In the run-up to Afghanistan's October 9 presidential elections, one man holds a greater political punch than all 18 living presidential candidates combined. Though already dead for three years, Ahmad Shah Massoud, a leader of the Northern Alliance's Taliban resistance, has become the political weapon of choice for both President Hamid Karzai and his top rival in the country's first popularly contested presidential ballot.
Since his death on September 9, 2001 at the hands of two al Qaeda-linked Islamic radicals, Massoud has been transformed from Tajik mujahedin to national hero -- if not saint. Pictures of Massoud, the Afghan-Tajik mujahedin who battled the Soviets, other warlords, and the Taliban for more than 20 years, vastly outnumber those of any other Afghan including those of Karzai.
This year, the Massoud cult reached new heights with a September 8 ceremony in Kabul's National Stadium attended by more than 20,000 people to commemorate the third anniversary of the warlord's assassination. "The martyred Massoud, the national hero of Afghanistan, is one of the most glittering and luminary figures of the jihad and resistance," Karzai said at the event. "The best way to commemorate Massoud is to follow in his footsteps."
For Karzai, such a eulogy could not come a moment too soon.
Though the favorite to win the elections this October, with 17 other candidates in the race, Karzai needs to secure more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a run-off. With armed squabbles between rival warlords still rife, and Taliban attacks also prevalent, such a scenario could leave Afghanistan's interim government in a dangerous limbo.
The violence that shook the town of Herat on September 12 illustrates the stakes involved in choosing political partners. At least seven people were killed and more than 20 wounded as Afghan police and army struggled to stamp out uprisings sparked by the central government's removal of popular Tajik warlord Ismail Khan as governor of Herat. Foreigners were evacuated to Kabul after protestors set fire to offices for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN Development Program and the UN Assistance Mission.
Karzai's campaign to curtail the vast power enjoyed outside of Kabul by warlords and their private militias appears to have motivated the decision to remove Khan. [For background see the EurasiaNet Insight archive]. The silver-haired resistance fighter, a religious conservative and key leader of the mujahedin resistance against the Soviet Union, initially accepted a government posting as the minister for mines and industry, before deciding to remain as a "private citizen" in Herat.
But if opinions about Karzai's attempt to centralize power vary widely, differences of opinion about Massoud are less pronounced. To build an image as the heir to Massoud's legacy, Karzai has already named the warlord's brother, Ahmad Zia Massoud, a former ambassador to Moscow, as his candidate for first vice president. [For background see the EurasiaNet Insight archive]. This is meant to help secure votes in the Panjshir valley, Massoud's home territory and a location where Qanuni holds considerable sway.
But Karzai's leading political rival, Yunus Qanuni, a former minister of education and Tajik leader of the Northern Alliance, who has positioned himself as an outspoken critic of the Karzai government, is also playing the Massoud card. Though Qanuni did not address the crowd at Massoud's commemoration, he routinely emphasizes his own ties with the Tajik fighter by including the fighter's image on his election posters. Qanuni is also running as a candidate of the Tajik-controlled Nahzat-e Melli-ye Party, which is headed by Ahmad Wali Massoud, another brother of the slain warlord.
And just in case the Massoud name fails to draw attention, Qanuni has lined up additional star power. To name Zia Massoud as his running mate, Karzai first had to disband with Defense Minister and Vice President Mohammad Fahim. Fahim, the head of a powerful private militia, has since allied himself with Qanuni, a fellow Tajik. Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, also a Tajik, is another influential backer.
Some observers have argued that such deal-making indicates that the real decisions in this election will be made by the country's still heavily armed mujahedin. In such a situation, having a Massoud at his side may do little to enhance Karzai's chances for a sweep of the polls, they argue. By sidelining the defense minister, the president may effectively have lost the support of most Afghan Tajiks who feel that Fahim was wronged in Karzai's switch to Massoud, one foreign diplomat who requested anonymity told EurasiaNet in an August 3 article.
Former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik, disagrees. "It's too early to say that the commanders have put their support behind Mr. Qan[u]ni," Rabbani told the Dubai-based Khaleej Times in an August 19 interview. "The commanders have their own interests and they will definitely consider that before supporting Mr. Qan[u]ni."
As father-in-law to Ahmad Zia Massoud, Rabbani has come out in full support of Karzai. "I believe that with the appointment of Ahmed Zia, Mr. Karzai will enjoy more support," Rabbani said."It may result in an increase in support. But if it doesn't increase the support, it definitely won't reduce it."
At the same time, however, Karzai must exercise caution in his show of enthusiasm for Massoud. Many of the president's fellow Pashtuns tend to hold the former Tajik fighter in far less regard. That suspicion stems largely from Karzai's Tajik-dominated government a situation that Karzai has pledged will be addressed, but so far, there are few results to show for his promises. Perhaps to allay Pashtun misgivings, Karzai did not attend a memorial for Massoud held near the fighter's tomb in the Panjshiri Valley on September 9.
Daan van der Schriek is a freelance journalist based in Kabul.