Karzai's Would-Be Competition in Disarray

By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 3, 2009

KABUL, May 2 -- With less than a week left before candidates must register for Afghanistan's presidential election, opposition forces remain so divided and appear so confused that the incumbent, Hamid Karzai, is looking more and more like a winner as he heads to Washington for a summit with President Obama and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari on Wednesday and Thursday.

Although more than 60 people have formally expressed interest in the August presidential race, not a single candidate has registered with the Independent Election Commission.

Instead, an array of political strongmen and presidential hopefuls has spent the past week in backroom negotiations with onetime adversaries, either making last-minute attempts to form winning opposition tickets or bartering their presumed vote-getting influence for posts in a future Karzai administration.

"We tried to put together a team with a national agenda, but so far we have failed. As a result, Karzai is growing stronger by the hour," said Ali Jalali, a former interior minister and one of the still-undecided candidates. "The problem is ego. Everyone thinks he has the best chance of winning, so no one is willing to compromise."

Karzai is the unpopular president of a weak government besieged by a brutal Islamist insurgency, but the political disarray appears to leave him in a position to easily win reelection.

Yet if he wins essentially by default, analysts said, Karzai would need to rebuild the confidence of many Afghans who have become increasingly disappointed with his performance over the past seven years. He would also have to mend fences with Washington: The Obama administration has been increasingly skeptical of his abilities even as it continues to send thousands more troops to fight the Taliban insurgency.

"Karzai is in a very strong position now, but even if he is reelected, Afghanistan will badly need better governance and better leadership," said Haroun Mir, director of the Afghan Center for Research and Policy Studies. "We need to look beyond who wins the elections. I am much more worried about the future of Afghan institutions and democracy."

Karzai, a former Afghan tribal leader and diplomat, came to power in early 2002 through a U.N.-brokered agreement after the U.S.-led overthrow of the extremist Taliban government. He was elected president in 2004 for a five-year term. In the past several years, his government, backed by tens of thousands of U.S. and NATO troops, has struggled to retain power amid a fierce assault from Taliban insurgents.

Despite dwindling public support, Karzai's chances for reelection were bolstered in March when the polling date was postponed and the elections commission ruled that he could remain in office after his term expires later this month, thus allowing him to run as a sitting president. In recent days, he has been further strengthened by the collapse of a major opposition alliance and the erratic or opaque behavior of several of his rivals.

Gul Agha Sherzai, a popular governor from Karzai's home province and ethnic group, had been widely expected to announce his candidacy this week and had been meeting with other politicians about forming a ticket. But on Saturday, Sherzai announced at a news conference that he was dropping out of the race. He said he made the decision after visiting with Karzai and his family.

Zalmay Khalilzad, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, has long been rumored to be considering a run for the Afghan presidency. Many people here believe he would be in the strongest position to unseat Karzai and view him favorably as the "American candidate," although the Obama administration insists it has no favorites in the race.

But while the Afghan-born Khalilzad, who lives in Maryland, has visited Afghanistan recently and organized an international conference on the country's future, he has remained publicly coy about his ambitions. Like Jalali and several other top potential candidates, he would have to give up his U.S. citizenship to run.

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