- Associated Press - Sunday, October 6, 2013

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A slew of political heavyweights, along with the Afghan president’s brother and a number of former warlords, will take part in next year’s elections for the country’s top office in a critical vote that that could determine the future course of the country and the level of foreign involvement in Afghanistan after 12 years of war.

The candidacies ended weeks of speculation over who will aspire to replace President Hamid Karzai, who has essentially run the country since the Oct. 7, 2001, invasion that ousted the Taliban. Mr. Karzai is not entitled to run for a third consecutive term in the April 5 elections but is expected to back at least one of the candidates — Zalmai Rassoul, his former foreign minister — despite the fact that his businessman brother Qayyum Karzai is also running for president.

The contenders are a mix of Afghanistan’s past and current power players, including some warlords with a tainted history, a couple of technocrats and some complete political outsiders. All, however, come from the Afghan elite that has to one degree or another shaped the country over the past 12 years.

By the end of the day and after a mad scramble by candidates and hundreds of supporters and heavily armed bodyguards, about 20 presidential candidates had registered for the first independent vote organized by Afghanistan without direct foreign assistance.

The registration came on the eve of the 12th anniversary of the invasion, which led to an insurgency that shows no signs of abatement and a war that has become largely forgotten in the United States and among its coalition allies, despite continued casualties suffered by their forces on the ground.

A bomb killed four U.S. soldiers in southern Afghanistan on Sunday, military and Afghan officials said, and they became the latest casualties in the conflict.

The U.S.-led international military coalition earlier said four of its service members were killed in the south, and a military official confirmed all were Americans killed by an “improvised explosive device.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

Their deaths bring the toll among foreign forces to 132 this year, of which 102 are from the United States. At least 2,146 members of the U.S. military have died in Afghanistan as a result of the U.S.-led invasion of the country in late 2001, according to an Associated Press count. They are part of a total of nearly 3,390 coalition forces that have died during the conflict.

The attack came as Afghan security forces take over the brunt of the fighting after the coalition handed over security responsibilities for the country earlier this summer. This year, at least 100 Afghan soldiers and police on average have died each week.

The insurgency has tried to take advantage of the withdrawal of foreign forces to regain territory around the country. There are currently about 87,000 coalition troops in Afghanistan, including around 52,000 Americans. That number is expected to be halved by February, with U.S. numbers going down to about 31,000.

The April 5 vote will help determine the success or failure of all those years of U.S.-led military and political intervention in the country.

All the candidates have tried to shape tickets that attempt to unify an ethnically fractious political scene marked by patronage and alliances among the elite — a group that includes warlords and tribal elders who can marshal votes among the country’s various ethnic groups. The population of 31 million is roughly 42 percent Pashtun, 27 percent Tajik, 9 percent Hazara and 9 percent Uzbek, along with other, smaller factions. The Taliban are predominantly Pashtun.

Candidates declare tickets that include two vice presidents and will be reviewed by the Independent Electoral Commission before final approval on Nov. 11. To run, candidates must have at least 100,000 signatures from all 34 of Afghanistan’s provinces.

Billions of dollars in funds pledged to Afghanistan are tied to the government’s holding transparent and credible elections, a challenge in a country rife with patronage and corruption and a resilient Taliban insurgency. The Taliban have asked people not to vote and do not recognize the election process.

Top contenders include former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, who was the runner-up to Mr. Karzai in the 2009 elections and dropped out just ahead of a runoff vote following allegations of massive fraud in the first round.

Another candidate is Ashraf Ghani, a Pashtun former finance minister who oversaw the transition of security from foreign forces to the Afghan army and police. He weighed in with support from two of Afghanistan’s ethnic groups. His choices for vice president are Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former warlord who is thought to control the majority of the Uzbek vote, and Sarwar Danish, a former justice minister who has the support of former Hazara warlord and Vice President Mohammad Karim Khalili. Mr. Ghani ran and lost in the 2009 elections.

Two former Afghan warlords are sharing a ticket, one for president, the other for vice president. They are Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayyaf, an influential Pashtun lawmaker and religious scholar, who is running for president along with former Energy and Water Minister Ismail Khan, a Tajik.

Mr. Rassoul, a Pashtun, is running with Ahmad Zia Massoud, the brother of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Northern Alliance commander killed in an al Qaeda suicide bombing two days before Sept. 11, 2001. Habiba Sarabi, a Hazara who was governor of Bamyan province and is one of five female vice presidential candidates, fills out the ticket.

Mr. Karzai’s brother is running with Wahidullah Shahrani, an Uzbek who was minister of mines, and Abrahim Qasimi, who was a Hazara member of parliament.

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