- The Washington Times - Friday, May 8, 2009

KABUL, Afghanistan | He might not be the Obama administration’s preferred candidate, but President Hamid Karzai looks poised to win another term in office that will test both his relationship with Washington and his ability to lead a fractured country.

Mr. Karzai, who was in Washington this week to meet with U.S. officials and his even weaker Pakistani counterpart, President Asif Ali Zardari, had already consolidated his position at home by choosing a powerful former warlord as senior vice president.

Several former Karzai Cabinet members have entered the race, but none appears to have formed the sort of ethnic coalition needed to win the Aug. 20 vote. The deadline for candidates to register is Friday.

“Presently, all the government power, authority and influence is being used for the interest of a particular candidate,” Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister, told reporters as he registered Thursday. On Wednesday, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah declared his candidacy. Another former finance minister, Anwar ul-Haq Ahady, and former Interior Minister Ahmad Ali Jalali also are running.

The candidates will campaign amid a growing Taliban insurgency and a U.S. military buildup of 21,000 additional troops and military trainers who will attempt to wrest control of vast poppy-growing regions from Taliban control.

U.S. officials have criticized Mr. Karzai for failing to stem corruption and drug trafficking that have eroded his authority beyond Kabul.

Mr. Karzai has strengthened his chances for re-election by choosing former Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim as a senior vice president. Ethnic differences are integral to Afghan politics, and Mr. Fahim is a member of the Tajiks, the second largest ethnic group in the country.

The largest opposition party, the United Front, is made up mostly of non-Pashtuns from the north. Meanwhile, Abdul Salaam Jalali, the aide and brother of Mr. Jalali, said his brother and several fellow Pashtun rivals are trying to form a single front with a national agenda that transcends ethnic voting blocs.

However, failure to compromise personal agendas and some backroom negotiations between Mr. Karzai and influential former mujahedeen commanders have undercut the opposition’s chances, said Haroun Mir, director of the Afghan Center for Research and Policy Studies.

Gul Agha Sherzai, a popular warlord turned governor of Nangarhar province and member of the same Pashtun ethnic group as Mr. Karzai, withdrew his candidacy last weekend after a four-hour meeting with the president.

On Monday, Mr. Karzai made a cold, tactical choice when he announced Mr. Fahim as his first running mate. Human rights groups say the former militia leader is responsible for mass civilian deaths during Afghanistan’s civil war in the 1990s and accuse him of corrupt business dealings. Mr. Karzai asked the current second vice president, Karim Khalili, an ethnic Hazara, to stay on for a second term.

The setup of two vice presidents is designed to foster coalitions across ethnic lines. Mr. Karzai’s deputy selections from the country’s second- and third-largest ethnic groups effectively place even more pressure on his main rivals to come up with a broadly appealing ticket. Mr. Mir said the opposition has rarely ventured out to campaign in the less stable provinces, where most Afghans are disillusioned with politics.

Several opponents of Mr. Karzai have spent years living in the United States and have become citizens.

“If Karzai wins the elections it’s not because he is especially liked by the people or a strong leader,” Mr. Mir said, “but because he has no legitimate challengers. People see the other candidates as too much like Karzai.”

With support of the Bush administration, Mr. Karzai was named Afghanistan’s provisional leader in December 2001 at a multilateral conference in Germany after the toppling of the Taliban regime. When he was formally elected in 2004 for a five-year term, Mr. Karzai still had hearty U.S. support. But his reluctance to punish corruption within his government and rising fallout from civilian casualties in U.S. air strikes soured the relationship.

Over the past year, U.S. officials have alternately tried to squeeze and distance themselves from Mr. Karzai. In response, he has made gestures toward Iran and Russia in an apparent effort to suggest that he has other options if Washington withholds support.

Some presidential hopefuls argue that Mr. Karzai’s re-election is far from clinched.

Mr. Ghani likened the confusion in the run-up to candidate registration to an “invisible primary” that has created a “much clearer field.”

Would-be candidates, he said, contended with both “bottom-up and top-down pressure,” as they were caught between trying to gain traction with a weary electorate and entreaties from Mr. Karzai to support him in exchange for posts in the next administration.

“We will stand against him,” said Mr. Ghani, although he was urged by the president’s allies to join the Karzai team.

He said the election will hinge on Afghan youths - 70 percent of the population is younger than 30 - women and urban voters, as well as those from rural centers who are tired of war and unemployment, so long as security and transparency allow for a reasonably fair ballot.

“It’s not a foregone conclusion,” Mr. Ghani said.

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