Karzai's high-risk campaign
By Hamida Ghafour in Kabul, The Telegraph (UK),September 25, 2004
The American Black Hawk helicopter swoops overhead before landing at the presidential palace. Traffic in the city comes to a halt as roads within a one-mile radius are closed in case of ground-to-air missiles. American security guards wearing ill-fitting suits and brandishing assault rifles direct hundreds of turbaned Afghan men and a handful of women through five security checkpoints inside the palace gardens.
President Hamid Karzai has arrived. He takes a seat at a long table under a canopy of chinar trees where a crowd of about 200 potential supporters are waiting to hear him explain why they should vote for him on Oct 9. The American-backed president, who is expected to win the landmark presidential election, rarely leaves the confines of the heavily fortified palace for fear of assassination. He travels by helicopter, never by road, in the capital.
He is not over-cautious. He has survived two attempts on his life in the past three years and his most recent foray outside the city had to be aborted after a missile was fired at his helicopter as he travelled to the eastern city of Gardez to open a new road. The Taliban insurgency is gaining strength. It has said that all 18 presidential candidates are legitimate targets for assassination. Yet President George W Bush last week hailed Afghanistan as a "model" of peace and democracy for the Middle East.
At the meeting, Mr Karzai spoke for 30 minutes without notes, and with genuine passion, promising to build hospitals, schools, a vibrant economy and a new road for his guests from the central provinces of Bamiyan and Dai Kondi. Many had spent nine hours crossing mountainous terrain to reach Kabul. No one appeared to mind that the president finds it difficult to leave his palace to visit them. "God will not forgive those who brutalised our people," said one man. "We want social justice. A president should be honest. We fully express our support for the president."
Mr Karzai's campaign strategy is defined by his security restrictions. His two vice-presidential candidates travel to the north and central regions on his behalf. His Pathan relatives and supporters in the south have to spread his message to delegations of tribal elders who then tell villagers to vote for him.
His image abroad is that of a hero who helped to save his country from the Taliban and is bravely re-building it into a modern, democratic state. But at home he has lost much of his popularity among ordinary Afghans, in part due to American policy, which has offered little real support in nation building, according to foreign and Afghan observers.
Homayoun Shah Assefy, an independent presidential candidate, said: "For foreign policy he gets 100 points, for internal policy zero points. He goes outside the country, speaks English, wears original national clothing, and the ladies like him. But you need internal support to run a country."
The Americans rely on the warlords to help them fight the Taliban and al-Qa'eda and turn a blind eye to the fact that many are heavily involved in the opium trade and have resisted giving up their private armies, contributing to the security vacuum. The war on terrorism appears to have been conducted at the cost of Mr Karzai's popularity at home and the country's long-term stability, western observers have said.
The election may be Mr Karzai's last chance to crack down on the warlords, fight the drug trade and implement the rule of law, which he has not been able to do in the past three years because of coalitions with American-allied factional leaders.
"There are a lot of expectations for the elections," said Dr Andrew Wilder, director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit think-tank. "If we end up with the same cast of characters then people will ask, what's all the fuss about democracy?"
Mr Karzai has appeared to acknowledge that and has so far ruled out forming a new coalition. He has said his biggest regret is not getting rid of the warlords sooner.
But his charm offensive appears to be working. After the speech, Jawad Khalqui, a farmer from Bamiyan, said he was pleased by Mr Karzai's commitment to the country.
"I feel we are brothers," he said. "We will tell our elders we saw him from near. I will tell them to vote for him. I'm so happy because there is finally someone who has saved Afghanistan from misfortune."
The U.S. Has a Favorite in Afghanistan. That's a Problem.
By DAVID ROHDE and CARLOTTA GALL September 26, 2004
KABUL, Afghanistan — Taliban attacks aside, a huge question looms over Afghanistan's first-ever presidential election on Oct. 9. Will the country's hopeful electorate see it as an exercise in democracy, or an exercise in American political theater?
President Hamid Karzai, whom the United States supports, is by far the best-known politician in Afghanistan and is widely expected to win. His platform enjoys overwhelming popular support in public opinion polls. After a quarter-century of civil war, his calls for national unity, peaceful resolution of disputes and reconstruction clearly resonate across this expectant society.
