This Saturday will be host to the second democratic election in Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, leaving front runners like Zalwai Rassoul awaiting to see the impact of their crucial choices of vice presidential candidates. In a nation of ethnic tension, strategic competitors in the presidential race chose running partners of different ethnicity, in order to demonstrate political versatility across racial lines.
Zalwai Rassoul is currently a distant third in the opinion polls behind second place Ashraf Ghani and leader Abdullah Abdullah. Rassoul is a Pashtan, the largest and most controversial ethnic group in Afghanistan. The group makes up the ethnic majority of Taliban members. However, since the fall of the regime in 2001, many anti-Taliban Pashtuns feel they are discriminated against due to their historical and ethnic ties to the group. Rassoul served as the Foreign Minister under current President Hamid Karazi from January 2010 to October 2013, stepping down from the office in order run in the presidential election, per the Afghan constitution’s guidelines.
Rassoul has been called Karazi’s favored candidate in the race, a label that may have hurt his poll position. Many in the nation, including the aggressive National Coalition of Afghanistan, believe Karazi to be little more than a lame duck. However damaging Karazi’s endorsement was, Rassoul is still very much in the game with his highly influential partner, Ahmad Zia Massoud.
Massoud is a name everyone in Afghanistan has heard. Ahmed Zia Massoud is the youngest of five brothers to the highly revered Tajik hero Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was assassinated by the Taliban days before September 11, 2001. The younger Massoud running with Rassoul began fighting alongside his brother in the anti-Soviet mujahideen, a general term today meaning opposition.
Following the Soviet fall, Massoud remained loyal to his Tajik brother and the Afghan resistance to President Najibullah. He joined forces with Uzbek leader Adbul Rashin Dostum, which led to the ouster of Najibullah. The two groups did not remain friendly despite their alliance. Shortly after the Najibullah’s ruin, Afghanistan’s ethnic groups began fighting in a civil war.
By 1994, Dostum had switched sides completely, joining the Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the only Afghan party abstinent from the Peshawar Accord, which united numerous post-Soviet Afghan political parties. The Hekmatyar and the its enemies fought for short two year period before facing a bigger threat: the Taliban.
By 1996, the Taliban had effectively taken all parts of Afghanistan excepting the northern regions where Massoud’s forces stood strong. That strength, though, was dwindling away as Pakistan grew weary of aiding the unsuccessful Hekmatyar and instead began funding the Taliban. The violent and strict interpretation of Sharia law across Afghanistan led Massoud and Dostum to again join forces, forming the Northern Alliance against the Taliban.
Massoud and his idolized older brother fought alongside each other in a losing war they feared would only end in a complete occupation of the Taliban. Ahmad Zia Massoud’s heart, and many more hearts in Afghanistan were broken in early September 2001 when their seemingly immortal leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud, was assassinated by the Taliban. Two days later on September 11th 2001, the United States experienced the country’s most devastating terrorist attack by the highly sophisticated Taliban.
Following the first democratic election which put current President Karazi in power, Massoud served as Afghanistan’s Vice President from 2004-2009, when Karazi dropped him as a running mate due to political differences. In 2011, the top three vice presidential candidates (Massoud, Mohaqiq and Dostum) came together to form the National Front of Afghanistan, a coalition which strongly opposes a return of power to the Taliban. The organization has been described as the “Northern [Alliance’s]…[resuscitation] as a political [party.]
Rassoul and Massoud have strong support from the Tajik ethnic group, whose national hero is Massoud’s late brother. Though they are not leading, the crucial Afghan election polls rank them third, thanks to Rassoul’s Pashtan ethnicity and Massoud’s important history. The Pashtan ethnicity faces a choice between Rassoul and Ghani, as both candidates hail from Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group.
Rassoul and Massoud are playing on the heroism of Ahmad Shah Massoud and the importance that name implies to Afghanistan’s people. It is little coincidence that Rassoul is behind Ghani and Abdullah, both of whom represent a wider array of ethnicity on their tickets. Still, Rassoul has faith his vice presidential candidate Massoud will lead him into making crucial choices in the newly democratic Afghanistan.
By Erin P. Friar