The second democratic election in Afghanistan since the 2001 fall of the Taliban regime begins this Saturday, following the choice by presidential front runner Ashraf Ghani of his vice presidential partner- a crucial decision which may affect the election more than the presidential candidate himself. Given the tense ethnic history of the nation, the top-three contender strategically chose running partner Abdul Rashid Dostum, who has a distinct and diverse background, to even the playing field.
Ghani is second in the polls, which will predict current President Karazi’s successor. The highly controversial Dostum, upon Ghani’s possible victory, will serve as Vice President. Ghani served as Minister of Finance under Karazi from June 2002 to December 2004, graduating to the presidential race 2009. He was ranked a distant fourth in the election that placed Karazi in power. Ghani is a member of the ethnic majority Pashtun, a group which is exclusively recruited upon by the Taliban. Ghani’s partnership with Dostum, a hero to the Uzbek ethnic minority in the North, is a strategic pairing to portray his willingness to cross ethnic lines in diplomacy.
The Uzbeck minority from which Dostum hails has weathered many wars including the Soviet invasion of the 1980’s, the Taliban rule in the late 90’s and the American invasion in 2001. During the Soviet War in Afghanistan, Dostum was a committed pro-Soviet, fighting the Mujahideen, a general term used today to mean opposition, but was then made up of several Afghan ethnic minorities.
The eventual fall of the Soviets in 1989 left the unpopular President Najibullah in power. In a desperate effort to uphold his sovereignty, Najibullah allowed the Mujahideen groups elevated power, leading them to request Dostum’s resignation as a military chief. The plan by Najibullah to arrest Dostum backfired as Dostum himself arrested those sent after him and returned them to Kabul.
The dissatisfied Mujahideen, including famous Tajik leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, began to part ways with Najibullah and on April 18th 1992 made an official alliance with Dostum. With the prowess of a warlord and the militia backing of the Mujahideen, Dostum and Massoud effectively ruined Najibullah and regained Kabul from the ashes of his short lived rule.
Though it was not long before Dostum flip-flopped his commitments. By 1994, serious internal conflict plagued the Peshawar Accord, a post-Soviet peace treaty among Afghanistan’s political parties, of which Massoud and Dostum were members. There to take advantage of that conflict was the Pakistani-backed Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the only Afghan party abstinent from the Peshawar Accord. Feeling betrayed from the siege of Kabul, wherein Massoud blocked his troops from advancing, Dostum aligned himself with the Hekmatyar.
Only two years after alliances were made, Dostum and Massoud, the victor of the Tajik ethnic minority, were again on opposite sides. By the end of 1995, Pakistan began to grow weary of Dostum and the Hekmatyar. They instead invested time, money and alliance to the rising Taliban regime.
As 1996 drew to a close, Dostum found himself again in the arms of Massoud when they formed the Northern Alliance with a number of Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek groups. The once deeply divided groups came together under a singular goal: to destroy the Taliban, who had gained control over the majority of Afghanistan and lead large numbers of civilians into neighboring countries or Massoud-controlled areas.
Dostum remained true to the Northern Alliance and was shocked with the rest of Afghanistan in 2001, when the seemingly immortal Massoud was murdered by the Taliban. Two days later was September 11th 2001, the sophisticated terrorist attack against the United States. On October 7th 2001, American troops invaded Afghanistan, which led to democratic presidential election and installation of current President Hamid Karazi.
Ghani’s crucial choice of Dostum to be his vice presidential candidate will surely be a divisive issue in Saturday’s election, particularly for the Uzbek and Tajik minorities, both of which reside heavily in northern Afghanistan. While the Uzbek regard Dostum as a hero of the Northern Alliance who vocally supported their rights, the Tajik are unlikely to forget his flip-flop nature with their hero, Massoud.
Ghani’s own Pashtun ethnicity will also play a role in the election, as the ethnic majority is the largest in the nation. The Pashtun, who feel a growing oppression due to their historical and ethnic ties to the Taliban, are expected to sway the outcome by way of sheer numbers. Since many Pashtun are in fact anti-Taliban, the election of Ghani and his potential Vice President Dostum may offer them a clean slate in the newly democratic Afghanistan.
By Erin P. Friar (Boston)