- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Former Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah warned on Monday that a rigged parliamentary election in his country will be much more catastrophic than the discredited presidential election in August that prompted him to abandon his challenge to President Hamid Karzai.

He said he dropped out of the runoff contest with Mr. Karzai last year because he was worried that Afghans would be subjected to the “same painful process” that would disappoint them, adding that he urged his supporters not to protest in the streets.

But in the event of a rigged parliamentary election, hundreds of candidates would find themselves in a situation similar to his, which could lead to a security crisis, he said at the U.S. Institute of Peace on Monday.

Parliamentary elections in Afghanistan are scheduled for September.

Mr. Abdullah said it was imperative for the international community to prevent a repeat of the previous election fiasco because “your taxpayers are paying for our elections, and your soldiers are providing security.”

“This is a big test for the people of Afghanistan and our friends,” he said.

He did not favor calling off the elections, saying that would undermine the parliament’s legitimacy, but he added that the vote should be postponed if it lacks an acceptable level of credibility. He is not a candidate in this election.

Mr. Abdullah’s visit to Washington, which is packed with a series of speaking engagements at think tanks as well as an interview with editors and reporters at The Washington Times on Tuesday, comes on the heels of Mr. Karzai’s visit earlier this month.

Mr. Karzai’s visit followed a strained period in the U.S.-Afghan relationship, the low point of which was the Afghan president’s threat to join the Taliban if the U.S. did not stop pressing him on reform. Those differences appeared to have been resolved by the time the Afghan leader was in Washington this month.

Mr. Abdullah described as insulting suggestions that Afghanistan has no alternative to Mr. Karzai.

Unlike Mr. Karzai, who was courted by senior officials in the Obama administration, including President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Mr. Abdullah told The Times he has no meetings scheduled with administration officials.

But his message is clear: The international community must broaden its engagement with the people of Afghanistan instead of investing all its efforts into mollycoddling Mr. Karzai.

“What is at stake for you is much more than the fate of one person, so your investment has to be in the people of Afghanistan,” Mr. Abdullah said.

He described as a “missed opportunity” a U.S. decision to back a second term for Mr. Karzai after the Aug. 20 election, which international monitors said had been rigged in the president’s favor.

“You are a big nation. You can recover from mistakes. But can we?” he said. “If we fail, you fail.”

He said the international community’s efforts should be focused on the people of Afghanistan rather than a “failed partner” — a thinly veiled reference to Mr. Karzai.

J. Alexander Thier, director of the Future of Afghanistan Project at the U.S. Institute of Peace, said the elections were a “terrible experience” that had damaged the U.S.-Afghan relationship.

Mr. Abdullah described the growing gap between Afghans and their government as the biggest problem facing Afghanistan and criticized the lack of governance and rampant corruption across the country.

Discussing a forthcoming peace jirga with local Afghan leaders, he said his participation would depend on whether there is a clear agenda for the meeting. “We cannot go back on education and women’s rights because of the demands of terrorists who are in bed with al Qaeda,” he said.

Discussing the ongoing U.S. military operation in Kandahar, Mr. Abdullah said the success of the mission depended on fixing the broken governance in the province. Mr. Karzai’s half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, is the top civilian official in Kandahar.