But Afghans remain unfamiliar with the democratic process, accustomed to rumor and distrustful of rivals and outsiders. Members of its elite, some military commanders and Mr. Karzai's challengers are warning that American officials are imperiling the election's credibility by trying too hard to get a show of broad support for Mr. Karzai and doing too little to assure Afghans that the electoral playing field is level.
Some leading challengers to Mr. Karzai say that the American ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad and other Western officials have uirged them to drop out of the race and back Mr. Karzai days before the vote. American officials flatly deny the charges, but the reports continue to feed deeper suspicions. "How will the Americans fix it?" asked a close aide to one of Mr. Karzai's main challengers.
Abdul Latif Pedram, a writer who is one of 17 candidates challenging Mr. Karzai, says a truncated Afghan election process is designed to benefit two incumbents, Mr. Karzai and President Bush. A comfortable win by Mr. Karzai in a carefully controlled election will boost Mr. Bush's re-election chances and that is why an uneven electoral playing field exists in Afghanistan, he says.
In fact, challengers operate at a disadvantage. Mr. Pedram pointed out that they have not been given resources to visit the country's 34 provinces, while Mr. Karzai is being flown around Afghanistan by the American military. "Mr. Karzai can go with American helicopters and American bodyguards to 10 provinces in one day," he said. "What can we do?"
While that inequity might seem unavoidable to Americans eager to keep Mr. Karzai from being assassinated, Mr. Pedram is not alone when he criticizes preparations for the voting itself. Afghan and Western analysts say pressure from the United States and Mr. Karzai has forced United Nations officials, who are organizing the vote, to create a form of instant democracy that cuts corners.
"It's hard not to conclude that this was so much about getting an end result and not having a meaningful process," said Andrew Wilder, head of the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit, an independent research group here.
United Nations officials organizing the vote say the effort here is a mere shadow of past efforts in Cambodia and East Timor. "This is much bigger, much more dangerous, much less money," said one official.The lack of funds, combined with security problems, have left the country with only 100 to 200 international observers for an election in which there will be 5,000 polling centers.
Mr. Wilder and others warn that members of the country's educated elite, the backbone of the effort to reform the country, are cynical about the elections, calling them a "done deal" for Mr. Karzai.
Such critics point to figures that show that while Afghanistan received only meager reconstruction financing in fiscal 2002 and 2003, the Bush administration has pumped an additional $1.76 billion in reconstruction funds into the country in fiscal 2004. Speaking privately, American officials say the effort to rapidly build roads, schools and clinics has been designed to increase Afghans' confidence in the West, and in Mr. Karzai.
Critics of the election preparations say the problems go beyond bias toward Mr. Karzai. Outside of Kabul, local warlords and tribal elders are expected to order whole communities to vote for their candidate of choice. In an essay last July, Nancy Hatch Dupree, an expert on Afghanistan's cultural heritage, predicted that Afghans will vote as they are told, not as they think.
"The majority therefore will continue to follow tribal, community and kin directives, as they did in the past," she wrote. "Or they will be intimidated by new sources of influence based on unsavory local struggles for power and riches."
Mr. Karzai and Mr. Bush have hailed a surge of voter registration in August as a sign of eagerness among Afghans to vote. While 1.8 million Afghans registered over the winter months, the number ballooned over the summer to more than 10 million.
But in some provinces this brought registration numbers that were so high - up to 140 per cent of the estimated number of eligible voters - that it raised fears that there may be massive vote rigging on polling day. In the end, if current public opinion polls are accurate, Mr. Karzai will win a landslide victory that would accurately reflect the broad support that exists for him, or at least his agenda.
But analysts warn that if challengers drop out at the last moment and the process is seen as American-directed political theater designed to impress American voters instead of Afghan ones, a landslide could undermine Mr. Karzai's his legitimacy rather than enhance it.
Vote threat to Afghan tribesmen
BBC, 24 September, 2004 By Crispin Thorold
Leaders of a south-east Afghanistan tribe have told its members they must vote for Hamid Karzai in presidential polls or their houses will be burned. The decision, which was made by 300 elders of the Terezay tribe, was broadcast by radio in Khost province. Militants from the Taleban, who are active in the same area, have repeatedly threatened to kill people who do vote in next month's election.
