As Afghan Presidential Race Begins, Warlords Are Prominent

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As the war in Afghanistan enters its 13th year, the political and security situation there remains precarious. But the country is hoping to reach a milestone next spring: the first democratic transfer of power in the country's history.

And there's no shortage of candidates vying to succeed President Hamid Karzai — who is barred from running for a third term.

The short list of serious contenders includes Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayyaf, the long-bearded Islamist warlord who is credited with bringing al-Qaida to Afghanistan. He has been accused of human rights abuses, and his candidacy has worried many Afghans as well as the international community.

Abdullah Abdullah is a Western-educated, former foreign minister who came in second in the 2009 election.

Another technocrat is the soft-spoken former World Bank official and former finance minister, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, who came in fourth in 2009. In an unexpected move, his lesser-known brother also registered to run.

There's also the president's brother Qayoum Karzai, and Gul Agha Shirzai, a former provincial governor accused of drug trafficking and pedophilia.

Former Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul is viewed by many as an early front-runner. Rassoul's running mate for second vice president is Habiba Sarabi, Afghanistan's first female provincial governor.

There is one relatively unknown woman running for president, and a total of eight female vice presidential candidates.

So many candidates came out of the woodwork at the last minute that the election office stayed open until midnight on Sunday to accommodate them all. Backroom talks have been going on for weeks as various power brokers tried to assemble winning coalitions.

"Some of those who have joined last-minute [indicate] that the political horse-trading may have not worked," says Nader Nadery, head of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan.

"It is a much more selfcentric political bargaining," he adds.

So it comes as no surprise that in the end, Nadery says, 27 different tickets were registered.

The Karzai Question

One bit of intrigue is the question of whether President Karzai is supporting any of the candidates. Analysts say that they expect Karzai to ultimately back someone he sees as a safe successor who will both listen to him and look after his interests.

For his part, Karzai says he will not support anyone.

Of course, there is still the persistent concern that Karzai will somehow scuttle the elections and stay in office. For example, if there are serious security issues in the run-up to the April vote, Nadery says, Karzai might postpone the elections.

It would be a risky move, however. The international community has staked significant amounts of future aid to Afghanistan on the country's holding free and fair elections next year.

But even the notion of free and fair elections is a bit different in Afghanistan. Historically, Afghans vote based on directions they receive from tribal elders, religious leaders, powerful politicians or warlords.

That's why there was such a scramble in the waning days of the candidate registration period as people negotiated over slates of running mates. Many of the presidential candidates do not have large constituencies of their own, hence their selection of former warlords or leaders of ethnic groups who are believed to command large numbers of loyal followers.

Despite their ethnic, religious and tribal differences, there is one issue all the candidates seem to agree on: Afghanistan's need to sign a long-term security pact with the U.S. Almost every candidate has mentioned the issue in recent speeches.

But at a news conference on Monday, Karzai said that he still has objections over provisions of the security deal, and he might not sign it — leaving it to the next president to resolve.

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