KABUL: Afghanistan’s election campaign kicks off on Sunday, with 11 candidates vying to succeed President Hamid Karzai as the country enters an uncertain new era without the aid of North Atlantic Treaty Organizatio (NATO) combat troops to fight the Taliban.
A dispute between Kabul and Washington over whether a small force of United States soldiers stays behind beyond 2014 is likely to dominate the two-month campaign, which will culminate in Afghanistan’s first-ever democratic transfer of power.
Karzai has ruled the country since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, surviving assassination attempts and the treacherous currents of Afghan political life as billions of dollars of military and development aid poured into the country.
He is barred from seeking a third term, leaving an open field to compete in the April 5 vote, which is likely to trigger a second-round run-off in late May between the two strongest candidates.
Tipped to go through to the run-off stage is Abdullah Abdullah, the suave opposition leader who came second to Karzai in the chaotic and fraud-riddled 2009 election.
Among the other heavyweight candidates are former finance minister Ashraf Ghani, Karzai loyalist Zalmai Rassoul and the president’s low-profile elder brother Qayum Karzai.
Afghan politics has been focused for months on the bilateral security agreement (BSA), which would allow about 10,000 US troops to be deployed in the country after NATO withdraws by December.
Karzai was expected to sign the deal late last year, but he has stalled and said his successor might now complete negotiations—plunging relations with the US, Afghanistan’s key donor, to a fresh low.
US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Karzai’s foot-dragging risked leaving Washington no time to plan its post-combat mission.
“You can’t just keep deferring and deferring because at some point the realities of planning and budgeting collide,” the Pentagon chief told reporters on Thursday.
But US officials concede that they are waiting for a change at the top. Karzai “is the elected president of a sovereign nation, and our ability to influence whatever decisions he makes is limited”, Hagel said.