A Karzai spokesman refused to condemn the announcement.
However, he did urge Afghans not to turn to violence during the campaign.
A tribal leader, Mubarak Shah, told the BBC that if tribal members did not vote their houses would be burned and they would not be allowed to attend local weddings and funerals. There are widespread fears that the secret ballot, which will be held on 9 October, will be marred by violence.
Security concerns have already severely restricted campaigning.
Few of the 18 presidential candidates have held political rallies.
Role of German troops in north Afghanistan questioned after riot
Saturday September 25, 2004 (1328 PST)
FAIZABAD: The buildings are still going up and the paint is not even dry but already questions are being asked about the role of German troops stationed in this sleepy northeast Afghan town after rioting this month.
The newly-established German Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Faizabad has been at the center of a controversy over its inability to rescue stranded foreign aid workers who were attacked by an angry mob on September 8.
Workers from the Swiss-based charity Medair were eventually rescued not by German troops or local police but by enterprising and unarmed staff from the United Nations and security firm Global Risk who were stationed in the town working on the elections.
The inaction of the German contingent has caused resentment.
"They came and told us what the situation was on the streets the day after the riot but when we needed their help they were hiding under their beds," said one aid worker who helped rescue others from the rioters.
Weeks after troops arrived in Faizabad, hundreds of rioters poured onto its dirt streets after allegations that four women working for a charity called Focus for Humanitarian Assistance had been raped. The offices of two foreign aid agencies were set ablaze and 10 aid workers injured in the attacks, two of them badly beaten.
A total of 110 German soldiers are stationed in Faizabad, the reconstruction team of around 40 and extra infantry to provide security before and after October 9 presidential elections. The final strength of the PRT mission will rise to 80 men.
"We are still in a build-up phase and we did everything we could with the small number of soldiers we have here," said Lieutenant Colonel Hans-Dieter Baier, commander of the PRT contingent in Faizabad to enhance security and help build infrastructure.
Unarmed, a group of UN and Global Risk workers filled police cars that were parked in the UN compound with local staff and went in to evacuate the injured Medair workers, several people involved in the rescue told.
"We had to make it look as if we were armed but if anyone had come at us we would have had to run away pretty fast," said one of the rescuers who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The riot itself was broken up when local militia commander Mohammed Nasir stepped in and threatened to shoot the demonstrators, aid workers in Faizabad said. The evacuation of aid workers was arranged by the United Nations and Global Risk, although Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Scheibe said the Germans had helicopters on stand-by in neighbouring Kunduz.
While many aid workers were critical of the German response during the riot, some also said they were pleased the force was stationed in the town. "Basically we escaped and sheltered at the German PRT and I think there wasn't a person here who wasn't glad of their presence," said Chris Thoreson of Shelter for Life, which is planning to work with the German troops.
September's demonstration came at a bad time for the German military, which has some 2,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan and is currently in command of the NATO-led international peacekeeping force.
The mandate for German participation in the US "war on terror" and foreign troop participation in Afghanistan is due for renewal on October 13, and expires on October 15. As debate in the German parliament kicks off on Thursday, questions will be asked over whether German troops are doing enough in their new base in Faizabad. The Afghan riot comes after German troops were also accused of failing to prevent violence in Kosovo in March.
For their part the German troops said they did what they could by sheltering 11 UN staff from demonstrators and treating five of the injured, including two beaten Medair staff.
"Our duty is to protect those who need us and we did it by treating them," said Scheibe.
Military analysts in Afghanistan said the Germans have a non-explicit zero-casualty role and are seen by many as passive and reluctant to intervene in local disputes. "The Germans are very cautious, and not proactive at all. There is a feeling that they need to phone home before taking action," said one military analyst in Kabul, asking to remain anonymous.
However, their role is complicated because the civil-military PRTs walk a fine line between working with local aid organisations and helping Afghanistan's fledgling security forces. The 270 German PRT troops in northeastern Kunduz province have established relations with the local community by building roads and schools, and they are hoping to repeat the model in Faizabad and other districts in Badakhshan province.
