Abdullah, 2009 runner-up, enters Afghan presidential race
02 October, 2013
KABUL: Abdullah Abdullah, the suave former foreign minister who came second in Afghanistan's fraud-tainted 2009 election, on Tuesday entered next year's presidential race and backed peace talks with Taliban militants.
Abdullah pulled out of a second-round run-off in 2009 after collecting about 30 percent of the vote, allowing President Hamid Karzai to retain power in an election that was badly marred by cheating and violence.
"We will make sure that the people of Afghanistan have a fair election," Abdullah told reporters as he arrived at the Independent Election Commission (IEC) offices in Kabul to register for the April 5 poll.
"We will open the doors of negotiation to all the opposition, including those who are fighting us," he said in a speech afterwards, expressing support for the government's attempts to seek a peace settlement with the Taliban.
International donors are pushing hard for a credible election next year after billions of dollars of development aid and 13 years of bloody fighting against the Islamist militants.
US-led NATO combat troops will withdraw by December 2014 and the Taliban, who were ousted from Kabul in 2001, are seeking to increase their influence as international intervention winds down.
Early attempts to start a peace process floundered in June, but Washington and other foreign powers all back a negotiated end to the long war.
The Taliban, who targeted previous elections, have refused to open talks with the Kabul government, dismissing it as a puppet of the United States.
Abdullah, a former eye surgeon, has remained bitter about his old rival Karzai since the 2009 poll. He has previously alleged that the president, who is constitutionally barred from standing for a third term, is plotting to extend his time in office.
Abdullah was a close aide of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the anti-Taliban commander who was assassinated in 2001, and his fluent English and assured manner have earned him a solid reputation in international political circles. He served as Karzai's foreign minister from 2001 until he was sacked in 2006, and later became a leading figure in the fluid opposition groups against the president. Abdullah, son of a Pashtun father from Kandahar and a Tajik mother, lacks a loyal voter base.
But he could build a strong coalition of allies through his vice-presidential candidates – Mohammed Mohaqiq, a leader of the Hazara ethnic minority, and Mohammad Khan, deputy head of the pro-government Hezb-i-Islami faction.
"Doctor Abdullah will be one of the front-runners," said Thomas Rutting of the Afghanistan Analyst Network. "He has a strong ticket, but how strong can only be judged in relation to other candidates, and we do not know that yet."
Now aged 53, Abdullah remains in favour with many Western diplomats who admired his energetic campaigning and dignified conduct during the last election.
In 2009 the Electoral Complaints Commission threw out about a third of the votes – about half a million – cast for Karzai, sparking the run-off from which Abdullah ultimately withdrew "in the best interests of the nation".
Nominations for the presidential race close on Sunday, with former finance minister Ashraf Ghani the only other big name to have so far declared that he would run.
Ghani, who has not yet registered with the IEC, finished a distant fourth in 2009.
Hectic political deal-making has been under way for weeks in Kabul, but it remains unclear who else will step forward.
Karzai's brother Qayum is tipped to enter, as is low-key Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul.
President Karzai has repeatedly said that he sees a free and fair election as a key part of his legacy, and he has vowed not to endorse any candidate as Afghanistan prepares for its first ever democratic transfer of power.
The US, which currently has 57,000 troops in Afghanistan, has tentative plans to retain a force of around 10,000 soldiers after 2014 if the two countries can sign a long-delayed security agreement. But Karzai has said the deal must first be discussed by a national jirga (assembly). A recent UN report pointed to concerns that the event could be used to delay the election or change the constitution.
A total of 87,000 NATO forces are still deployed in Afghanistan, though 350,000 national police and soldiers are now in the lead in operations against the Taliban.