- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 3, 2009

KABUL, Afghanistan | An influential Afghan governor who had signaled his intention to run for president said Saturday he will not, leaving President Hamid Karzai in an increasingly strong position to win re-election.

Nangarhar Gov. Gul Agha Sherzai, who met with Barack Obama last year when he visited Afghanistan before he was elected U.S. president, was seen as one of the few possible candidates who could have threatened Mr. Karzai’s hopes for sealing another five-year term in the Aug. 20 vote.

Despite Mr. Karzai’s declining popularity, no realistic challengers have emerged among the dozens who are likely to run. The deadline for candidates to register is May 8.

Mr. Karzai has led Afghanistan since soon after a U.S.-backed invasion ousted the hard-line Taliban regime from power in late 2001 in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks in the United States. He swept Afghanistan’s first post-Taliban election in 2004.

A spike in fighting against Taliban insurgents in recent years and a rising civilian death toll have eroded Mr. Karzai’s standing, as have accusations from conservatives that he is a puppet of Western powers. His government is also widely viewed as corrupt and ineffective.

Mr. Sherzai’s spokesman, lawmaker Gul Khalid Pushtoon, said last week that Mr. Sherzai had intended to register his candidacy on Saturday. Mr. Pushtoon said Friday that Afghanistan’s top vice president - Ahmad Zia Masood - was breaking away from Mr. Karzai to join Mr. Sherzai on a competing ticket, although this was not confirmed by Mr. Masood’s spokesman.

But after a private meeting with Mr. Karzai on Friday, Mr. Sherzai told reporters Saturday he would not run. He said, however, that he was resigning as Mr. Karzai’s governor of eastern Nangarhar province.

A statement from Mr. Karzai hours later said the president did not accept the resignation. The statement welcomed Mr. Sherzai’s decision not to run for president.

Mr. Sherzai, who met with Mr. Obama when he visited Afghanistan in July, has a mixed reputation. He helped the U.S. oust the Taliban from southern Kandahar province in the first push against the militants in 2001, but has also been accused of heavy-handed rule and corruption in the aftermath.

More recently, Mr. Sherzai is credited with helping to eradicate opium poppies from Nangarhar province, one reason he is popular with U.S. officials.

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