However, whether the German troops receive the civilian support they want from Berlin will depend on the outcome of domestic political debates.
Before Vote, Tense Silence Envelops Afghan Campaign
Many Voters Express Fear of Violence, Manipulation in 1st Presidential Race
By Pamela Constable, Washington Post Sunday, September 26,2004
KABUL, Afghanistan, Sept. 25 -- With two weeks remaining before national elections and 18 candidates running for president, Afghanistan's capital should be a frenzy of competing campaign rallies, patriotic stump speeches and sloganeering.
Instead, Kabul is holding its breath and waiting for word to emanate from a glittering green mansion in a dusty corner of the city, where an enormous poster of one candidate adorns the entryway, old fighters in fading fatigues embrace on the lawn, and aides with cell phones pace the balconies in intense conversation. The candidate is Yonus Qanooni, 43, the crisp, bespectacled former education and interior minister and onetime anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban resistance fighter who is viewed as the only serious challenger to President Hamid Karzai in the elections scheduled for Oct. 9.
In a stable democracy, Qanooni and Karzai could square off on election day along with the other candidates, the voters would choose and the nation would accept the results.
But in Afghanistan -- a country that has never elected a president, where ethnic sensitivities remain raw and political scores unsettled after two decades of tumult and bloodshed -- many voters and analysts fear that a ballot-box clash of two titans from rival ethnic groups could bring disaster.
As a result, Qanooni, an ethnic Tajik from the Panjshir Valley and political heir to the slain guerrilla leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, has been under intense pressure to quit the race and form a national unity platform with Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun who has governed under a U.N.-guided process since December 2001.
"We need a strong and legitimate government, but voting won't produce that. There has to be a government of national cooperation," said Fahim Dashti, editor in chief of the Kabul Weekly newspaper. Karzai might receive the more than 50 percent of votes needed to win without a runoff, Dashti said, "but we need a government with 75 percent of the vote or it will not be able to govern."
In the past week, both front-runners have publicly denied they plan to form a coalition. Qanooni, who had been widely expected to announce an agreement, instead delivered a ringing campaign speech at a government forum Tuesday, drawing repeated applause and evoking a new Afghanistan that would be "proud, independent, anti-terror and anti-drugs." In a recent interview, Qanooni -- who walks with a limp from a 1993 car bombing and holds a degree in Islamic law from Kabul University -- reiterated his determination to see the race through. He said he believed in healthy, nonviolent political competition and would never use ethnicity as a divisive tactic.
"I don't see myself as representing one ethnic group, and I don't think any candidate should," he said, poised and professorial in a blazer and slacks. "Nobody in Afghanistan wants to go back to 1992," when the country imploded in ethnic civil war. "What we need is free and fair elections without threats or fraud. We don't want to kill the baby of democracy on its first day of life."
With his repeated calls for national unity, his civilian persona and his widely praised role in the U.N.-sponsored conference that created Karzai's coalition government after the U.S.-led ouster of the Taliban in 2001, Qanooni would appear to be a natural candidate to bridge Afghanistan's ethnic gaps and appeal to a cross-section of voters.
But his chief constituents are legions of former mujaheddin -- grizzled Muslim militiamen who fought the Soviet army in the 1980s and the Taliban militia in the 1990s. They feel fiercely defensive of their ethnic interests and place in history, and Qanooni has played to their emotions by circulating campaign posters that show Massoud -- who was assassinated on Sept. 9, 2001, by assailants posing as journalists who are believed to have been acting on behalf of al Qaeda -- hovering faintly over his shoulder like an angel.
Moreover, Qanooni has not ventured beyond mujaheddin turf to test his wider popularity. Most other candidates have also stayed close to home, largely for fear of attack from revived Taliban forces and other groups that have vowed to sabotage the vote. Some also fear a hostile reception on rival ethnic turf, or simply lack the means to campaign outside of Kabul.
Instead, Qanooni has been meeting privately with endless groups of militiamen, tribal leaders and advisers in the posh green mansion owned by Basir Salangi, the former Kabul police chief, who is also from the Panjshir Valley. According to participants, most visitors have demanded that Qanooni remain in the race, and he has assured them that he will.
