As Afghanistan approaches its upcoming presidential elections on April 5, Qayum Karzai, a leading candidate and President Hamid Karzai’s brother, dropped out from the presidential race Wednesday. Qayum Karzai went on to endorse his rival candidate, former Afghan Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul, stating at a press conference in Kabul that he and his team consider themselves “as a key part of this new alliance and declare my support for Doctor Zalmai Rassoul.”
The Rassoul-Qayum Karzai alliance creates a strong coalition and ticket that may appeal to many of Afghanistan’s Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group. While President Karzai has not openly supported one candidate, he had publicly urged his brother not to run. Some see Qayum Karzai’s decision to withdraw as a clear signal that Mr. Rassoul is President Karzai’s successor of choice.
Zalmai Rassoul has been a close confidante of President Karzai for many years. Said to be a member of President Hamid Karzai’s inner circle, Zalmai Rassoul served as foreign minister before resigning with President Karzai’s permission to run for president. Before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Mr. Rassoul was a close aide and personal physician of Mohammad Zahir Shah, the former king of Afghanistan, in Rome. At that time, Rassoul and Hamid Karzai travelled widely to build support for a Loya Jirga peace process, supported by the European Union and Western allies, as the only likely option to counter the ruling Taliban regime and facilitate a political transition in Afghanistan. While that loya Jirga didn’t come to fruition, this Rome group helped create an interim government in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in 2001.
Since then, Zalmai Rassoul has remained a close aide to President Karzai, initially heading his Ministry of Civil Aviation, and then moving to form and lead Afghanistan’s first National Security Council. Rassoul’s role as chief interlocutor in dealing with the international community suggests that he may lead in smoothing ties with Washington, where tensions are high over the standoff over a key bilateral security agreement (BSA) and Karzai’s decision to release a number of detainees deemed dangerous by the U.S.
In a televised presidential foreign policy debate on Tuesday, Rassoul declined to comment on whether President Karzai should sign the BSA, which would allow for a residual U.S. and NATO force to remain after 2014. However, he acknowledged his support for the BSA and the intent to sign an agreement with the United States, if he won the presidency. In a Wall Street Journal Q&A soon after his candidacy announcement, Rassoul outlined his agenda in which economic stability and a peace process related to Pakistan remains crucial to Afghan security. He also said that he would focus on an overhaul of Afghanistan’s railroads and the irrigation system, and linking Central Asia to South Asia to build an energy and trade corridor that would provide strategic relevance and boost Afghanistan’s economy.
Qayum Karzai’s withdrawal shakes up the political landscape, leaving three leading candidates: Abdullah Abdullah, a Tajik-Pashtun who finished second in the 2009 election, Ashraf Ghani, a Pashtun with an Uzbek former warlord as his running mate, and Zalmai Rassoul. Should Rassoul succeed President Karzai, some are concerned that it may allow Karzai to maintain influence and power in the next administration (a Putin-Medvedev dynamic) — stepping down officially while keeping a tight grip on the reins vis-à-vis Rassoul. According to the New York Times, President Karzai’s new home, currently under renovation, will be a 13,000 square feet European-style mansion just a few yards from the Presidential Palace, from where he can provide guidance and maintain influence as a “presidential adviser for life.”
Aarthi Gunasekaran is a Research Assistant with the National Security and International Policy team at the Center for American Progress.