MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We'd like to start the program today talking about elections in Afghanistan, which are set for next week. The country will try to select a new president to replace Hamid Karzai, who has been in power since 2001. But the Taliban promised violence in the run-up to the elections, and the group has lived up to its word. There's been a string of deadly high-profile attacks. We wanted to learn more about the situation and what's at stake, so we've called upon Abdur-Rahim Fuqara once again. He's Washington D.C. bureau chief for Al Jazeera International, and he's kind enough to join us once again in our Washington, D.C. studios. Welcome back. Thank you for joining us once again.
ABDUR-RAHIM FUQARA: Always good to be with you.
MARTIN: Do you have a sense of the mood in Afghanistan? As we mentioned, there has been tremendous violence and the threat of violence continuously. What is the mood?
FUQARA: I think the mood is in two parts. There's obviously a lot of fear and trepidation, particularly in light of these attacks that have been in the press a lot. But there's also a sense of experiencing something new. Obviously, despite all its trials and tribulations, Afghanistan and the political system that has been set up in it since the U.S. invasion in 2001 is, despite the bloodshed and despite all the problems, is actually producing a system whereby the president has a term limit. His time has come up. So somebody else has to be elected as president. That's totally new for Afghanistan.
MARTIN: Is there any - is there a sense of appreciation of that or is there a sense of excitement about that despite how frightening it must be for people to participate given that there have been this continuous kind of threat? I mean, do you sense a sense - any sense of kind of optimism about it?
FUQARA: I think there is, particularly among the elites of Afghanistan - people who may be with a certain degree of education, people with a certain degree of awareness of Afghanistan's political history. Yes, they appreciate it for what it is, particularly that, you know, Afghanistan is in a region that's not obviously very well known for that kind of smooth political transition.
The echoes of what happened in Egypt last summer, the coup, are obviously - could obviously be heard in Afghanistan. But I think the bulk of the populace, they are either indifferent or they are scared. Or if they pin hope on this particular election, they pin hope on it because they want some sort of security and stability in which to raise their families and send their kids to school and have health care and things like that.
MARTIN: As we mentioned, the Taliban have been threatening violence. They have delivered on that threat. They've launched a number of, you know, very brazen assaults. I mean, they carried out a number of attacks. They killed members of the country's security forces including a woman police official in the southern province in Kabul, a candidate for a seat on a provincial council was among those killed when people stormed an election office. Election workers or policemen were among the people killed, and this gun battle lasting more than four hours. What message are they trying to set? I mean, they were very clear that they said that if these elections go forward, we're going to attack people. But why?
FUQARA: Well, I mean, first of all, as part of this long process of negotiations that the Taliban have been having with Hamid Karzai, as unsuccessful so far as they have been, one of the things they produced in the past was a statement by the Taliban that they would not attack civilians in Afghanistan. But obviously, that seems to have shifted.
Now they have been targeting politicians. And now they've added to politicians, election officials. And I think the whole idea, for them, is that Karzai is a puppet of the West. He's a puppet of the United States. He's at the top of a political system that was set up post-2001 when the U.S. invaded election. And they see elections obviously as in no way a means for them to achieve power because to achieve power, they would have to make a lot of concessions, particularly with regard to their stringent interpretation of Islam. So they're doing everything they can to undermine the election because the election, in their eyes, is illegitimate.
MARTIN: But they clearly are targeting civilians. I mean, at one point, they killed an Afghan journalist. They killed his wife. They killed two of his children while they were dining, you know, at a restaurant. You know, it was a location that was, you know, frequented by foreigners, but they clearly were targeting him. And note worthy, they were two teenagers who participated in this attack by exploding these, as I understand it, you know, small pistols in their shoes. So they are targeting civilians.
FUQARA: There will always be a disconnect between what they say and what they do. But I think they have been making a concerted effort to convince Afghans, particularly in the run-up to an event like a presidential election, that they have the interest of Afghans, the best interest at heart.
MARTIN: And what then? I mean, if - let's assume that if they achieve the goal of persuading a majority of Afghan citizens not to participate in the elections, what then?