"We came here today to give him our support, because he stood beside us in the jihad," said Abdul Jalil Nawaz, 28, who drove to the house Thursday from Parwan province in a van filled with men wearing old camouflage uniforms. "We want an Islamic government that does not make alliances with foreigners. We are all mujaheddin, and if he leaves the election, we will find another one."
Throughout Parwan, a province north of Kabul that was the scene of heavy fighting for years, former militiamen this week expressed similar sentiments. Some of them named Qanooni as their top choice; others were reticent, saying they would vote for whichever candidate followed Massoud's footsteps or was endorsed by community elders.
"Mr. Qanooni is a teacher and a mujahed, like me, but our main concern is security," said Malim Gul, 54, a grocer and instructor in an Islamic in the town of Charikar. "We want to see unity, not divisions or fighting. There is a lot of fear here. There are a lot of things I cannot talk about. But I don't care if the president speaks Dari or Pashto. I just want a peaceful and stable country."
Karzai also has spoken repeatedly about the need for national unity -- a euphemism for bargaining with his rivals. He named a brother of Massoud as his running mate in July, and his aides and diplomatic allies have privately urged Qanooni and other candidates to join his government, fearing they would siphon off enough votes to deny Karzai a solid first-round win.
At the same time, Karzai has made several moves that could be interpreted as efforts to woo the Pashtun vote at the expense of broader support. In July he dropped one of his vice presidents, a militia leader from the Panjshir Valley, from his ticket. This month he removed a powerful Tajik governor from his post and freed several controversial Pashtun prisoners who had been handed over by U.S. military authorities .
Some analysts say Afghanistan's electoral system, which limited the official campaign season to one month and prevented political parties from registering candidates, has favored Karzai and worked against a fair vote, exacerbating traditional tendencies to manipulate political exercises and making negotiations necessary to ensure a workable government.
"People have little confidence in the process. There is no serious campaign and no politics of ideas, only of personalities," said Vikram Parekh, an analyst in Kabul with the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based research organization. "People switch sides with abandon and run for office as a means of leverage. The whole structure is meant to perpetuate political deal-making and discourage competitive electoral politics."
Meanwhile, the initial enthusiasm expressed by many Afghans during the voter registration campaign appears to have given way to a period of anxious waiting. There is little public political debate, and the only indications of an approaching election are campaign posters pasted on walls.
Afghans are increasingly expressing fears that on election day, voters will be attacked at the polls, pressured to vote for certain candidates, and defrauded by multiple voter registrations. Many also are saying that they wish the candidates would relieve the pressure, stop playing games and reach an old-fashioned agreement before Oct. 9.
"The country isn't ready for the pull and push of elections," said Ahmed Wali Massoud, a politician and another brother of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the slain resistance leader. "In our history, changes of regime have often brought coups and revolutions, so people are becoming more worried than excited. If they don't see clear results and meaningful change, they may lose trust in the idea of elections altogether."
Al-Qaida Aims to Disrupt Afghan Elections
Sunday September 26, 2004 By STEPHEN GRAHAM AP
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) - U.S.-led forces trying to protect landmark Afghan elections face a rising wave of violence from about 2,000 insurgents, including al-Qaida militants slipping in from Pakistan, an American general said Saturday.
In the latest bloodshed, Afghan police said suspected Taliban gunmen killed nine militia soldiers in two attacks on checkpoints in a troubled southern province. Two weeks before the presidential ballot, Lt. Gen. David Barno said violence would ``more than likely'' increase, and urged NATO forces and the United Nations to steel themselves.
``We must stand firm and not allow a tiny minority of terrorists to negate the hard work, commitment and courage of millions of Afghans'' who have registered to vote, said Barno, the top American commander in Afghanistan.
Taliban rebels threatening to disrupt the Oct. 9 election appear have already stepped up their campaign. Militants killed three American soldiers last week, and U.S.-backed interim leader Hamid Karzai escaped a rocket attack on his helicopter earlier this month.
The nine soldiers reportedly died when gunmen riding two sports-utility vehicles fired on two checkpoints in Helmand province, killing six soldiers at the first and three more at the second.
