Afghanistan's perennial runner-up will not be content with second place this time.

As the United States and the Taliban signed their much-hyped peace deal in Doha just over ten days ago the real challenge then was the brewing deadlock between President Ashraf Ghani and Dr Abdullah Abdullah both threatening to declare themselves President of Afghanistan. 

The delayed swearing-in ceremonies came good and both candidates have declared themselves president despite the US Envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad’s last-minute diplomacy hours before the inauguration of both candidates. 

With the truce on the verge of breakdown as a result of increased violence, Ghani’s dithering on releasing the Taliban prisoners, all eyes are on Abdullah. The mild-mannered eye doctor who in the previous three elections ceded defeat has finally taken a stand after more than a decade of compromise. 

Calmness personified 

Afghanistan’s political scene has been violent, chaotic and daggers drawn since the arrival of the US-led coalition in 2001. All leading figures are controversial, and at worst, have blood on their hands given their past as warlords, drug lords and warring during the post-Soviet era. 

Abdullah – always on the sidelines of the legendary Ahmad Shah Massoud –  was always the diplomat and mediator. His Pashtun-Tajik heritage made him the perfect foil to an otherwise unrepentant ethnic divide that has bedevilled Afghanistan since the fall of Kabul in 1992. Next to Ahmad Shah Massoud, Abdullah played a key role in the negotiated surrender of the Soviet-backed Najibullah government. For a moment it seemed Afghanistan would breath easy before Gulbuddin Hekmatyar started the now infamous never-ending cycle of ethnic and political turf wars that have divided Afghanistan. 

Fast forward a decade to 9/11 and Abdullah was the obvious choice to be the first foreign minister in the Karzai-led set up following the Bonn accords, which brought together a power-sharing agreement between the various brokers after the fall of the Taliban. 

Abdullah was one of the few senior ministers who kept his job through the transition period and the various cabinet swaps of the Karzai era. He led the initial period of Afghan calm in the early years leading up to 2004 before the insurgency developed in the southeast of the country. He maintained strong relations with the EU given his earlier role as Massoud’s envoy to Europe and the outside world. 

Abdullah was the sole English-speaking link between Afghanistan and the West throughout the 1990s when the world shunned the Taliban-run Kabul regime. 

Leadership challenge fraught with fraud 

Since 2009, Abdullah has been thwarted at the ballot box in his quest to be president. In 2009, he came second to Hamid Karzai in what was seen as widespread voter fraud that led to Karzai manipulating his way to success. 

The United Nations acknowledged it was not a transparent election and Karzai was defter at playing the ‘warlord’ card and getting strongmen backing. However, multiple international human rights bodies including UN officials at the time criticised Karzai at the time for choosing the dark past of warlords over a more progressive form of pluralistic politics. This in fact seemed to have become a recurring theme in both Afghan politics and Abdullah’s own shortcomings in cosying up to the warlords despite having been a part of the Mujahideen era leadership. 

The 2014 election also saw major election fraud and again Abdullah could not muscle his way out of it given his lack of access to the powerful strongmen who decided the final fate of the swing ‘vote’.  

John Kerry stepped into to convince Abdullah to take a 'chief executive' role which was defacto prime minister, and Abdullah accepted and mostly concentrated on humanitarian work and assistance to the non-political aspects of governing Afghanistan. It was said that Abdullah did not possess the leadership skills to put up a challenge in the high-end power-broking of Kabul politics.

Abdullah finally stands firm 

I know from people close to him that before the most recent election, many supporters of Abdullah whispered to him that Ghani would not allow anyone to win and again the election would be rigged. His only chance was if unlike the previous two times, he finally took a stand. This has resulted in him declaring himself president despite the Ghani inauguration in the official palace. 

Interestingly Turkey, Russia and Iran sent their ambassadors to Abdullah’s inauguration thereby showing a clear split in the international community. He has made it clear that Ghani is not the president. 

Abdullah's diplomacy leading up to the inauguration made sure leading figures such as Hamid Karzai, Sayaf and Hekmatyar did not attend Ghani’s big day. He has also managed to score meetings with the top UN official despite Ghani’s attempt to shut him out. 

Ghani is now being forced to reconsider his stance and needs to talk to Abdullah again. His strong international links given over two decades of high-profile engagements in world affairs means he has maintained many key figures as friends. 

The challenge has always been how to win over the strongmen of Afghanistan over to his side, and now with the likes of Abdul Rashid Dostum and Abdul Rasul Sayaf leaning towards him, he is finally taking a stand. 

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