KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — With a major election just eight months away, power brokers across southern Afghanistan are pressing President Hamid Karzai not to leave office on schedule in 2014, a decision that could complicate the U.S. withdrawal.
In tribal gatherings, protests and private conversations, Afghan leaders from the south have voiced support for an extension of Karzai’s presidency. Some want the April election delayed for several years, arguing that security is so poor that it would limit voter turnout in southern provinces. Others say Karzai is simply the best man for the job and should be allowed to run for a third term — even though the constitution limits him to two.
“The withdrawal of international forces is not the right time for new leadership,” said Kandahar Gov. Toryalai Wesa, suggesting that the election be postponed for about two years. “Karzai should stay in office.”
Karzai has publicly denied that he will remain in power beyond the end of his term, but many international observers are skeptical. Even top Afghan officials, including several in his cabinet, believe that Karzai is planning to delay the election.
U.S. officials say long-term support for Afghanistan, including billions of dollars in aid, could be withheld if the vote is postponed. That message, they say, has been conveyed to Karzai in private meetings.
“I can’t imagine us having an effective transition in 2015 without the single most important thing that has happened in the campaign, which is the elections of 2014,” Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said in an interview last month.
U.S. officials contend that a smooth transfer of power after next year’s election is critical to Afghanistan’s stability. And if Karzai prolonged his presidency, he might raise questions among American officials about whether U.S. troops should remain in support of a government that openly violated a U.S.-backed constitution.
But the recent pleas from Afghanistan’s southern heartland — Karzai’s ancestral home and the source of his power — reveal the pressure the president will have to resist if he is to step aside on schedule.
In June, about 800 tribal elders, religious leaders and government officials attended a meeting at a stadium in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, during which many warned that the Taliban would keep thousands of people in the area from voting if elections were held in April.
“If we have an election next year, only 20 percent of people will vote,” Mawlavi Mehr Dil, an elder who attended the meeting, said in an interview afterward.
In Kandahar province, a similar meeting at a farm in the Arghandab Valley drew about a thousand men. Another gathering in the province, focused on the same topic, was attended exclusively by influential elders.
Karzai’s spokesman did not respond to requests for comment on the recent gatherings.
The south is important in part because it is the birthplace of the Taliban. So if the government cannot keep a grip on it, the insurgency could retake ground. But some southerners have more personal reasons for supporting an extension of Karzai’s rule.
“There’s no other candidate we trust,” said Ahmad Shah Sahil, the head of the Young Movement Association, which helped organize the Arghandab meeting. “We want [Karzai] to change the constitution so he can run again.”
Sahil spends his days working on a laptop plastered with a large photo of Ahmed Wali Karzai, the president’s brother, who was killed in 2011. Sahil lives just a few houses down from another Karzai brother, Shah Wali, in a multimillion-dollar residential neighborhood developed by several members of the Karzai family.
Much of Kandahar bears the imprint of the family’s influence — a source of prosperity and power that many fear could be lost after next year’s election.
Sahil worries that southern Afghanistan’s Pashtuns would lose their power if a northern-born Tajik wins in April. The two ethnic groups have had a historical rivalry.
Resisting the pressure from the south could cost Karzai his tribal bona fides — the source of his family’s standing. Many of the leaders demanding an extension of his presidency played a critical role in keeping him in power over the past decade.
“If the conditions are like this, there might be an election in the cities, but there could not be transparent or clear elections elsewhere,” said Sher Mohammad Akhundzada, a former governor of Helmand and one of the country’s most influential tribal leaders. “I believe it would be appropriate to delay the election for two or three years until there is a proper situation.”
In 2009, Taliban violence and intimidation kept many Afghans away from the polls. The Pashtuns in the south say they were disproportionately affected because of the insurgency’s power in Kandahar and Helmand. Four years later, they say, the situation remains unchanged.
“If elections are held, the Taliban will silence the Pashtun vote. We must delay,” said Haji Agha Lai, the head of Kandahar’s provincial council.
But others say that security has improved and that such a justification for an election delay is merely a cover for Pashtun political interests. U.S. officials say security is good enough to allow for fair elections.
Joshua Partlow and Sayed Salahuddin contributed to this report.