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Afghanistan - interview with key Abdullah ally

Northern powerbroker calls for Abdullah supporters in government

by Tony Cross

Article published on the 2009-11-16 Latest update 2009-11-24 09:38 TU

A Mazar resident asks for the Governor's help(Photo: Many Pochez)

A Mazar resident asks for the Governor's help
(Photo: Many Pochez)

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is expected to be sworn in for a second term on Thursday, following an election marred by fraud. His main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, has declared the election result “illegitimate”. One of Abdullah’s key supporters is Atta Mohammad, the governor of Balkh province in the north of the country.

The walls of the vast reception room of the Balkh governor’s palace are lined with men, several wearing chapans – traditional colourful coats – with lungi turbans or shalwar kameez – long shirts and baggy trousers - with the pakool cap.

They are waiting to see the Governor, Full-rank General Atta Mohammad Noor, as his visiting card describes him. He dispenses orders to deal with their problems, consults with a district police chief whose job may be under threat from the Interior Ministry and discusses with allies from other provinces.

Atta is a powerful man, not just in the provincial capital, Mazar-e-Sharif but in national politics, too. He fought the Soviet invasion along with the Mojahedin factions, who later plunged the country into civil war. And he fought the Taliban, as part of the Northern Alliance which swept into Kabul with US-led troops in 2001.

Now he has clipped his beard and swapped fatigues for an elegant suit and white shirt – a suave, modern politician. Atta is an ethnic Tajik and he supported failed candidate Abdullah Abdullah during this year’s presidential campaign.

His main rival, Uzbek General Abdul Rashid Dostum, supported Karzai and is now Deputy Interior Minister. But Atta says that Karzai would still like his support. In the continuous powerbroking that passes for politics in Afghanistan, he turned down an offer to run on Karzai’s ticket as vice-president, he claims.

And since the election, he says he was told to choose any ministry he wanted in an attempt to break him away from Abdullah. The Abdullah camp says that the presidency is “illegitimate”. So what will it do now? Boycott the government? Campaign to bring it down?

At one point Atta declared that he would not accept Karzai’s authority and threatened to organise protests against the result. But he has backed down on those threats. The main foreign players in Afghanistan recognised Karzai, despite their concerns over the poll and his record in office.

That has cut the ground from under the opposition’s feet, the leader of the Balkh Provincial Council, Farhad Azimi, told RFI, not without some bitterness.

“We are not able to do anything because we believe in democracy and a lot of international troops and international community present here, they are not believing in democracy and they are congratulating President Karzai as a legitimate President,” he says. “And that is for us surprising. Why?”

In fact, behind-the-scenes negotiations continue. Abdullah wants to be given an official title of leader of the opposition, sources close to him say. But, says Atta, some of his supporters should be brought into the government. That wouldn’t be a coalition, the governor says. It would be a national participation plan, with Karzai’s opponents representing provinces where they are strong. Balkh, for instance.

“Our view is different, regarding national participation, to the view that the President has,” he says. “In his view, he can take people from all ethnic groups, it doesn’t matter how representative, how weak or strong they are, but they should be loyal to the President. “According to our view, we should get those people who have the support of the people, who could represent the people. And they should have the support of the candidates and a local support base.”

Such an arrangement would not only allow some of Abdullah’s supporters to get their feet under ministerial desks, it would also mean a change in the balance of power between the provinces and central government, a key concern for northern politicians.

They are Tajiks, Uzbeks or Hazara and complain they are swamped by the Pashtuns, the country’s largest ethnic group to which Karzai belongs. Abdullah, who is half Tajik and half Pashtun, won most of his votes in the north. He has also proposed the direct election of provincial governors, who are currently presidential appointees, and mayors, who are elected by town councils.

Atta dismisses concerns that Abdullah would then be leading the opposition to a government in which his own allies were participating. He insists that the political wrangling is in the country’s interests. Afghanistan must sort its own political system, for fear that fickle foreign powers will desert it, as many Afghans feel they did after the Soviet withdrawal.

“What we are afraid of is this. One day when the international community is tired of Afghanistan – and we know that they are spending money, they are losing soldiers – and we will be left with empty hands. “Then we are sure that Afghanistan will return to being a base for terrorism, to the economic mafia and drug mafia. So we have proposed a way to resolve the Afghan problem.”

Abdullah’s supporters point out that the US and its allies have given Karzai six months to make serious progress in fighting corruption and insecurity - a target which few if any Afghans believe he can reach. “It is impossible,” says Provincial Council chief Farhad Azimi, a close ally of Atta.

“And when we see that international community don’t want Karzai after six months … of course, we have to decide by ourselves what we should do. Because Karzai government – the trust among the people is broken.”

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