A look at the candidates for Afghan president

Hamid Karzai, after 13 years and two terms as president, is stepping down in keeping with the country's constitution.

He has expressed support for Zalmai Rassoul, his foreign minister, to replace him and has reportedly dissuaded his older brothers, Mahmoud and Qayum, from running. According to Abdullah Abdullah, another candidate, who has known Karzai since the 1980s, he doesn't trust them. Brothers have killed brothers, and fathers have killed sons, and vice versa, in Afghanistan, all for power. Abdullah said he feels that Karzai can influence Rassoul in the future, more so than his brothers.

There are three leading candidates for president.

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Afghan presidential candidate and former foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul in the northwestern city of Herat on March 30, 2014.
Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images

The first is Zalmai Rassoul, a Pashtun, and nephew of King Amanullah Khan, revered because he freed Afghanistan from the British. Many say Khan, a true reformer, went too far, angering rural tribal leaders, and had to flee Afghanistan in 1929 and died in Zurich in 1960. His wife, Soraya, showed her face in Afghanistan and wore sleeveless blouses.

Karzai himself is an aristocrat of the Populzai clan, who were among the first rulers of Afghanistan. The current Afghan president was derided by the West for years as the mayor of Kabul, but slowly expanded his influence and has now apparently convinced Pashtun and non-Pashtun leaders to support Rassoul.

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Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah addresses a crowd of supporters during a campaign stop in Dashtak, Afghanistan, on March 31, 2014.
WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images

The second leading candidate for president is Abdullah Abdullah, an eye doctor, who was Karzai's first foreign minister, and is from the Panjshir Valley, northeast of Kabul. Abdullah is a member of the Northern Alliance of Hazaras, Tajiks, and Uzbeks -- U.S. allies in the war against the Taliban. His father is Pashtun, his mother a Tajik, but he chose to join the Northern Alliance to fight the Taliban, who are Pashtuns. Westerners feel that Afghanistan is a patriarchal society and that his mother's lineage shouldn't matter. However for many in Afghanistan it does matter, because he is not a pure Pashtun.

The most important question in Afghanistan is: "Who was your grandfather?" In addition, there is a Pashtun saying: "She who rocks the cradle rules the world." Abdullah, who placed second to Karzai in the 2009 elections, is the most experienced politician, but ethnicity is likely to win out.

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Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai speaks during a political rally in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-i-Sharif on March 31, 2014.
WASEEM NIKZAD/AFP/Getty Images

The third leading candidate for president is Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, a Pashtun with a PhD from Columbia. Ahmadzai is also a former World Bank official and former finance minister, who lived for years in the Washington, D.C. area, like members of the Karzai family. He has said that he will release all prisoners held by the U.S. at Bagram Airfield.

The last presidential election, in 2009, was rigged. However, the fault for that lay not with Karzai alone, but also with the U.S.

According to Robert Gates, writing in his memoirs, the U.S. -- i.e., President Obama -- tried a "clumsy and failed putsch" to get rid of Karzai before the election. "It was all ugly," he wrote. A former U.S. general turned ambassador, Karl Eikenberry, and Richard Holbrooke, who himself was being undermined in the U.S. government, tried to undermine Karzai. That move in turned forced Karzai to go to tribal leaders, according to Gates, who stuffed the ballot boxes, assuring his victory. Already Karzai has been accused of using government employees to help Rassoul. Tribal leaders will, if necessary, step in again.

Although Afghanistan's 11 million eligible voters are said to be lining up to register and are anxious to vote, many believe they in their hearts still wish for a king. The Afghan government rules from Kabul, which tribal leaders like because it helps them maintain their power. They don't want roads up in the mountains. There is a strong oral history tradition in the countryside, all of which will help but not guarantee that King Amanullah's nephew will sit on the presidential throne.

There are also rumors of a late alliance between Rassoul and Abdullah.

Will the Taliban continue to try to disrupt the election? Very possibly. That is up to Pakistan, which is opposed to any royalist in power, who will like Karzai dream of returning the tribal areas of Pakistan, which are largely Pashtun, to Afghanistan. This is why Karzai supported Russia's annexation of Crimea. He wants former Afghan land returned to Afghanistan.

Pakistan is widely believed to use the Taliban to divide the Pashtun nation. This also puts the U.S. in the middle of a class war. The Taliban are often seen as a social movement more than a political one.

The seat of power in Afghanistan is Kabul, and the Haqqani Network, based in Miran Shah, Pakistan, is closest of all anti-Western militant groups to it, and has the most experience in attacking there.

All presidential candidates, unlike Karzai, have said that they will sign the Bilateral Security Agreement, allowing the U.S. to keep forces in Afghanistan after 2014.

  • Jere Van Dyk

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