A Former Afghan Presidential Candidate Reflects

Abdullah Abdullah ran for president of Afghanistan in 2009, losing to incumbent Hamid Karzai. He speaks with guest host Tony Cox, about where things stand in his country and what's next for him.

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TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away.

Coming up, for many, it was their second return from refugee camps. The Vietnamese-Americans of New Orleans East were among the first back after Katrina. A new film tells their tale.

But first, the man who became something of a household name here during last year's Afghan elections. Abdullah Abdullah promised a housecleaning of his country's corrupt government if his people voted him into the president's office occupied by Hamid Karzai.

The White House would have been happy to work with Abdullah Abdullah to help rebuild the country and fight the Taliban. But voter fraud ended his bid. He is an eye surgeon by trade and has served twice as Afghanistan's foreign minister.

Abdullah Abdullah now leads a political party called the Coalition for Hope and Change while he is here in Washington. We are happy to have him join us in our studios. Dr. Abdullah, welcome to the program.

Dr. ABDULLAH ABDULLAH (Coalition for Hope and Change, Former Afghan Presidential Candidate): Thank you. And thank you for having me.

COX: Let's begin with this the U.S. is pouring tens of thousands additional troops into your country to oust a ruthless and deadly opponent, the Taliban. Nearly 1,100 Americans have died so far. Can you tell the families of those who are fighting there now if this war can be won?

Dr. ABDULLAH: I am absolutely sure about the prospect of winning the war. And at the same time, I would like to express my deepest gratitude, as well as deepest sympathy to the families of those who made ultimate sacrifices for securing your own country as well as helping us get our own house in order and secure.

And it is winnable, but not with the attitude of business as usual. Or in another word, his political wealth, Mr. Karzai's political wealth and his team's political wealth, that's not much the generous support that you are offering for that country.

COX: Well, let me follow that with this because you have said that a U.S. military withdrawal is a difficult situation and a difficult question that depends on a number of factors. I'd like you to talk about what those specific factors are. And, also, how soon do you see, or how soon do you want to see a U.S. military pullback?

Dr. ABDULLAH: I would say that in the favorable conditions which were provided, had it not been for the big mistakes in the past eight and nine years, today would have been the right day to talk about the draw down. Absolutely it was possible. Already we have missed some golden opportunities in the past. My point is that we cannot afford to do so anymore.

And my point in regards to the recent visit by Mr. Karzai to Washington was that apart from the surface of the meeting or the PR part of the meeting, I hope this was used as an opportunity to engage him seriously, to deliver to his own people. So the partnership can work much better in your interest and in our interest and that timeframe of the U.S. draw down is even shorter than it is anticipated.

He's not moving in the direction that is what the people of Afghanistan expect him to do. And that might create circumstances that your engagement, additional resources, additional forces will not bring the results that you are expecting or we are expecting.

COX: If you're just joining us, I'm Tony Cox and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, former foreign minister of Afghanistan and 2009 presidential election candidate about the state of Afghanistan today.

Dr. Abdullah, on the 2nd of June, President Karzai will hold what he calls a piece jirga with tribal and community leaders. Now, Taliban leaders are not expected to attend. What do you think about the conference and what do you think might be the right model? Because you have said in the past that decentralized government is the best approach. Is this a step in that direction?

Dr. ABDULLAH: Unfortunately, this is not because this might be an exercise in order to garner support for Mr. Karzai himself in some parts of the country because he also understands that his legitimacy was under question as a result of fraudulent elections.

This might be an exercise (unintelligible) or a PR exercise. Or whatever it is, I will not dismiss the upcoming jirga because it's under the title consultative peace jirga. So I cannot argue against the title. But it's a purely government-led exercise. And people with the government want them to be invited will be invited there.

There are a lot of speculations about the agenda. But reconciliation for me, the meaning of it is much broader than just talking to the Taliban. It's about reaching out to the people. After all, we'd like to remark this is an insurgency. In any insurgency the victory is in winning the hearts and minds of the people.

So, hopefully, as a result of this meeting, there will be some more pressure for Karzai to deliver to the people, so the forces which want to fight forever will be isolated from (unintelligible) population, and the environment changes in favor of the process.

COX: Let's talk about the hearts and minds of the people for a moment, because during your presidential campaign, you used to say, and I'm quoting here, "Afghanistan, I am also asking you to believe in your own potential to change the course of our history," end quote. Do you think, Dr. Abdullah, that the Afghan men and women believed in their potential? And what do you think they can do to improve their lives right away?

Dr. ABDULLAH: During the elections and campaign, in spite of the results, I consider what yourself refer to, the belief of the people, the trust of the people upon themselves that they can change the course of the history because they got very close to that as a result of campaigning and voting.

And then something happened. But this is not the end of the world for our people. Our people will continue and we will continue. Apart from whatever blame we put on the people in the government today, there is also something in the system which is highly centralized. If we have elected governors and then they will be accountable to the people in that province, the situation will change. For example, in Kandahar, if we have a local government which has the support of the population, it will make the job of the military operation much easier.

COX: Final thing is this, to what extent do you believe that an opposition party headed by you will have any success in cutting into the authority of the Karzai government?

Dr. ABDULLAH: It will have a significant role. But at the same time, nevertheless, there is a role for the international community as well to stand by the process, to defend the values which are the aspirations of the Afghan people. And the fate of Afghanistan will depend on that. Thirty million population, absolute majority of the population in Afghanistan are for a system which can work for them and they can live in peace with one another and with the rest of the world, with equal rights.

Help us in doing so, because we are in the first phases, I'm not asking for help for a person, for a party, but helping the process, supporting the process, rescuing the process is this democratic process, I mean, is rescuing Afghanistan.

COX: Dr. Abdullah Abdullah is the former minister of foreign affairs in Afghanistan and the leading opposition candidate during Afghanistan's presidential elections last year. Dr. Abdullah joined us from our studios here in Washington, D.C. Thank you.

Dr. ABDULLAH: You're welcome.

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