The official beginning of the election season in Afghanistan got off to a rocky start. Two aides of presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah were shot dead in the city of Herat in western Afghanistan on February 1. This comes days after former Minister of Water and Energy, and current running mate of candidate Abu Rasool Sayyaf, Ismail Khan, escaped a suicide attack on January 24.
The elections, set to be held on April 5, represent the first transition of power since the war began over 13 years ago. Hamid Karzai, president since 2001, has served two terms and is therefore prohibited from running again under the constitution adopted by the national Loya Jirga (national assembly of tribal elders) in 2002. Karzai has stated publically that he intends to step down, and an array of candidates is hoping to replace him.
The five most prominent Afghan presidential candidates are as follows:
1. Abdullah Abdullah, considered by many to be the frontrunner, was a former lieutenant of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Panjishiri leader of the Northern Alliance until his assassination. He was appointed foreign minister in Karzai’s government in 2002, but resigned his position to run against Karzai in the 2009 elections, where he gained enough votes to deny Karzai a plurality and force him into a runoff. However, he turned this opportunity in order to avoid major disruptions in the fragile country.
2. Ashraf Ghani was another who ran against Karzai in 2009, and was much more popular abroad than he was at home, coming in a distant fourth place. A former professor of Cultural Anthropology at Johns Hopkins, he was made finance minister after the fall of the Taliban.
3. Zalmay Khalilzad, an Afghan-American, was the man responsible for putting together the Afghan government upon its official inception in 2002. He has long been associated with the Neoconservative movement in America, and was the Reagan administration’s advisor on Afghan affairs. He has served as the US ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, and the United Nations.
4. Qayum Karzai is the elder brother of Hamid, as well as the founder of a successful chain of Afghan restaurants throughout the United States. He returned to Afghanistan and won a seat in Parliament, but attended so rarely that he was compelled to resign. Many contend Qayum’s connection to scandal has tarnished his brother’s reputation.
5. Abu Rasool Sayyaf is a former Mujahideen who received funding and support from Saudi Arabia. He may have also been the first man to invite Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan. After the retreat of the Soviets, he fought with three other warlords–Massoud, Dostum, and Hekmatyar–for control of Kabul. He emerged, however, untarnished by these associations after the American invasion due to his partnership with the Northern Alliance. His running mate is none other than Ismail Khan, longtime local potentate of Herat and another veteran of the Soviet invasion.
- Doku Umarov, known to the West as Russia’s “bin Laden” and locally as “the emir of the Caucuses,” was reportedly killed earlier this month. His goal was to establish an emirate in the caucuses, ruled over by himself and governed under Sharia Law. He has continually been a thorn in Russia’s side, responsible for the 2009 and 2010 attacks on Moscow’s subway and airport.
- Residents in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan (or FATA) in Waziristan have been fleeing their homes in droves in anticipation of a military offensive throughout the area, despite the government alleging no planned offensives in the wake of clashes in which over 100 have died. In the past month, the Pakistani Air Force has claimed credit for the death of over 50 militants, including 33 from Uzbekistan, as well as for eliminating commanders Asmat Shahin Battani and Wali Mohammed, both of whom assumed leadership of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) terror group after the death of Hakimullah Mehsud last November.
- Centerra, a Canadian gold mining company, has invested $870 million since 2009 into the Kumtor gold mine, one of the largest sources of direct foreign investment from North America in Central Asia, outside of Afghanistan. Measures passed in the Krygyz Parliament earlier in the month raised the government’s ownership in the mine to 69%, up from a renegotiated 33% in 2009, just before the most recent revolution. Bolstered by higher gold prices in 2013, the Kyrgyz economy exceeded growth expectations.
- A shootout that occurred on January 23 between Kyrgyz border troops and alleged intruders from Xinjiang Province caused the death of twelve Chinese. Chinese news agencies did not respond immediately to the incident, prompting speculation that the intruders were part of the East Turkestan Islamic Movmement (or ETIM). Chinese diplomats are still unable to provide further details on the identities of the suspected Uighur fugitives.
- Oil imports from Kazakhstan to China hit a record 86 million barrels in 2013, a 14 percent increase from the previous year. This reflects Beijing’s strategy to diversify its energy suppliers. The Kazakh consortium is a joint venture between Chevron, Exxon-Mobil, state-owned KazMunayGas and Russia’s LukArco. However, the largest of the Kazakh super giants, Kashagan, remained offline for ten months last year due to pipeline problems. These issues are considered to be only temporary setbacks to what many consider to be an oil boom in Central Asia that will drive growth throughout the region.