Afghan President Hamid Karzai (second from right) and Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayaf (far left), a former warlord with a controversial past, at the presidential palace in KabulShah Marai/AFP/Getty Images
KABUL, Afghanistan — A grainy photograph of a group prayer session wouldn’t normally trigger much attention in Afghanistan’s capital. But with speculation rife about who might run for the country’s presidency, the picture of former firebrand Jihadi leader Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayaf leading an evening prayer on the Afghan vice president’s porch stirred rumors about Sayaf’s political aspirations after it appeared on Facebook.
Subsequent news reports confirmed the conservative former warlord’s intention of running for Afghanistan’s highest office — with the backing of the vice president. In the wake of that revelation, Kabul residents have been scrutinizing every move by their political leaders — who is dining with whom, who is smoothing over strained relationships with one-time allies — in hopes of figuring out the coalitions that will be contesting power.
Afghanistan will hold a crucial election next April and, for the first time since he took power following the fall of the Taliban in 2001, Hamid Karzai will not be on the ballot. The political transition, coming at a time when the United States and its international coalition has handed over security responsibilities to Afghans, will be key to ensuring the country’s stability. But because of Karzai’s tight hold on power, and other factors, no clear successors have emerged, leaving the political field, in the eyes of some Afghans, dangerously divided.
In this vacuum, Sayaf, 66, who serves in Afghanistan’s parliament, has emerged as someone with a shot at winning. (Karzai has tipped his name in private as one of four potential successors.) But a Sayaf victory would be an affront to the West. Fluent in Arabic, he was the primary contact for Arab fighters — including Osama bin Laden and Khaled Sheikh Mohammed — who flocked to Afghanistan in the 1970s and ’80s to overthrow the Soviet-backed regime. Human-rights groups accuse him of extremist leanings and abuses during the country’s bloody civil war that followed communist rule. (Sayaf did not respond to interview requests in time for this article.)
"In the 2009 elections, there was the stability of the incumbency — there was strong chance that Karzai was likely going to win," said a senior official at the Afghanistan Independent Elections Commission who asked to remain anonymous. Now, however, there are many candidates vying for power, some still holding on to armed militias. "Even if we conduct a fair and free election but the politicians are not prepared to accept the results, these streets will be filled with blood," the official warned. "We need to be diligent about that."
Despite technical improvements in election preparation, meddling by Karzai and members of his administration — increasingly worried about their political legacy and personal business interests — have complicated the transition. Delays in passing election laws that would make voting more efficient, the palace’s decision to fill the country’s election-organizing body exclusively with partisan figures and an unrealistic security assessment that keeps polling stations open in areas where voting cannot be monitored due to an active insurgency are among the reasons observers anticipate a chaotic vote.
Abdullah Ahmadzai, a former CEO of the election commission and a member of the political movement Afghanistan 1400, which cultivates young voters, says the country’s leadership took the wrong lessons from the 2009 election. The vote was marred by fraud, and the process of weeding out the fraudulent ballots — the election went to a second round when no candidate received sufficient votes — was complicated by political pressure.
"Lessons could have been interpreted in two ways: to reform the process as more independent or to intentionally delay what is needed and increase the chaos for political exploitation," said Ahmadzai. "Unfortunately, we see the latter."
Such political meddling has left average citizens cynical. "In the previous elections, we took our lives in our hands and went to the polling center — risking suicide bombings, rockets and attacks. And what did we get?" says Mohamad Zaman, 35, a taxi driver in Kabul. "Even if it is Sayaf running this time, what battle has he won for us?"
A large part of Sayaf's problem, at home and abroad, remains his controversial history. And he is learning that the frequent visits by Western ambassadors over the last decade to his farmhouse in Paghman, on the outskirts of Kabul, as a way of reaching out to Karzai have done little to counter that.
A graduate of Al-Azhar University in Egypt with strong ties, at least in the past, to Wahabism, an ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam promoted by Saudi Arabia, Sayaf spent considerable time with many of the Mujahideen fighters, who were backed by the CIA in the 1980s. The 9/11 Commission Report calls him a "mentor" to Khaled Sheik Mohammed, the main architect of the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks.
While Sayaf's connection to the poster boys of global terrorism is not so black-and-white — for the six years leading up to 9/11, he fought against the Taliban, who were harboring bin Laden and his allies — analysts say the West will see it as that.
"Naturally, Sayaf’s candidacy will not be acceptable to the international community and they will probably fight it until the last minute," said Abdul Waheed Wafa, executive director of the Afghanistan Center at Kabul University. "Using Sayaf over the past decade was a tactical move. But to allow him to become president would be a failure to the West’s project of bringing democracy."
At home, human-rights organizations have accused Sayaf of being one of the main perpetrators of violence during the 1990s. But he has called the accusations a conspiracy designed to degrade "the Afghan people's Jihad," cunningly using the criticism as an opportunity to rally other former strongmen.
"It is a terrible sign that candidates' human-rights records isn't part of the discussion," says Heather Barr, the Afghanistan researcher at Human Rights Watch. "It also speaks to the larger decision by the international community and the Karzai government to overlook the past abuses of these strongmen and ally with them."
Meanwhile, Sayaf has qualities others in the field lack. Considered by some the strongest leader after Karzai among the ethnic majority Pashtun, he has expanded on his network — mostly midlevel government officials and commanders around the country — during the past decade. He has also tried to embrace the new realities of soft power by establishing a television channel and a university, though they may have reinforced his conservative image: his broadcast staff is all-male, and its programming is devoid of music, while male and female students at his Dawat University are housed on separate campuses.
"I told him, 'Let some women on your channel, play some music," said one longtime friend. "The television shapes people's image of you. He just smiled and said he would think about it."
Meanwhile, Sayaf's lightning-rod image has benefited other potential candidates, among them Zalmai Rassoul, the country's 70-year-old foreign minister. A medical doctor with royal lineage and a Western education, Rassoul is seen as a dark horse because of his low-key demeanor. He could emerge from the jostling that has arisen among Karzai’s cabinet members.
Sayaf, too, might have been just another technocrats with a Western education and a government career had it not been for what a U.S. embassy cable called "an accident of timing." In 1974, after his time in Egypt, Sayaf planned to continue his legal studies in the U.S., but en route to Kabul International Airport, headed for America, he was arrested by then-president Mohammed Daoud Khan's security forces.
Sayaf remained in jail for six years, barely surviving execution, before being freed and embracing a path of armed resistance against the communist-backed regime that ended in civil war. Now he must fight to overcome the consequences of that path.