KABUL, Afghanistan » Ashraf Ghani, the apparent front-runner in the Afghan presidential race this year, was once unstinting in his opinion of one of the country’s most prominent warlords, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, calling him a "known killer."
He said that in 2009, when Dostum was supporting President Hamid Karzai for re-election. Now, Ghani simply calls Dostum his running mate.
In fact, of the 11 campaigns in the April 5 presidential election, six include at least one candidate on the ticket who is widely viewed as a warlord, with pasts and policies directly at odds with Western attempts to improve human rights here.
That is the field that U.S. military and diplomatic planners have to consider as they take up President Barack Obama’s call Tuesday to look past Karzai and try to get the next Afghan administration to sign a long-term security deal.
For officials working to finalize the bilateral security agreement, there is still potential good news: All 11 of the Afghan presidential candidates say they support the deal, which would allow Western troops to stay past 2014.
But beyond that, U.S. officials have taken pains to avoid expressing any preference for a particular candidate, sensitive to accusations from Karzai that they interfered in the 2009 vote, when U.S. pressure led him to agree to a runoff after widespread reports of election fraud.
The number of candidates with some sort of unsavory past has also made U.S. officials especially leery of weighing in, despite the fact that many warlords have been recipients of U.S. support and cash.
Recently, for instance, allegations circulated that U.S. Ambassador James B. Cunningham had met secretly with one of the presidential candidates, Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayyaf, who has been accused of war crimes and who while in Parliament helped pass a law giving amnesty to war criminals and tried to repeal a law outlawing violence against women.
A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivities of the issue, said that Cunningham and other senior officials had met with all 11 presidential candidates "as part of our normal diplomatic engagement."
Asked what would happen if someone accused as a war criminal were elected, the official said the U.S. government would not speculate on the outcome of the election.
Dostum’s candidacy poses thorny questions. He still maintains a private army, and human-rights activists accuse him of ordering mass killings. But he was also a stalwart of the U.S.-allied Northern Alliance that overthrew the Taliban in 2001, and he is a powerful political leader among Afghanistan’s ethnic Uzbek minority.
Dostum is a vice presidential candidate on the ticket of Ghani, who is regarded as the front-runner based on an early poll conducted for the U.S. government. Ghani is a former World Bank official who helped negotiate an initial version of the security agreement, and as a Karzai adviser he presided over the handover of responsibility for security to Afghan forces.
His most significant challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, who ran second to Karzai in 2009, also has ticket members branded as warlords: His vice-presidential candidates – Mohammad Khan, a former leader of the insurgent party Hezb-i-Islami, and Mohammad Mohaqiq, a Hazara leader of the Wahdat party – have been accused of abuses by human rights officials.
Spokesmen for Ghani and Abdullah said Wednesday that upon election they would quickly sign the bilateral security agreement with the Americans. Both also expressed concern about Karzai’s refusal to sign it before then.
"We request the U.S. should wait, and in May there will be a new president," said Ghani’s spokesman, Fraidoon Barekzai. "Giving ultimatums and bringing pressure only create sentiments that would harm the process."
Of the leading five presidential tickets, the only two without members accused of being warlords are those of Zalmai Rassoul, the low-profile former foreign minister, and Qayyum Karzai, the president’s brother and the owner of restaurants in Baltimore.
Qazi Mohammad Amin Waqad, a tribal leader appointed by Karzai to negotiate the withdrawal of either Rassoul or Qayyum Karzai, said the president had thrown his weight behind Rassoul. The president’s brother was debating whether to withdraw, Waqad said, and if so, whom to endorse.
Human rights activists are alarmed by the number of warlords still in the political mainstream.
Ajmal Baluchzada, a member of the Transitional Justice Coordination Group, a coalition of Western-financed groups that lobbies for past war crimes to be acknowledged and punished, said that some of the men initially tried to stay out of the spotlight after the Taliban’s overthrow, worried about potential war-crimes proceedings.
"But as time passed and they saw nothing happen, and they saw the Taliban growing stronger, it made them want to get involved," Baluchzada said.
Most analysts believe that none of the 11 tickets in the race will get the necessary 50 percent of the vote in the initial balloting, which will create a runoff between the top two vote-getters.
That will give influential figures on the also-ran tickets an opportunity to barter their support in the runoff for a position in the government of the eventual winner. Warlords tend to be strongly identified with their ethnic groups – Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek or Hazara – and can usually deliver votes as well as campaign money.
"For me, it will be the continuation in power of the same group," said Sima Samar, head of the country’s human rights commission. "I’m sorry to say this, but this is the truth."
Some of the candidates seen as warlords have disbanded their private armies as they moved into politics. Others, like Dostum, still have personal militias and do not hesitate to use them. As recently as last June, Dostum forced the governor of Jowzjan province out of office by surrounding his home with gunmen.
Even so, the general has tried to burnish his public image by offering a bit of contrition over his rough tactics.
"There were no white pigeons in the civil war of the two decades," he said in an early campaign speech. "It is time that we all apologize to the people of Afghanistan for the negative impacts of our policies."
Baluchzada, of the transitional justice group, who lost three relatives in the civil war years, said that was not good enough: "If he wants to apologize, he first needs to admit all that he did."
A spokesman for the Ghani campaign, Hameedullah Farooqi, said that Ghani’s condemnation of Dostum in 2009 was just heat-of-the-moment politicking.
"Mr. Ghani told us that a politician talks and criticizes lots of things when he runs for the presidency," Farooqi said. "We believe none of the people on our ticket are accused of war crimes by any national or international court."
That is true. Still, the United Nations and other human rights groups accuse Dostum of being personally responsible for the mass killings of thousands of Taliban prisoners and other opponents during the civil war years.
All of the six tickets with identified warlords on them have rejected that characterization. They prefer to call the men mujahedeen, for their roles in fighting the Soviet invasion and the Taliban’s rule – with the heavy support and funding of U.S. officials. That relationship positioned them to consolidate power after the Taliban fell, and many have become wealthy from development and aid money.
"To some extent America and the West is responsible – they’re the reason we still have these warlords," said Mohammad Aleem Sayee, the former governor who was run out of Jowzjan by Dostum and who is now working in Qayyum Karzai’s campaign. "They supported them and let them stay in power."
Rod Nordland, New York Times