Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, center, with his vice president running mates Amrullah Saleh, left, and Sarwar Danish prepares to register as a candidate at the Afghan Independent Election Commission in Kabul. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)

 A confident and relaxed President Ashraf Ghani launched his reelection campaign on Sunday, registering as a candidate at the national election commission and then delivering a lengthy speech on peace, poverty and the need for a strong government to unite Afghans and end 17 years of war in a “just and honorable” way.

The Afghan election, in which Ghani will face 14 contenders after five tumultuous years in office, is now scheduled for July 20 after being postponed from April. The race will be dominated, and in some ways overshadowed, by ongoing efforts to start peace talks with Taliban insurgents, who have so far refused to negotiate with Ghani’s government and insisted on dealing only with U.S. officials, while continuing to wage attacks across the country.

Ghani’s performance on Sunday, the deadline for candidates to register, was bolstered by the presence of his surprise running mate for first vice president, Amrullah Saleh, a tough former national intelligence chief whom Ghani appointed as his new interior minister just three weeks ago. Saleh gave a shorter and stern speech, vowing to end high-level “bullying” and “impunity” and to settle the war on terms that are “acceptable to all Afghans.”

Since taking office, Ghani, 69, has attempted to build a reputation as a reformist technocrat, economic visionary, democratic modernizer and champion of peace. But his efforts have been undercut by entrenched poverty and violence, especially the deadly Taliban campaign that has persisted despite the presence of thousands of U.S. troops, many of whom may now be withdrawn by President Trump. Ghani has also suffered from his image as an impatient and isolated leader who only trusts a few aides. 

The president is expected to encounter stiff competition, including several individuals who were once senior officials in his government. The most formidable is his former national security adviser, Mohammed Hanif Atmar, 51, a respected official who resigned abruptly in October. Atmar announced his candidacy on Friday with a stinging speech that blamed Ghani for running a failed one-man government and plunging the country into crisis. He has been endorsed by a variety of influential political figures.

A second senior member of Ghani’s administration, chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, announced his candidacy on Sunday morning, just in time to register as the nominee for the major opposition party, Jamiat-i-Islami. Speaking at the election commission, Abdullah said he hoped the race would not create “hostility or humiliation,” but he, too, criticized Ghani for “monopolizing” power and breaking promises, and he emphasized that he would behave differently.

Afghanistan chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, center, with running mates Enayatullah Babur Farahmand (left) and Asadullah Saadati. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)

Abdullah, 58, was Ghani’s top rival in the 2014 election, which was derailed by fraud. They were forced to form a joint government to prevent a political crisis, but their relationship was strained. Fraud remains a major concern for the upcoming election, and both Abdullah and other candidates have called for a revamping and reform of the national election commission and the electoral complaint commission.

Parliamentary elections held in October were technically flawed as well as marred by insurgent attacks, and there were numerous accusations of bribery and rigging. Polling results have trickled in slowly, with a majority of seats unresolved. Last week, demonstrators jammed streets in the capital to protest the continued delays in results.

Other prominent candidates include Rahmatullah Nabil, a former national intelligence chief who leads an umbrella of reform-minded political and civic groups; Zalmai Rassoul, who served as national security adviser and foreign minister under President Hamid Karzai; Ahmad Wali Massoud, a brother of the late anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban militia leader Ahmad Shah Massoud; and Noor ul-Haq Oloomi, a former army general and member of parliament. 

A wild-card candidate who entered the race on Saturday is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the former anti-Soviet militia leader who became a longtime fugitive after being accused of numerous abuses and sanctioned by the United Nations and the United States. He was brought back to Kabul in 2017 under a peace deal with Ghani that officials hoped would inspire the Taliban to follow suit. A polarizing figure, Hekmatyar is running as an independent.

In his speech on Sunday, Ghani declared that “our future government will have a strong and experienced team,” with Saleh on the ticket as first vice president and Sarwar Danesh, a low-key lawyer from the ethnic Hazara minority, remaining in office as second vice president.

Former Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, center, with his running mates Fazil Hadi Wazeen and Qazi Hafizulrahman Naqi, speaks to the news media. (Mohammad Ismail/Reuters)

“A just and honorable peace depends on a strong government,” Ghani said to cheers. “We will bring peace, but we will not beg for it.”