Deputy police chief Haji Amanullah Khan blamed Taliban for the attack, but provided few details. The province and its security forces are racked by factional feuds. Kabul is also on edge after an apparent suicide car-bombing last month killed about 10 people, including three Americans, at the office of the U.S. company helping train new Afghan police.
Almost three years after the fall of the Taliban, the general acknowledged his 18,000-strong force still faced a ``significant counterinsurgency.''
He said there were foreign fighters among the rebels operating in southeastern Afghanistan, indicating that al-Qaida had a ``shared objective'' of attacking the democratic transition.
He didn't elaborate.
Barno told a news conference the Pakistani army was reinforcing a section of the border further to the south to thwart Taliban rebels trying to enter from there. He said the new Pakistani troops had been shifted from Kashmir, the Himalayan territory disputed by Pakistan and India, to the area across from the Afghan provinces of Zabul and Kandahar.
Asked to quantify the size of the insurgency, Barno said the armed rebels numbered ``perhaps a couple of thousand'' while insisting they were a waning force.
The U.N.-Afghan election commission says 10.5 million Afghans have registered for the vote, which Karzai is widely expected to win.
American and Afghan officials say that figure is the best evidence of popular support for the still-fragile peace process begun after the Taliban's ouster in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States. As Barno spoke, construction workers were fortifying the entrance to the main U.N. compound across from his already heavily guarded Kabul headquarters.
Earlier Saturday, NATO said newly arrived Spanish and Italian troops have swelled its force focused on the capital and northern Afghanistan to about 9,000 troops, and that extra British and Dutch warplanes were also deploying.
``The will and resolve of the international community in the face of dangers cannot be viewed as an Achilles heel for terrorists to strike,'' Barno said. ``We can and must remain firm.''
What if America Just Pulled Out?
By ROGER COHEN September 26, 2004
EVEN by its own disturbing standards, this was a hallucinatory week in Iraq. Beheadings, kidnappings, bombings, outbreaks of deadly disease and everyday mayhem were accompanied by interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's upbeat statement to Congress: "We are succeeding in Iraq."
Are we? The discordant images and messages captured a central difficulty of defining an Iraq policy. In the absence of any semblance of agreement on what the situation is, or even who is behind the insurgency, setting a course is problematic. But with more than 1,000 Americans already dead, and more dying each week, one question has begun to be posed with growing insistence: Should American forces leave?
There are several arguments for getting out, or at least setting a timetable for doing so. The status quo is unacceptable. History, from Algeria to Vietnam, suggests that no military solution to a spreading insurgency is possible. A major counteroffensive would almost certainly require a large addition to the 138,000 troops in Iraq, an unattractive prospect to politicians of any stripe.
A decision to withdraw would focus the minds of Iraqis, and perhaps their neighbors, on the need to grapple seriously with establishing security and an inclusive political system. It would also remove a chief target of the insurgents - American infidels in uniform - and so presumably undermine their cause.
"A withdrawal plan says to the Iraqis: you want this to be your country, you must make the deals to keep it together," said Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations. "If we are there to fight, they won't do this. So a timetable should be established."
But the counterarguments are also powerful. Withdrawal in the absence of stability would amount to a devastating admission of failure and a blow to America's world leadership. The credibility of the United States, already compromised, would be devastated. More than 1,000 young lives would appear to have been blotted out for naught.
Iraq might descend into all-out civil war and split into three pieces, one Kurdish, one Shiite, one predominantly Sunni. Neighboring states, particularly Iran and Turkey, would be drawn in. A failed state - or the vestiges of one - would draw terrorists as surely as a honey-pot draws bees.
There is a troubling recent precedent for such a retreat. When the Soviet Union, confronted by an intractable insurgency, pulled out of Afghanistan, Kabul soon became terrorism central. The Taliban took control, offering sanctuary to Al Qaeda and terrorist training camps. The Soviet Union, sapped by its Afghan adventure, never fully recovered.
Is this the trauma the United States wants from its foray into Iraq?
"Iraq would be worse than post-Soviet Afghanistan," said Philip Gordon of the Brookings Institution. "Its oil and geostrategic importance ensures that. The Lebanese civil war dragged in Syria, and just as surely the civil war that would result from an American withdrawal would drag in Iran and Turkey. You'd see ethnic strife that would make Kosovo look like a picnic. It's hard to fathom how bad it would be if we left."
