Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Thursday said he was considering bringing forward by a year the presidential election set for 2014 to reduce the pressure on the conflict-plagued country during the period when majority of NATO coalition troops are scheduled to withdraw.
Karzai’s second five-year term of office expires in 2014. Afghanistan’s constitution bars him from running for a third time, and requires that the election be held before the end of that year.
Despite the presence of tens of thousands of foreign troops, scores of attacks by resurgent Taliban on Election Day in 2009 prevented tens of thousands of people from voting, amid complaints of widespread fraud at the polls.
With no immediate sign of the Taliban’s defeat in sight, plans by the NATO coalition to hand off responsibility for security before its departure in 2014, and ethnic strife stirred by some politicians, concerns are growing about the possibility of holding a fair election that year.
Asked at a press conference whether Afghanistan would be able to handle both the election and the transition in 2014, and whether he would want to step down in 2013 to speed up the election, Karzai said he has been consulting with his inner circle on either moving up the security transition or the election.
Standing next to visiting NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Karzai said he has not made up his mind on either move. He said his decision was not imminent and that he would do what’s best for Afghanistan in either case.
Karzai has led Afghanistan since late 2001, when U.S.-backed Afghan forces overthrew the Taliban. Only couple of Afghans so far have publicly spoken about their intention of running for the presidency: a former minister under Karzai, Ali Ahmad Jalali, who is based in the United States, and a member of parliament, Fawzia Koufi.
With the withdrawal of the foreign troops in 2014, the peaceful transfer of power from Karzai to the next president will be a crucial test of Afghanistan’s journey to democracy.
The planned pullout of U.S. and other NATO troops has raised concerns among many Afghans that the country might face a civil war similar to that which followed the withdrawal of Soviet forces in the late 1980s.
Afghan security forces rely on NATO and U.S. funding and training. They are poorly equipped and are made up of various ethnic groups, some loyal to leaders who were involved in the civil war.
Concerns have grown in recent weeks amid reports that the size of the Afghan forces will be reduced from the original goal of 352,000 in 2014.
Both the NATO chief and Karzai said no decision has yet been made about the reduction and any decrease will depend on the security situation at the time as well as the capacity of the forces.
Rasmussen said the alliance will not abandon Afghanistan after 2014 and spoke about an orderly transition of responsibility to Afghans until then.
“And let me be clear; NATO is here as a partner for the long term; this is our message to the people of Afghanistan, to enemies of Afghanistan and to Afghanistan’s neighbors,” he said.
That assurance drew Karzai’s praise: “Very good,” he said.