Weeks before the start of the formal three-month campaign for Afghanistan's August 20 presidential vote, incumbent Hamid Karzai is using his political savvy to stymie domestic political opposition and convince the international community that he remains an indispensible ally.
Addressing more than 1,000 Afghans assembled in the main mosque of Farah, the dusty city that serves as the capital of western Farah Province, President Karzai promised to help locals rebuild their homes and livelihoods.
Among those in the crowd were survivors and relatives of the some 140 Afghan villagers Kabul claims were killed as a result of a U.S air strike on a remote village in Farah in early May.
Mohammad Nazir Khidmat, who heads Farah's provincial council, tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that in the course of his visit Karzai promised to send some of the survivors on the hajj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca.
"People were satisfied. They all said that they want him to remain their president. They told him that they voted for him [in the last presidential vote in 2004] and will once again stand by him," Khidmat says. Out Of Favor
Little victories like this help mark the remarkable political turnaround Karzai has made since the beginning of the year.
Just months ago, Karzai's political fortunes appeared to be on the wane after the U.S. administration of President Barack Obama publically criticized his administration for corruption and inefficiency.
After Afghanistan's elections were moved from April to August due to security and logistical concerns, Karzai's emboldened opposition pushed for him to step down once his constitutional term in office ended on May 22.
But Karzai eventually won the fight to remain in office until the next election, and his list of victories have since mounted.
First we need security. Food is our second need. And it is possible that democracy is our third need
Karzai's decision to pick as his running mate Mohammad Qasim Fahim Khan, a former defense minister and once the most powerful warlord in the country, was criticized by the West.
But the move effectively dissolved the United National Front, the major opposition alliance of former communists, former anticommunist mujahedin warlords, and royalists that was considered a formidable threat to Karzai's reelection bid.
Tellingly, when the registration period for presidential candidates ended earlier this month, many who were once considered viable challengers had not registered. Among those who had apparently determined that the sitting president was too formidable an opponent were former Karzai cabinet members Ali Ahmed Jalali and Anwar-ul Haq Ahadi.
To the utter disbelief of his supporters, eastern Nangarhar Province Governor and former warlord Gul Agha Sherzai withdrew from the presidential race. His decision reportedly followed a long meeting with Karzai that led Sherzai to conclude that "Karzai would be a better leader for Afghanistan."
Among the 44 candidates still running, former Foreign Minster Abdullah Abdullah and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani are believed to pose the biggest challenge to Karzai. That said, few Afghanistan observers give them much of a chance of actually unseating the current president. Security, Economic Problems
Afghan political commentator Rostar Tarakai suggests that Karzai's political maneuvers to stay in power have shown him to be a "pragmatic" politician. However, Tarakai points to what could be Karzai's Achilles' heel -- the difficulties in solving the complex problems his nation faces after decades of conflict.
Tarakai says that efforts to improve security and economic prospects have not succeeded in the eyes of foreign backers and Afghans alike.
"The current government has been unable to effectively administer all the international aid coming into the country. On the political front, it has been unable to convince its foreign backers to work out some sort of reconciliation with its armed opponents," Tarakai says.
"The presence of international forces has turned Afghanistan into an arena for rivalries -- particularly, rivalries between regional intelligence services."
Karzai has shrugged off the wishes of foreign leaders that he form his own political party. Instead, he has busied himself forming an informal network of tribal leaders, factional commanders, and clerics for support.
Former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah is one of Karzai's main challengers
Kabul-based analyst Nasrullah Stanekzai sees two reasons behind Karzai's political comeback. He says that failing to see a better alternative, even the Afghan president's international critics are now looking toward Karzai.
And it is plausible, according to Stanekzai, that "the countries having deep interests here reached some kind of agreement with Karzai."
"Unfortunately, on the one hand, a viable opposition couldn't emerge here. On the other, we still do not have a political culture that supports political parties. We now have 102 political parties," Stanekzai says.
"Having 102 factions means that we have a lot of political parties with the same objectives, but they are unable to put together an alliance. A [democratic] political culture has yet to be institutionalized." Conspiracy Theories
Afghanistan's nascent and fragile democracy is thus left exposed to storms of rumor mills and conspiracy theories. One of the most hotly debated topics these days is the political future of the former U.S. ambassador to Kabul and the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad.
The Afghanistan-born Khalilzad is now a naturalized U.S. citizen and has repeatedly denied having interest in any Afghan political office.
"The New York Times," however, recently reported that he is negotiating with Karzai about assuming the powerful post of "chief executive officer" within Karzai's administration.
The unelected position, the formation of which is reportedly under consideration, would focus on improving the workings of government. Khalilzad has denied that he has been tapped for the office, and observers have noted that appointment of a U.S. citizen to such a position would be politically risky.
Afghan presidential spokesman Humayun Hamidzada says that the idea came from Washington. During Karzai's recent trip to the U.S. capital, Hamidzada says, "there were proposals by a number of U.S. officials about the creation of an executive office within the system."
Hamidzada adds that they were looking into the proposals, but will decide in the light of its constitutionality and national interests.
Hamidzada says that Karzai is against running from the platform of a political party because he sees "all of Afghanistan, the entire Afghan nation as his constituency."
"As far as the political strategy is concerned, he is an experienced politician. And he is conducting his politics ethically and in accordance with Afghan law and with Afghan traditions," Hamidzada says.
"And the president's strategy is a national one, a welcoming one, and ensures the unity of Afghanistan. And that is also a recipe for success for his reelection."
Responding to a major demand of his critics, Karzai issued a decree on May 21 barring all officials from using their positions or resources for or against any presidential candidate.
Such measures are unlikely to satisfy Karzai critics, however.
Expert Tarakai, for one, doubts that Afghanistan is ready for free and fair elections.
"First we need security. Food is our second need. And it is possible that democracy is our third need," Tarakai says.