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AFGHANISTAN: Abdullah Plays For Time

KABUL, Oct 31 2009 (IPS) - Soon after President Hamid Karzai acceded to a runoff two weeks ago, challenger Abdullah Abdullah put forward an avalanche of requests so complex, that his objective remains unclear.

Abdullah called for transparency in this second round of voting and also for the sacking of Azizullah Lodin, the head of the Afghan Independent Elections Commission, which oversaw the initial vote.

He also suggested that Minister of Education Farouq Wardak, Minister of Interior Hanif Atmar and Minister of Borders Assadullah Khalid should temporarily step aside until after Nov. 7, so that they cannot interfere in the runoff process.

Abdullah listed other ministers, such as Kari Khoram, Hajj Sediq Chakari and Omar Zakhilwal, who he felt must be tightly supervised and controlled by legal and government watchdogs, to prevent any pre-election hi-jinx.

Abdullah vowed to lodge these requests and complaints officially through UNAMA and if he does not receive a response by Nov. 1, he will make his ire known.

UN Under Attack

A Taliban group launched a pre-dawn raid on a U.N. guest house in Kabul on Oct. 28, killing at least six foreign UN workers, including one American.

Police were on the scene within 45 minutes of the attack and two officers and one civilian were killed in the ensuing gun battle, as well as three insurgents. The insurgents were wearing suicide vests which did not detonate.

As the sun rose over the capital, a column of black smoke rose from the Sher Poor neighbourhood where the guest house is located, and Afghan army helicopters circled the city looking for signs of trouble.

Within hours of the attack on the U.N. guest house, rockets were fired on to the roof of the luxury Serena Hotel. No one was hurt or killed, but the high-ranking U.N. and foreign officials staying in the hotel were ushered into the fortified basement of the building as a precaution.

The insurgents called the coordinated attacks a "first step" in disrupting the Nov. 7 runoff election between President Hamid Karzai and challenger Abdullah Abdullah. "We have already informed that anyone who works for the second round will be targeted," a Taliban spokesman told The New York Times. "This is one of the attacks."

In a statement released after the attacks, the Taliban group said, "We attacked U.N. workers because the U.N. is the biggest supporter of this process, and our attacks will continue."

Although his claims were made one week before deadline, anyone aware of the U.N.’s usual procedure – as Abdullah, a former foreign minister, certainly must – knows that no quick action can be reasonably expected. It will likely be impossible for Abdullah’s official complaints to receive little more than cursory treatment, given the short time frame ahead.

Karzai responded to Abdullah’s demands by saying that the officials accused have done nothing to deserve being fired or censured. The president also pointed out that some of Afghanistan’s governors – who Karzai himself appointed – support him, but will remain in their positions, despite Karzai’s constitutionally granted power to remove them.

If Abdullah attempts to boycott the runoff, it is unclear exactly what impact this would have on the political process, what sort of problems it would cause and how they would be solved. The implications for the international community – which is heavily invested both figuratively and monetarily in this runoff – could be dire.

Further, it is as yet unclear if what Abdullah wants is even legal, constitutional or provided for under Afghan law.

It seems that Abdullah wants only to stall the runoff process through impractical requests, buying time to stave off what will likely be a defeat on Nov. 7. Abdullah is also playing on tribal and ethnic divisions with this tactic, as nine of the aforementioned officials are Pashtun and he and many of his supporters are Tajik.

Perhaps he is hoping to score a victory in central Afghanistan, where many voters cast ballots for Bashardost and will likely turn to Karzai in a runoff. Abdullah may think that he can reap victory by pitting those who voted for Karzai against those who voted for Bashardost.

While this logic may win Abdullah a few votes with key constituencies, his tactics will ultimately backfire with decision makers in Kabul and especially the international community.

Campaigning is already underway for the second round and both candidates have shown an unwillingness to spend much money on advertisements or get-out-the vote drives.

The campaigns know that the Afghan people have likely already made up their minds about whom they will vote for, and are well acquainted with both candidates from last summer’s campaign blitz.

Abdullah’s challenges will serve as stumbling blocks to this election going smoothly and has created an atmosphere of difficulty around the proceedings.

This runoff already has enough challenges without Abdullah’s stalling; the fast-approaching winter, a raging insurgency and an extremely short timetable. Afghans are worried about the deteriorating security situation ahead of the Nov. 7 vote and with corruption being so prominently reported in the first round, many are wondering whether this time will be any better.

Though everyone – from Afghan and international election officials to leaders of coalition governments – has stressed that the lessons from Aug. 20 have not gone unlearned, it is hard to imagine this vote going smoothly, especially given Abdullah’s determination to have his grievances aired.

*IPS and Killid, an independent Afghan media group, are partners since 2004.

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