Why you should care

After more than a decade at war, 2,000-plus casualties and billions of dollars, the stability the U.S. has worked so hard to build in Afghanistan could collapse if the presidential election goes wrong.

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Family politics are complicated. Things get even more complicated when your family is in politics, as Afghanistan’s Karzai brothers are.

With President Hamid Karzai preparing to ride off into the sunset next year after 10 war-torn years at the helm of the Afghan government, older brother Qayum made a surprise decision this fall to throw his hat in the ring for the April 5 presidential contest to succeed him. But it’s not clear that the Afghan people — or even Hamid Karzai himself — are eager for another decade of Karzai rule. The current president — alternatively an ally and a nemesis of the West — has so far refused to endorse anyone in the race.

It is hard to see, though, how Qayum wins the presidency without a boost from little bro.

A longtime U.S. resident, successful restauranteur — his Baltimore restaurant The Helmand is well regarded — and onetime Afghan parliamentarian, Qayum Karzai has not done much to distinguish himself in post-Taliban Afghanistan, though he managed to avoid the corruption scandals and bad press that have dogged other Karzai brothers. Mahmoud, another of Hamid’s older brothers, was implicated in the vast web of fraud that brought down the Kabul Bank, the country’s main financial institution, in 2010, while Ahmed Wali Karzai sat atop a notoriously venal provincial empire in Kandahar before he was assassinated in 2011.

In polling done by Afghan media outlet TOLO News earlier this fall, Qayum was a distant third among presidential contenders, trailing Abdullah Abdullah, the former foreign minister and the top challenger to Karzai in the 2009 presidential election, and Ghani.

The elder Karzai’s main pitch is continuity — that he will be the steady hand who can keep Afghanistan on track as it navigates the landmines of major transitions in the country’s politics and security in 2014. Qayum is vague about his policy priorities but has said he would sign the Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States that would guarantee a small force of American and other NATO troops remain in the country after 2014, something officials say is absolutely necessary for Afghanistan’s security. President Karzai initially agreed to sign the pact, but, as has been his practice, threw a last-minute wrench in those plans and is holding fast to new demands that once again have the Americans tearing their hair out.

But it’s not clear that the Afghan people — or even Hamid Karzai himself — are eager for another decade of Karzai rule.

The election, itself, also risks stirring unrest. Ethnic identy and patronage networks continue to define the Afghan political landscape, which raise the stakes for electoral victory.

Seth G. Jones, an expert on the region at international security research firm Rand Corp., told reporters on a call this week that the main wild card in the elections is ”how some of the key power brokers, especially individuals with access to sub-state forces and resources, respond to the candidate.” If there is unease or blatant opposition, it risks ”increased fragmentation of the state,” he said.

That could thrust Afghanistan, still battling a Taliban insurgency, back into chaos and civil war. So stability is certainly music to the ears of nervous Western officials.

But the current president doesn’t seem so sure his brother can actually deliver.

”He’s been pretty consistent in everything he’s said to everybody he’s talked to that we know of in opposing his brother’s candidacy, quite frankly,” Ambassador James Dobbins, the U.S. State Department’s top envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told senators at a hearing on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.

Qayum is vague about his policy priorities but has said he would sign the Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States.…

Experts suggest that’s because President Karzai, who’s had his ups and downs with various members of his large, unruly family over the years, simply may not think Qayum is qualified. The younger Karzai has been intensely focused — some say obsessed — with his legacy after he leaves office and may worry how backing his brother will affect that.

Now that Qayum is in the race, however, most Afghans expect Hamid to ultimately to get behind his own kin, says Scott Smith, Deputy Director of Afghanistan Programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace, a Washington, D.C., think tank partially funded by Congress.

“What almost everybody says is Karzai will not publicly pick anybody,” says Smith, who worked on the 2004 Afghan elections with the United Nations and frequently travels there. But “everybody believes that in the end family ties will prevail … and it will be made understood to the machinery that he’s the one who will be the next president.”

Qayum Karzai, older brother of Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai, speaks during an interview in Kabul October 8, 2013.

A Karzai Dynasty May Be in the Works

Source Mohammad Ismail/Reuters

President Karzai’s backing is viewed as critical in determining the next president, given his connections and his ability to influence all levers of government power.

But Smith says he’s not yet convinced that the outgoing president’s support will be determinative, nor that Qayum will be his ultimate pick.

Indeed, you can’t rule out anything with the famously mercurial president, who could also potentially back Zalmay Rassoul, his current foreign minister, or Ashraf Ghani, a onetime adviser to Karzai and, like him, a Pashtun.

But Smith says Qayum is beginning to be taken more seriously in Afghanistan. ”The more people I’m talking to, including people who have seen him recently, are coming back and saying this is not a joke candidate. He’s actually organized,” Smith says, and ”presents himself as being less mercurial” than the current president.

Whether that’s a pitch that will win over his unpredictable younger brother, however, is anyone’s guess.

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