Afghan President Hamid Karzai, speaking at a press conference with NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, said on Thursday he was considering changes to either the 2014 timetable for presidential elections or the planned transition of security to Afghan forces that year to avoid overloading the country with simultaneous change. (Stringer/Reuters)

Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Thursday that he is considering bringing forward by a year the 2014 presidential election to reduce pressure on his country during the period when the majority of NATO coalition troops are scheduled to withdraw.

Karzai’s second five-year term expires in 2014. Afghanistan’s constitution bars him from running for a third term and requires that the election be held before that year’s end.

Despite the presence of foreign troops, scores of attacks by resurgent Taliban fighters on Election Day 2009 prevented tens of thousands of Afghans from voting. There were also complaints of widespread fraud at the polls.

With no sign of the Taliban’s imminent defeat and plans by the NATO coalition to hand off responsibility for security before its departure in 2014, worries are growing about the possibility of holding a fair election that year. Ethnic strife stirred by some politicians is also a concern.

Asked at a news conference with visiting NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Thursday whether Afghanistan would be able to handle both the election and the transition in 2014 and whether he would want to step down next year, Karzai said he has been consulting with his inner circle on moving up either the security transition or the election.

Karzai has led Afghanistan since late 2001, when U.S.-backed Afghan forces overthrew the Taliban. Two Afghans have spoken publicly about their intention of running for the presidency: a former minister under Karzai, Ali Ahmad Jalali, who is based in the United States; and a member of parliament, Fawzia Koufi.

After the withdrawal of the foreign troops, the peaceful transfer of power from Karzai to the next president is viewed as a crucial test of Afghanistan’s journey to democracy. The planned pullout has raised fears among many Afghans that the country might face a civil war similar to the conflict that followed the withdrawal of Soviet forces in the late 1980s.

Afghan security forces rely on NATO and the United States for funding and training. They are poorly equipped and are made up of various ethnic groups, some loyal to leaders who were involved in the civil war.

Concerns have grown in recent weeks amid reports that the size of the Afghan forces will be reduced from the original goal of 352,000 by 2014. Both the NATO chief and Karzai said that no decision has been made about a reduction.

Rasmussen said the alliance will not abandon Afghanistan after 2014 and spoke of an orderly transition of responsibility.

“Let me be clear: NATO is here as a partner for the long term. This is our message to the people of Afghanistan, to enemies of Afghanistan and to Afghanistan’s neighbors,” he said.

That assurance drew Karzai’s praise. “Very good,” he said.