After Missing First Debate, Afghanistan's Karzai Faces Off With Two of 40 Rivals

By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, August 17, 2009

KABUL, Aug. 16 -- After failing to show up for the first televised debate of the campaign, President Hamid Karzai took on two rivals Sunday night who described his government as mired in corruption and deficient in bringing jobs and security to Afghanistan.

In the nearly two-hour debate against former finance minister Ashraf Ghani and former planning minister Ramazan Bashardost, Karzai calmly defended his record and sought to portray Afghanistan as vastly improved since he took over leadership of the country in 2001 after the fall of the Taliban. Karzai will face off with Ghani, Bashardost and others in a field of 41 candidates who are vying to win the presidency in Thursday's vote.

"Afghanistan, which has suffered a lot, was totally lost. I saved it," Karzai said.

The event Sunday, sponsored by Radio Free Europe and held in an auditorium operated by Afghanistan's national television station, marked the first time during the campaign that Karzai has publicly debated his opponents. But the candidate considered the strongest challenger to Karzai, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, chose not to participate.

Bashardost, an ethnic Hazara who has been running his campaign from a tent in Kabul and has vowed to operate without security guards if he wins, was the most colorful candidate Sunday. He attacked government corruption and incompetence and said Afghans are attracted to the Taliban's style of swift, brutal justice because they receive no help with their problems from local officials. He said he would throw out the officials who "are just putting dollars in their pockets."

"There is a hole in their pockets that will never be filled," he said. "We should have a president who has integrity and who will not be the slave of the foreigners, but rather respect the national interest of Afghanistan."

Karzai attempted to shift blame for the nation's problems away from his government. He said Western troops helped incite Taliban violence in recent years through invasive searches of Afghan homes and by causing civilian casualties. He also stressed his view that Afghanistan's problems with violence and terrorism come from outside countries and are not a homegrown problem.

He emphasized how Afghanistan's budget revenue and per-capita income had grown during his tenure. "The lifestyle has gotten better in this country," he said.

Karzai said that if he was elected, he would convene a grand council, or loya jirga, including the Taliban and other militant Islamist groups, to try to forge a peace deal. Bashardost questioned whether the Taliban is ready to negotiate.

Ghani, a candidate praised for his technocratic and managerial skills, emphasized the need to reform the government and improve coordination between Afghan and international security forces. He said that billions of dollars have been spent on the Afghan police but that there is little to show for the money. He reiterated his plan to have 3,000 senior Afghan officials declare their assets publicly to help prevent corruption. And he stressed the need to improve job opportunities for women, vowing to renew the government's focus on women's affairs.

All three candidates said they want to wean Afghanistan from its reliance on foreign soldiers and push Afghan security forces into a leadership role, although they did not specify a time frame for when they want U.S. forces to depart.

The debate, while civil, was not completely smooth. Karzai stopped his first answer short when he still had a minute left, then later told the moderator that "two minutes is not enough" when he wanted to answer another question at greater length. More than an hour into the debate, Karzai called for a break so the candidates could pray. The debate resumed after about 10 minutes.

Recent polls indicate that Karzai is the front-runner, with support in the mid-40 percent range, followed by Abdullah, with about 25 percent, and then the other candidates. Karzai would need to break 50 percent to win a second term in Thursday's first round of voting. If he does not, there will be a runoff scheduled for about six weeks later, involving the top two vote-getters.

Special correspondent Javed Hamdard contributed to this report.

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