Under President Bush, the prospect of such a pullout appears remote for now. He told Mr. Allawi this week that, "America will stand with you until freedom and justice have prevailed." The president has shown no sign, at least in this electoral season, of wavering from the we-will-stay-the-course message that has been constant since the invasion last year.
John Kerry, the Democratic candidate, has tried to stake out a distinct position, saying he would aim to bring American forces home within four years, beginning next year. But while lashing out at the administration for what he has portrayed as disastrous incompetence, he has been cautious on the question of withdrawal.
As Richard Holbrooke, a foreign policy adviser to Mr. Kerry, put it: "Troops are dying at an unacceptable rate, but to pull out now would be crazy and beyond dangerous. We have to work harder on a political power-sharing arrangement, because there is no military solution to this thing."
U.S. Hand Seen in Afghan Election
Los Angeles Times By Paul Watson, Times Staff Writer
KABUL, Afghanistan - Mohammed Mohaqiq says he was getting ready to make his run for the Afghan presidency when U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad dropped by his campaign office and proposed a deal.
"He told me to drop out of the elections, but not in a way to put pressure," Mohaqiq said. "It was like a request."
After the hourlong meeting last month, the ethnic Hazara warlord said in an interview Tuesday, he wasn't satisfied with the rewards offered for quitting, which he did not detail. Mohaqiq was still determined to run for president - though, he said, the U.S. ambassador wouldn't give up trying to elbow him out of the race.
"He left, and then called my most loyal men, and the most educated people in my party or campaign, to the presidential palace and told them to make me - or request me - to resign the nomination. And he told my men to ask me what I need in return."
Mohaqiq, who is running in the Oct. 9 election, is one of several candidates who maintain that the U.S. ambassador and his aides are pushing behind the scenes to ensure a convincing victory by the pro-American incumbent, President Hamid Karzai. The Americans deny doing so.
"It is not only me," Mohaqiq said. "They have been doing the same thing with all candidates. That is why all people think that not only Khalilzad is like this, but the whole U.S. government is the same. They all want Karzai - and this election is just a show."
The charges were repeated by several other candidates and their senior campaign staff in interviews here. They reflected anger over what many Afghans see as foreign interference that could undermine the shaky foundations of a democracy the U.S. promised to build.
"This doesn't suit the representative of a nation that has helped us in the past," said Sayed Mustafa Sadat Ophyani, campaign manager for Younis Qanooni, Karzai's leading rival. "You have seen Afghanistan suffering for 25 years, from the Russians, then the Taliban. Why is the U.S. government now looking to make people of Afghanistan accept whatever the U.S. government says?"
Qanooni said he and 13 other presidential candidates planned to meet today in Kabul, the capital, to air complaints about Khalilzad's interference.
In a statement released this week, Khalilzad denied the allegations that he and his staff were meddling in the election.
"U.S. Embassy officials regularly keep in touch with all presidential candidates, and we listen to their ideas and proposals," he said in an e-mailed response from New York, where he was attending the opening of the U.N. General Assembly.
"Officials from the U.S. mission support the elections process, not individuals," the statement added. "No U.S. official can or will endorse or campaign on behalf of any individual presidential candidate."
Khalilzad also said he "has never asked a candidate to withdraw - this is a decision for each candidate to make for him or herself."
Since coming to power after the American-led invasion that overthrew the Taliban in 2001, the interim Afghan government largely has been beholden to the United States for its survival. The U.S. has deployed about 18,000 troops and is spending about $1 billion a year on reconstruction in the Central Asian nation. Karzai depends on the Americans for his safety: DynCorp, a Virginia-based firm, has provided his bodyguards since November 2002 under a contract with the State Department.
Khalilzad has been nicknamed "the Viceroy" because the influence he wields over the Afghan government reminds some Afghans of the excesses of British colonialism. Some of Karzai's rivals think that the ambassador has taken on a new role: presidential campaign manager.