FUQARA: Well, that's the thing. If these elections fail - and it's unlikely that they will fail in the sense that it's unlikely that they will be canceled. They will obviously go on. But if they fail, then they will depict that as a victory for them. And they will say to Afghans, look, everything that we are doing and everything that we have done has led to the outcome of refusing the occupation, particularly with President Obama now thinking of actually withdrawing troops from Afghanistan. They'll say, we forced the great Satan to actually withdraw from Afghanistan.
MARTIN: Well, to that - speak about that, if you would, for a minute. And if you're just joining us, our guest is test is Abdur-Rahim Fuqara, our Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera International. We're talking about the upcoming elections in Afghanistan. Hamid Karzai is completing his second term. He is leaving office after two terms under the terms of the Constitution. And elections are being held to replace him. So the U.S. is winding down its troop presence in Afghanistan. There has been increasing sort of tension between the U.S. - between the Obama administration and this - and the Karzai administration. So what about the status of troops going forward here, and what is the new - whoever takes this post, what is his or - it's going to be him - his posture likely to be toward a continued U.S. troop presence?
FUQARA: Well, first of all, whoever wins this election, he has to win it not just at least relatively fairly and squarely, they have to be seen to be winning it fairly and squarely. If there's a lot of - if there's considerable doubt about the fairness of the election, as happened in the last election, then that's obviously not going to help Afghans in so many different ways. One of them is that they - a lot of people will contest it. There may be a runoff. If there's a runoff, that means Afghans won't actually have a president to sign this security deal with the United States until sometime in the summer. That leaves a gray area, both for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but also for the security of the people of Afghanistan themselves. That's the source of tension between Hamid Karzai and the Obama administration. Knowing that if there is no such security deal with Afghanistan, obviously, the Afghans won't be able to get the $4 billion or so of U.S. money to run everything that they need to run for Afghans, from security to education and food and so on.
MARTIN: Can you tell us a little bit about the - there are a number of people running - is there a front runner so far as we know?
FUQARA: There have been several candidates. That list has been whittling down, obviously. But I think there are three main figures that we are hearing a lot about, are, in one way or another, very familiar to Karzai's government. They've served in Karzai in the Karzai government in the past. Ahmed Ahmed - I'm sorry, Abdullah Abdullah is the former Foreign Minister. He was a candidate in the last election. He competed against Hamid Karzai. Ashraf Ghani is an economist. It seems that many Afghans trust him. He has the know-how. So these candidates who seem to be the leading candidates, not one of them, at least as far as I know, has said no to signing a security deal with the United States for the obvious reasons. One of them is that if there's no deal, as I said earlier, there's no money coming from the U.S. to Afghanistan.
MARTIN: Do we know what the Hamid Karzai's plans are for when he leaves office? He's just become a familiar figure to, you know, the American audience despite that there's been a very tumultuous, you know, relationship over the course of the years, for reasons too numerous to count here. But do we know what his plans are?
FUQARA: The blow-by-blow plan for his life after the presidency, we haven't heard so much about, but we know this - we know that many of the things that he's doing right now, including telling the U.S., I will not sign a security agreement with you until we make absolutely sure that no civilians will be killed in drone attacks, things like that, he is basically trying to secure his legacy in the political history of Afghanistan. But whoever wins the presidency, at least among the three main contenders, Karzai is not going to just disappear. He's close to them. He will continue to wield some influence in Afghan politics, either with the leaders running against him in this election, with warlords and so on. So he will continue to be busy, but from behind the scenes.
MARTIN: And is this a big story for you? It's interesting that the U.S. has had such a long relationship with this country over the past decade, and yet, this is a bit below the radar, except for people who really closely watch the region. Is this a big - is this being closely watched in the rest of the Middle East?
FUQARA: Yes. This is a big story for all sorts of different reasons. One of them is that the U.S. signed a similar agreement with the Iraqis before the Obama administration withdrew U.S. forces from that country. And we know that several years after the signing of that agreement Iraq continues to be a mess. Every day we hear about a bombing, everyday we hear about the killing of civilians in various parts of Iraq. So people are watching what happens in Afghanistan through the prism of what's been happening in Iraq.
MARTIN: Abdur-Rahim Fuqara is the Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera International. He was kind enough to join us once again in our studios in Washington, D.C. He joins us from time to time to bring us up-to-date on important events in the region. Thank you so much for speaking with us.
FUQARA: Great to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.