- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 6, 2014

Hamid Karzai’s name was not on the ballot in Saturday’s elections, but the outgoing president of Afghanistan is expected to remain a key political player, possibly complicating the U.S. relationship with his successor.

Millions of Afghans turned out to vote in presidential and provincial elections, defying the Taliban’s campaign of violence that kept away international election monitors.

Polling places began shipping full ballot boxes to counting centers Sunday, as the international community expressed relief that no major acts of violence were reported and praised the rate of voter turnout. Definitive election results are expected within a week.

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The three front-runners of the eight presidential candidates — former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani and former Foreign Minister Zalmay Rassoul — said they were confident that they could win, or at least advance to a runoff election. All promised to respect the findings of the Independent Election Commission assuming they are “credible,” the Associated Press reported.

Ahead of the vote, supporters of Mr. Abdullah and Mr. Ghani said they had evidence of vote fraud, voter intimidation, stuffed ballot boxes and government interference in support of Mr. Rassoul. Most of the candidates deployed their own observers to monitor polling centers after the experience of widespread fraud in the 2009 elections.

An Afghan policeman walks around as workers of the election commission office arrange ballot boxes in Jalalabad, east of Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday. Across Afghanistan, voters turned out in droves Saturday to cast ballots in a crucial presidential election. The vote will decide who will replace President Hamid Karzai, who is barred constitutionally from seeking a third term. Partial results are expected as soon as Sunday. (Associated Press)
An Afghan policeman walks around as workers of the election commission office ... more >

Mr. Karzai, 56, who has served as president since December 2001, was barred by the Afghan Constitution from running for a third consecutive term.

Although the election results are uncertain, it is clear that Mr. Karzai will wield considerable influence in Afghan politics even out of office — and that may be bad news for Washington.

“It will complicate the relationship with Washington,” a former high-ranking U.S. military officer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to address delicate issues, said of Mr. Karzai’s likely influence over his successor.

Mr. Karzai’s relationship with Washington has undergone a sea change from the days he was firmly backed by the West.

Ties have turned frosty as he publicly criticized NATO’s role in Afghanistan, complained about U.S. drone strikes on suspected terrorists, and released dozens of prisoners who the Obama administration said have U.S. and Afghan blood on their hands.

Washington’s deep frustration with Mr. Karzai — not just in the Obama administration but also on Capitol Hill — was reflected in statements after Saturday’s elections.

Rep. Edward R. Royce, California Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said the Karzai government “was a case study in how not to win international support.”

The “election offers the chance for a fresh start with a new president,” Mr. Royce said.

Analysts doubt that a new president can bring that fresh start.

That is because Mr. Karzai will continue to play a significant behind-the-scenes role, said Sarah Chayes, a senior associate in the South Asia and Democracy and Rule of Law programs at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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