This is not the first time Khalilzad has been accused of meddling in Afghan politics. Delegates to gatherings that named Karzai interim president in 2002 and ratified Afghanistan's new Constitution last December also accused the ambassador of interfering, even of paying delegates for their support. Khalilzad denies the claims.
The latest allegations are perhaps more serious because the Bush administration is portraying Afghanistan's presidential election as a democratic victory for the country's people, who suffered under more than two decades of strife. President Bush has touted bringing Afghan democracy as a foreign policy success in his election campaign.
There are 18 candidates in the Afghan election. Such a divided field is expected to favor Karzai, whom Afghans hear and see frequently on state-controlled radio and television.
The president, who is usually holed up in his heavily fortified palace because of threats to his life, has made only one campaign trip outside Kabul since the election campaign began Sept. 7. That trip last Thursday was aborted when a rocket missed the U.S. military helicopter in which he was traveling.
Mohaqiq commands strong loyalty among Hazaras and, if he chooses to step aside and endorse Karzai, probably could deliver a large bloc of votes. Mohaqiq said Tuesday that he might still do so - for the right deal.
Mohaqiq said his senior aides met the U.S. ambassador at the presidential palace, without Karzai. The aides agreed try again to persuade their candidate to drop out of the race and throw his support behind the incumbent, Mohaqiq said.
The pressure was so intense that he agreed to quit under certain conditions, he added.
Mohaqiq said his demands, in the event of Karzai's victory, would be four Cabinet posts for his party, four governorships in the mainly Hazara provinces of central Afghanistan and a new road from Kabul into the region, informally known as Hazarajat.
Mohaqiq said Khalilzad told him that the new road would not be a problem, but that his party would have to settle for two ministerial posts, two deputy spots in other ministries and one governorship.
"I was very interested in taking part in the elections, but since many of my men were asking me to accept Khalilzad's ideas - and he was also telling me to do so - I didn't have much choice, and I was ready to agree," Mohaqiq said.
"But a good thing happened, and Karzai didn't agree with those terms," he added. "I don't know why."
Several leaders of the Northern Alliance, whose troops ousted the Taliban regime in late 2001 with the help of U.S. air power, met in Kabul on Friday to discuss what they said was Khalilzad's electoral arm-twisting, said Mohammed Qasem Mohseni, one of presidential candidate Abdul Latif Pedram's two running mates.
Mohseni said the summit participants included Foreign Minister Abdullah, who goes by one name; former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who like Abdullah is a member of the Tajik minority; and Ustad Abdul Rasul Sayyaf who, like Karzai, is a Pushtun, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group.
"In this meeting, Ustad Sayyaf said that we have been under pressure for 25 days by the U.S. government, by Khalilzad, to make Younis Qanooni resign from the post of candidate for the presidency," Mohseni said.
Qanooni is not expected to win the race. However, he could prevent Karzai from gaining more than 50% of the votes, forcing a runoff and prolonging a campaign that already has drawn violent attacks by Taliban and other insurgents.
Qanooni's campaign aides said Khalilzad was trying to persuade the candidate to accept defeat before any ballots were counted and to agree to join Karzai in a coalition government after the vote.
"Our hearts have been broken because we thought we could have beaten Mr. Karzai if this had been a true election," Ophyani said. "But it is not. Mr. Khalilzad is putting a lot of pressure on us and does not allow us to fight a good election campaign."
Some say Khalilzad is working to draw Rabbani, the former president, to Karzai's side, which would deepen the split in Qanooni's Northern Alliance.
Qanooni supporters say that Rabbani, whose son-in-law is one of Karzai's running mates, visited Badakhshan province last month with Khalilzad and urged local militia commanders to back the incumbent. The former president insists that the discussions in his home province dealt only with reconstruction.
"I told Mr. Khalilzad, 'The people of Badakhshan are waiting for you, and they are always asking, what is the U.S. government doing?' " Rabbani said. "I told him to go there and see the people, and he promised to construct a road and a dam for them."
There is nothing wrong with the U.S. ambassador working closely with Afghanistan's president as long as he only offers advice and doesn't make decisions, Rabbani added.
"I believe that Mr. Karzai and Khalilzad are linked very closely with each other now and they were in the past too," Rabbani said. "And when they have links, they probably have political links or any other kind of links."
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