- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 3, 2014

Amid Taliban threats of violence, Afghans will vote Saturday for a new president in an election that not only will begin their country’s first democratic transition of power but also may provide clarity about how many U.S. and foreign troops will remain in their war-torn nation after this year.

A clear winner among the eight presidential candidates is not anticipated, and a runoff election is expected to pit two of the three front-runners — Abdullah Abdullah, Ashraf Ghani and Zalmay Rassoul — against one another. The Afghan constitution barred President Hamid Karzai from seeking a third term.

Each of the front-runners has served in Mr. Karzai’s government and is well-known in Washington.

PHOTOS: Voters in Afghanistan prepare for first democratic transition, vote set for Saturday

Mr. Abdullah, who is of Tajik and Pashtun heritage, served as foreign minister before challenging Mr. Karzai for the presidency in 2009. That election went to a second round, which Mr. Abdullah quit after claiming widespread fraud.

Mr. Ghani, a Pashtun, served as finance minister from 2002 to 2004. He studied at Columbia University and has worked at the World Bank.

ON THE WAY: Afghan election workers use an age-old method to transport ballot boxes and election materials.
ON THE WAY: Afghan election workers use an age-old method to transport ... more >

Mr. Rassoul, a Pashtun, served as foreign minister from January 2010 to October 2013. He has been endorsed by the president’s brother Qayyum Karzai, who dropped out of the contest in March.

The Karzais’ political machinery eventually will propel Mr. Rassoul to the presidency, predicts Sarah Chayes, a senior associate in the South Asia and Democracy and Rule of Law programs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“We should significantly lower our expectations of transition and legitimacy,” she said.

“There may be somebody else whose name is on the highest office, but in terms of who really has their hands on the levers of power, I think that it will look much more similar to what we have now than most people expect,” Ms. Chayes said, adding that Mr. Karzai likely will continue to be a key player in Afghan politics.

Bilateral security deal

As Afghans prepare to vote, the U.S.-led international coalition is preparing to leave after having invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to topple the Taliban regime that sheltered al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Despite a ferocious Taliban campaign to disrupt voting, Afghans have turned out in large numbers in support of their candidates in presidential and provincial elections. But the violence has thrust security concerns front and center.

As national forces struggle to stand on their own, many Afghans still look to the U.S. to guarantee their security. All foreign combat forces are expected to leave the country by the end of the year.

Mr. Karzai has refused to sign a bilateral security agreement he negotiated with the Obama administration that would allow several thousand U.S. and NATO troops to remain in Afghanistan as advisers and counterterrorism specialists after combat troops withdraw. This has raised the possibility of the “zero option,” in which no international troops would be in Afghanistan after this year.

All of the major presidential candidates have said they will sign the security agreement. What is unclear is whether they will show the same enthusiasm once in office.

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