration without influence over Mr. Karzai’s actions.

“While they were making preparations for the second round I met with Mr. Karzai and found there was no way ahead. I said, ‘What will you be doing in the future that is new, what’s your plan?’ He said, ‘We will work together.’ I said, ‘We have worked together. How will it be different?’

He said that it was the foreigners who were causing problems, and I asked why would they do that. Mr. Karzai said, ‘They want to bring the Taliban back.’” Dr. Abdullah raised his eyebrows—he often uses facial expression to substitute for words.

Only the day before, President Karzai had made an even more bizarre statement. He warned that the Taliban could be seen as a legitimate “resistance” (the word favored here for the struggle against the Soviet Union) and that he might join the Taliban if parliament continues to block his attempt to take over the Electoral Complaints Commission. Dr. Abdullah says, “I’d tell him, Please go ahead and join! Who is stopping you?” He laughs deeply.

And then he reiterates his major point, that there is no way ahead with Mr. Karzai. “I didn’t think so in 2006 and I don’t think so today.”

It’s possible the U.S. will call upon Dr. Abdullah if President Karzai’s behavior becomes even more erratic. When I bring up the rumor that Mr. Karzai is mentally ill, Dr. Abdullah gives me a complicitous look, but only says, “His way of thinking is different from normal people’s.” A day after our meeting, former U.N. Deputy Special Representative for Afghanistan Peter Galbraith suggests that Mr. Karzai is on drugs, and no one seems very surprised.

No matter what happens with President Karzai, Dr. Abdullah doesn’t think he would be the first U.S. choice to lead Afghanistan. He believes that the American reflex will be to work with Mr. Karzai in the short run and seek counsel from men considered to be known quantities: former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zal Khalilzad, former Minister of the Interior Ali Ahmad Jalali, and former Finance Minister and 2009 presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani. And the American military is said to favor backing down from a confrontation with Mr. Karzai and working around him instead.

Ironically, Dr. Abdullah seems more mature, more relaxed and more confident today than when I interviewed him a few days before the Aug. 20 election—more presidential.

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