The worsening crisis in Iraq will inevitably raise questions about the other country the U.S. military is slowly disengaging from. Afghanistan’s election, which is due to conclude in a runoff vote on Saturday, has gone surprisingly well so far, but at the same time there’s been a recent uptick in Taliban violence against U.S. and Afghan targets and there are good reasons to be concerned about the country’s very fragile security situation when the last U.S. troops finally leave in 2016.
In a Skype conversation sponsored by the Atlantic Council and the Center for American Progress in Washington today, Abdullah Abdullah, the former foreign minister and leading presidential candidate in the first round of voting, rejected comparisons between Afghanistan and Iraq.
“The circumstances are different between Afghanistan and Iraq,” he said. “Here, Talibanization has been rejected by the population as a whole, including different ethnic groups of the country. That ideology is rejected.”
All the same, Abdullah, who also served as foreign minister for the anti-Taliban North Alliance before 2001, is undoubtedly aware of the continuing threat posed by Taliban violence. He himself escaped a suicide bombing that killed three of his bodyguards and four pedestrians in an apparent assassination attempt four days ago.
Though half-Pashtun—Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group—Abdullah is widely viewed as Tajik, but he said today that fears that his victory would result in sectarian violence are based on an “outdated perception of the situation.”
Unlike the current president, Hamid Karzai, Abdullah and his competitor Ashraf Ghani both say they will sign a troop agreement with the U.S. that will allow a smaller American force to remain in the country beyond the end of this year.
At today’s meeting, former U.N. Special Representative to Afghanistan Kai Eide pressed him on whether he would push for changes to what he called Washington’s “zero option” plan for troop withdrawal.
“Hopefully zero option will not mean zero cooperation,” he replied.
I asked Abdullah about widely held suspicions that Karzai will attempt to influence the new government from behind the scenes and through officials who remain loyal to him. (In one telling sign, the outgoing president is reportedly planning on moving into a mansion just next door to the presidential palace.)
“We should respect him as the ex-president of Afghanistan, and certainly he will have a role to play in national politics,” Abdullah replied. “But we have not discussed any details at this stage. We might have to speculate for a few more weeks before we are faced with the real situation.” Though he once served in Karzai’s administration, he reportedly had a falling out with the president around 2006. He came in second to Karzai in the 2009 election, a vote that was marred by widespread reports of corruption and interference.
Abdullah also addressed the controversial exchange of Taliban prisoners for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl last month. He said the five men released had all “committed crimes in a massive way against the Afghan people” and that previous Taliban prisoners released as confidence-building measures had “gone directly back to the battlefield.” As for the circumstances surrounding the exchange, Abdullah said he had learned about it through the media and that “we didn’t know anything more than anyone else.”
Abdullah won the first round of voting easily, but a recent poll suggests that Ghani may now be in the lead after allying with the Uzbek former rebel commander Abdul Rashid Dostum. He was asked today whether he would consider forming a unity government if the runoff turned out to be close.
“Nobody is taking it seriously,” Abdullah said of the poll, confidently predicting victory by a wide margin.