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Is Dr Abdullah Abdullah the next Afghan president?

He leads the polls for April’s election, and is one of the incumbent’s harshest critics. Three of his team have been shot dead and his motorcade attacked. No wonder gunmen guard his gates. He talks to Emily Dugan in Kabul

It is hard to believe that the streets surrounding the Kabul home of Afghanistan’s leading presidential candidate were once a quiet residential neighbourhood. Now, gunmen in military fatigues guard high barricades, and a steel airlock surrounded by piles of sandbags marks the entrance to Abdullah Abdullah’s house.

It may seem paranoid, but the man leading the polls for next month’s presidential elections has reason to be cautious. Over the past two months his campaign has been under siege. Three of Dr Abdullah’s campaign team were shot dead in attacks last month in Herat and Sari Pul, and four weeks ago his motorcade came under heavy fire while driving back from Jalalabad.

Dr Abdullah has tried to continue as normal. “I don’t lose sleep at night,” he insists, though he admits he has moved his family away.

Walking into the room, he has the kind of immediate presence that brings conversation to an abrupt halt and makes its occupants scramble to their feet. Behind the military barriers, the former foreign minister lives in the same elegant family home that he was born in, 53 years ago. Its walls are covered in oil paintings and sweet-smelling sandalwood panelling, the floor draped in ornate Afghan rugs.

With just over two weeks to go until the elections, the escalating violence towards the candidates is a sign that the poll on 5 April will not be as fair as some hope. Dr Abdullah came second to Hamid Karzai in the first round of the presidential race in 2009, but stood down before the run-off vote, citing allegations of large-scale voter fraud by Mr Karzai.

Although Mr Karzai is not in the running this time, Dr Abdullah is worried: “The same concerns are valid this time,” he says. “If there is massive industrial-scale fraud, the people will not tolerate it. It might lead to a crisis.”

He believes President Karzai’s persuasion of his brother Quayum to stand down and back his favoured candidate, Zalmai Rassoul, is evidence that the outgoing leader is already interfering in the election. Mr Karzai was accused in parliament last week of just that. Recalling the confrontation, Dr Abdullah said: “[Mr Karzai] said ‘look, everybody has somebody who was in government, so if that’s interference then it’s divided,’ but that’s not true... that’s not the same as using the state apparatus in favour of one candidate, that’s different from having sympathisers.”

Fierce but charming, Dr Abdullah is known for his polished dress sense and engaging speech. Not normally seen outside a pressed suit, the evening he meets The Independent he looks tired, his grey shalwar kameez covered in a zip-up coat and woolly scarf.

At times he is brutally realistic. When describing his vision for his country’s future, he says: “The aim has to be to recreate opportunity because as it seems at the moment it’s so hopeless. It’s a downslide in many ways.”

He wants to recapture the optimism that followed the overthrow of the Taliban. “In 2001 there was an engagement by the international forces, and ... the rest of it was just hopes. There was no system, no assistance, no government, no rule of law. Then that hope helped the people of Afghanistan to take some steps which were fundamental. It helped us move towards where we are at the moment but in between we missed a lot of opportunities, there is no doubt about it.”

Although he is keen to woo foreign donors and military help, he also believes the international community squandered opportunities and failed to listen to a range of Afghan voices. “They listened to only one person throughout [Mr Karzai ]... They listened mainly to the people they knew, like the Afghan Americans or the Afghan Europeans, who knew Europe and America much much better than they knew Afghanistan .... The indigenous voices were considered as biased or not important.”

He is also concerned that billions of dollars in international assistance have failed to train native talent. “We relied fully on the borrowed capacity from outside, either from foreign experts, or Afghans who were abroad ... when the time comes they take the capacity [away] with them.”

His apparently liberal opinions will prove popular with Western powers. He is persuasive on the need for a greater role for women in society and public life, saying: “If you want to see this country or any other country even being able to deal with the challenges and develop, it cannot happen without the role of half the population.”

Despite serving as a foreign minister under Mr Karzai from 2001 to 2005, Dr Abdullah is increasingly one of the President’s staunchest critics. He is scornful of Mr Karzai’s refusal to sign a bilateral security agreement allowing the continued presence of US troops after Nato forces pull out, by the end of the year. All candidates have indicated they would sign an agreement, but he has been the most enthusiastic, announcing last week that were he elected he would sign it “within a month”.

His assessment of Mr Karzai’s legacy is damning. “I would say Hamid Karzai doesn’t have a vision for the country,” he says. “Earlier I thought he was interested in democracy, in the rule of law, in the rights of citizens, but his record has been very poor ...

“Let’s look at security. At one stage he believed the Taliban and al-Qa’ida was not a threat, which was a mistake. Today it seems that the enemy No 1 is not Taliban or al-Qa’ida, it’s the United States, Britain. Again, another mistake. He played games unfortunately.... There are lessons for everybody in it.”

In a field otherwise made up of Pashtun candidates, Dr Abdullah, born to a Tajik mother and Pashtun father, is regarded as the candidate of choice for non-Pashtuns. Most recent polling puts him in the lead, followed by technocrat Ashraf Ghani and Mr Karzai’s favoured candidate, the former foreign minister, Mr Rassoul, in third place.

Since it is likely that no candidate will get more than 50 per cent of the vote, the top two will then go to a run-off. In this case it is possible that all Pashtun votes may be consolidated against Dr Abdullah, making it hard for him to win. But since so many Pashtuns live in unstable Taliban strongholds, this will depend on whether they are able to stand up to Taliban insistence that they not participate in the ballot at all.

Training as a doctor at Kabul University, Dr Abdullah turned to politics after becoming a medic for the Northern Alliance, a coalition of guerrilla fighters against Soviet occupation. He soon became a close adviser to and spokesman for its leader, Ahmed Shah Massoud, known as the Lion of Panjshir. Massoud was assassinated two days before the 9/11 attacks in 2001 and is widely seen as a hero of Afghanistan’s struggle.

It was the Soviet invasion which convinced Dr Abdullah he wanted to go into politics. Describing the walk home from his sister’s house the morning after troops arrived, he says: “On the way I saw many tanks and the Red Army and then I thought that life might have changed for Afghans forever – and for myself as well.

“It was very sad. They had come here as if this was their own country. It was in the middle of... a very harsh winter. And then when I came here my father, who was earlier a senator..., when I saw him his eyes were red. He had not slept that night, he was so sad.”

It is perhaps Dr Abdullah’s background in the battlefield which makes him less inclined than some of his rivals to rush to the negotiating table with the Taliban. When asked if he could find common ground with them, he laughs. “If we get to the stage where the Taliban come to the conclusion that they cannot win militarily and they give up violence, sever links with terrorist groups, and enter mainstream politics – even with maintaining their strange ideas – such a situation will be the beginning of finding a permanent solution. But we are far away from that.”

Additional reporting by Aleem Agha