Until last year, the lane leading to Dr. Abdullah Abdullah’s house in central Kabul was open; today, the street is almost a garrison. Visitors are welcomed by security checkpoints, piles of sandbags, and new barricades. Some of the grocery stores along the lane appear to have been taken over by Abdullah’s security detail.
All this new security in an otherwise quiet neighborhood is the mark of the rising profile of a man who many think will be the next president of Afghanistan. That thinking is supported by the results of the election on April 5, which at the current count has Abdullah with 45 percent of the votes case and his nearest rival, Dr. Ashraf Ghani, with 32 percent. The two leading candidates will move to a second round runoff on June 7. Given his commanding lead in the first round, Abdullah, a former eye surgeon and foreign minister, looks well placed.
Should the runoff go to form, then Abdullah (53) would be the first ethnic Tajik (his mother is Tajik, his father Pashtun) to lead Afghanistan since 1996. That would be significant in a land dominated by the Pashtun, who are estimated to account for up to 45 percent of the population, compared with around 30 percent for the Tajik people.
In fact, Abdullah is identified most closely with the Northern Alliance, which challenged the Taliban government between 1996 to 2001. A majority of the leaders of the Alliance were of Tajik origin and were recognized by the international community as a government in exile while the Taliban was in power. Abdullah was the foreign minister in that government, a position he also held from 2001 to 2005 under the governments headed by Hamid Karzai.
Abdullah Abdullah recently spoke with The Diplomat’s Sanjay Kumar about his priorities as president, and his stance on the Bilateral Security Agreement.
How do you view these elections? How important are free and fair elections for the stability of Afghanistan?
We are concerned about the massive, industrial-scale fraud [seen in past elections]. I hope the experience of 2009 will not be repeated. That will damage the interests of the country. People will not accept this. They will not accept this. Free and fair elections are important for the future of the country. The credibility of the institutions are also at stake. Many things are dependent on the elections.
What would be your first priority should you assume power in Afghanistan?
Of course the emphasis would be on security and the rule of law. I want to present opportunities to the people. People should feel from the first day that reform has started. They will feel from the beginning that a new chapter in the history of Afghanistan has started. We will deliver the promises made to the electorate.
How you are planning to bring security to your country—an issue which is of paramount importance to the people.
There are quite a few things that will help security in the country. Credible elections are important for instilling a sense of security among the people and that you can see now. Of course you need to strengthen your institutions; governance is important. Security in Afghanistan has domestic, regional and international dimensions. Talking about the domestic sector I think the rule of law is important to bring much-needed change. But this you cannot achieve overnight. When people are hopeful and security is getting better then they will contribute. If there is a shadow of uncertainty, then the enemies of security will use this opportunity and that will lead to the worsening of the situation. I think the outcome of credible elections is to start not only dealing with the issues of security but also dealing with other challenges that Afghanistan is faced with.
What is your plan to deal with the Taliban? They remain a major challenge to the stability and security of the country? How open are you to negotiations with them?
First of all, the doors of negotiations are to be opened—genuine, serious negotiations. At the same time, [the Taliban] need to understand that if they continue with the path of violence they will be tackled, they will be dealt with by the people of Afghanistan and the government of Afghanistan. That part of the message is not clear at the moment. The government is asking for talks and negotiations without making it clear to the Taliban that if they are not giving up violence they will be dealt with firmly. So in other words the government of Afghanistan has spoken from a position of weakness that does not work. That needs to be changed. The relationship between Afghanistan with Pakistan is important in that regard. One has to focus on that as well, and the international community can play a role as well. They can facilitate the talks.
Do you see a scenario in the future in which the Taliban is part of the government in Kabul?
Theoretically that only can happen only when they give up violence and severe links with terrorist organizations and when they accept the constitution of Afghanistan. When they want to be part of the political process by maintaining their ideas without using violence, [then at] that stage the doors need to be opened for them to participate in the governance and political process. But we are far away from such a reality.
One of the concerns of the Western world is the signing of the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA)? How open are you to this proposal?
I think the BSA needs to be signed sooner rather than later. By not signing it the current administration of Afghanistan has created an atmosphere of uncertainty that has damaged Afghanistan and its interests a great deal. So this should be the priority for the future government.
Karzai has openly said that he does not trust the United States. How do you see the relationship with the world’s sole superpower?
The relationship has to be based on mutual trust. In foreign relations and relations with other countries, there will always be issues and no one starts with complete trust. Partnership is based on mutual trust. You cannot base relations with other countries on mistrust.