Young Academic Pits Himself Against Warlords in Afghanistan Poll

(Bloomberg) -- Casting himself against Afghanistan’s entrenched political elite and powerful warlords, Faramarz Tamanna is looking to galvanize a new generation of voters who have lived through near constant conflict since the American invasion 18-years ago.

The 42-year-old academic and chancellor of the University of Afghanistan is pitching his outsider credentials to the country’s war-weary youth and is the youngest of 18 presidential candidates vying for office ahead of a Sept. 28 election.

What Tamanna lacks in ties to Afghan patronage networks, he hopes to make up by drawing support from first-time voters and an educated urbanized population he says are tired of conflict, economic insecurity and ethnic division. About half of the country’s 35 million people were born around 2001, when the Taliban’s regime was ousted by the U.S. and its allies.

Young Academic Pits Himself Against Warlords in Afghanistan Poll

“My supporters are not racially or ethnically affiliated to any fascist political parties run by previous corrupt generations that have shuttered our beautiful nation,” Tamanna, who has held multiple civil service and diplomatic posts, said in an interview at his office in the elite neighborhood of Wazir Akbar Khan in Kabul.

Ruthless Candidates

Tamanna faces a tough battle to secure the top job among a crowded field of often ruthless candidates that have long dominated Afghanistan’s political scene. With little reliable polling in the war-torn country, it’s also hard to gather how much support Tamanna is drawing among over 18s, who are due to cast their ballot for the first time. The poll has twice been delayed by the country’s Independent Election Commission due to security and technical issues.

Still, it’s clear his campaign is cutting through with some young voters.

“We’re sick of warlords or corrupt officials who have damaged our image in the world,” said Jawid Azizi, 21, an economics student at Kabul University who plans to vote for Tamanna. “A fresh mind with new ideas has to come into politics.”

Fellow student Nadeem Qurbanjo, 20, agreed. “The modern Afghanistan with its educated generation deserves to vote for someone who values education not corruption, who can develop our country, but not bring disaster,” Qurbanjo said on Tuesday in Kabul.

After the delay, the Supreme Court extended current president Ashraf Ghani’s term, supposed to end by May 22, for several months till the next president takes office.

His chief rivals include Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who’ve uneasily shared power since the last disputed election five years ago. Also in the running is Haneef Atmar, a former national security adviser. All have support from powerful factions among the two main Pashtun and Tajik ethnic groups and are seen as the leading candidates ahead of the poll, according to the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a Kabul-based think tank.

Tamanna has “failed to create a grand coalition with corrupt and powerful warlords who still hold great support within ethnic lines,” said Ahmad Shokur, a senior member of the Afghanistan Institute for Civil Society in Kabul. “It will be quite tough for him to win.”

So far Tamanna, an ethnic Tajik who holds two PhDs in political science from Iran and India, has pledged to improve security and create jobs. He blamed a grinding stalemate between the Taliban and the U.S.-backed forces and government in Kabul on flawed peace policies in Washington that are “wrong and do not work” as Afghanistan’s government has largely been kept out of direct talks.

Taliban Negotiations

Nevertheless, negotiations between the U.S. and the militant group have taken on greater urgency as Afghanistan heads toward presidential elections, with the U.S. seeking a peace deal with the group before September. The Taliban, which controls or contests about half the country, have increased attacks across Afghanistan as U.S. President Donald Trump looks to end America’s involvement in the 18-year-old war.

On July 7, a 50-member delegation of Afghan elites met with Taliban officials in Doha with both sides agreeing to reduce violence.

If elected, Tamanna said he would seek a ceasefire and direct negotiations with the Taliban, while creating a “development-oriented” economy through domestic industries, such as agriculture and mining rather than the current “security-oriented” economy.

“If we can get jobs for the jobless people security will improve because more than 75% of the Taliban, based on our ground research, are fighting for a living,” he said.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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