President Hamid Karzai said today he is "very, very strongly" committed to holding national elections next year to select a new government, but that he may not run in them for a full term as elected president.
The prospect of organizing national elections in Afghanistan next year -- although required under the Bonn agreement that established the current transitional government -- is a daunting one in a country still fighting Islamic extremists and with powerful militia leaders still controlling many of the provinces. Almost 15,000 U.S. and international soldiers are stationed in Afghanistan to hunt terrorists and Taliban remnants and to keep the peace.
But equally daunting is the possibility that Karzai could leave the political scene, because he has been widely viewed as a stabilizing force in Afghanistan and as a man with whom the United States and other foreign governments can work to rebuild the country and establish security.
"There may be a real possibility that I will not run," Karzai said in an interview. "I don't want this country to develop personality cults or icons, I don't like that. . . . I'm looking for quality time [in office], not quantity time."
After Karzai cooperated with the CIA in fomenting opposition to the Taliban, the United States influenced Afghan exiles to get him chosen as a provisional administration chief soon after the Taliban fell, late in 2001. U.S. envoys then played a major behind-the-scenes role in having Afghan leaders select him to stay on as head of the transitional government that was set up last year.
With his smooth English and calm manner, Karzai has been warmly embraced by President Bush and other world leaders. He has also generally been a unifying force in Afghanistan, a characteristic lacking in many of the possible alternatives. His departure would be a blow to U.S. policymakers.
Western diplomats in Kabul said they had heard Karzai say in recent weeks that he might not run for election and that he might want his legacy to be guiding Afghanistan from post-Taliban chaos to a situation stable enough for general elections. Karzai, 45, said in the interview that while he has not decided whether to run, he is eager to see other candidates come forward.
"I want leaderships in Afghanistan, a multiplicity of leaderships," he said. "I want the Afghan people to have choices. I don't want them to be stuck with one man . . . because of a lack of choice."
Among those who have declared their intentions of running for president is Burhanuddin Rabbani of the Jamiat-i-Islami party. Rabbani was president during the mid-1990s, when factions of the mujaheddin fought constantly for power and destroyed half of Kabul, the capital, in the process. Rabbani is an ethnic Tajik, and his leadership was contested by many Pashtuns, the country's traditional rulers who make up the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan and who include Karzai among their number. Pashtuns formed the core of the Taliban, the radical Islamic movement that ruled much of the country from 1996 until its overthrow by U.S.-led forces in late 2001.
Several men associated with the former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, have also explored forming political parties and fielding candidates for president, as has the current education minister, Yonus Qanooni.
Karzai said that if he runs, he wants to be judged on whether he and his government have delivered security and reconstruction to Afghans.
"We must produce and put before the Afghan people the evidence that we have worked," Karzai said. "If there is such an evidence and then, if they come and say, 'Well, Hamid, we think you are a good man and we trust you, and will you continue?' If I'm not tired and if I want to do it and don't see a clear alternative that somebody else can do it." He did not finish the sentence.
The possibility of a political hierarchy in Afghanistan not led by Karzai came up dramatically last September when a gunman tried to assassinate him in the southeastern city of Kandahar, where the Taliban had been based. That incident highlighted the absence of a succession plan, and though subsequent efforts have been made to establish one, they have failed. The State Department has been concerned about the issue and has encouraged the Afghan government to devise some kind of a blueprint.
Karzai acknowledged that the question of succession is unresolved and that last year's national grand assembly, or loya jirga, was unable to come up with a solution. He said that among the possibilities was that Zahir Shah or Sheik Hadi Shinwari, chief justice of the supreme court, would oversee a transition. But the former king is 88 and in relatively poor health, and Shinwari is an Islamic conservative who has caused controversy by banning cable television, suggesting that coeducational schools are a bad idea and advocating Islamic law for Afghanistan.
Further complicating the question is the fact that there are four vice presidents, and one is the self-appointed first vice president. Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim claimed that title, and he often takes over the duties of the president when Karzai is out of the country.
The absence of a succession plan makes the job of protecting Karzai even more important, and heavily armed U.S. and Afghan guards surround his residence in the Gul Khana, or House of Flowers, and the entire Arg Palace complex in the center of Kabul.
The Karzai government was established under the Bonn agreement in late 2001, and his term was extended to mid-2004 during the loya jirga last summer. The country is scheduled to hold another loya jirga this year to write a new constitution, and elections are supposed to follow by the middle of next year.