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In Landmark Debate, Afghan Presidential Contenders Challenge Karzai

By Abubakar Siddique

(Watch highlights of the debate)

In a live television debate in Kabul, Afghan President Hamid Karzai received staunch challenges from two of his main opponents in next week's presidential election. 

Ashraf Ghani and Ramzan Bashardost, both former ministers in Karzai's cabinet, strongly challenged the incumbent on government corruption, warlords, the economy, foreign troops in Afghanistan, and reconciliation plans with Taliban insurgents.

All of the candidates used the occasion to pitch their plans to the 17 million eligible voters. On August 20, Afghans go to the polls to vote for a president and provincial councils.

The two-hour debate was broadcast live by the Afghan state television channel RTA and RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan.

Karzai's main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, had earlier pulled out of the debate.

Bashardost, who has been dubbed the "Afghan Gandhi" by many for his asceticism and populist style, was the most persistent in his criticism of the status quo in Afghanistan.

"I am asking my compatriots not to trust the words of any candidate, even if he is Bashardost. When Bashardost or another candidate tells you, 'I am going to serve you, I want to rebuild Afghanistan, and I will bring justice and the rule of law,' don't trust them," Bashardost said. "You should trust people by looking into their past deeds."

He asserted that government corruption was the number one issue in Afghanistan. "When I talk to people on the ground, their main concern is corruption, and the placement of former warlords and murderers in government," Bashardost said. "There is no security without justice."

'Compromises'

Karzai used the debate to pitch his plans of reconciling with the Taliban. He said that his administration's perspective on the war on terror and plans to reconcile with the armed opposition has widespread international acceptance.

"America and NATO have realized that peace is essential, and it should be brought about by a reconciliation process among Afghans rather than through fighting," Karzai said.

President Karzai proudly noted that never before in Afghan history has an incumbent participated in a debate.

He also strongly defended his performance in office and emphasized that he had only ever acted in the national interest.

The debate was broadcast live across Afghanistan
"During the past seven years, I have been accused of compromising too much. People said that I compromised a lot," Karzai said. "Yes, I compromised. I compromised for the national interests of Afghanistan, for peace in Afghanistan, and for reconciliation, and to contribute to national unity and for the development of Afghanistan."

However, Bashardost rejected this approach, terming it the "wrong diagnosis." He again emphasized that negotiations with the Taliban cannot move forward as long as "warlords" dominate the government in Kabul.

Deals With Warlords

Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister and World Bank executive, pitched his plans for creating 1 million jobs and an efficient administration. He urged all Afghans to exercise their right to vote despite threats of Taliban violence.

"I want to congratulate the Afghan nation because, for the first time, we can independently choose our president. Regardless of whom we are going to vote for, it is important that we vote, and while voting, we should not be influenced by power or money," Ghani said.

He also highlighted his credentials as a reformer and implicitly criticized Karzai's appointment of a former guerilla commander, Mohammed Qasim Fahim, as a running mate. "In my years as finance minister, I never made a deal with a warlord," Ghani said.

He reiterated that if elected, he would ensure that Afghan forces gradually take over all security responsibilities so that international forces are presented with a viable exit strategy.

"We cannot bring peace and stability to the country by using military power alone," Ghani said. "We must build confidence in the Afghan central government."

The debate was moderated by RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan Director Akbar Ayazi. Despite the sharp disagreements among the three participants, the atmosphere was cordial.

The debate was widely listened to and watched across Afghanistan. With all contenders making forceful pitches, no clear winner emerged from the debate.
Video
On The Campaign Trail

Afghan President Hamid Karzai and presidential challenger Abdullah Abdullah campaigned in early August at separate rallies in Kabul. Play

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by: H.H from: Kabul
August 17, 2009 09:00
I think if Dr. Abdullah Abdullah were among them the debate might be more realistic, because he is the one strong competitor in this election. The second issue is that I think the topics or question were conveyed before to Mr. Hamid Karza. The third Issus is that this debate should be conducted in a independent TV Chanel, because the National TV channel is under the influence of the current government.

by: zia from: kabul
August 17, 2009 10:26
the best one but should downloadable

by: Konstantin from: Los Angeles
August 17, 2009 23:46
There is one big thing that still hanging out there and not fully attended:<br /><br />1. Historicly Pushtun is a larger national entity in Afghanstan, despised since British occupation by the cousins-emperors for their macho attitude in standing for their freedom.<br /><br />2. When Russians invaded Afhganistan and unleashed genocide of unseen proportions, they also despised nationals in the North, from the former Central Asian countries, descandents of &quot;Basmachis&quot;, while following the hate of the &quot;cousins&quot; to Pushtun and to their macho attitude for their freedom.<br /> <br />3). When USA got involved they didn't fully understand the Afhgan reality, because of terrorist attacks and because of traditional Eastern hospitality to foreign freedom fighters that fought for their country, like earlier Ben Ladin and his men. <br />For some reason USA government, influenced by British and by Russian sentiment, while for reality of shorter and less bloody war used the Northern front of Central Asians, did antogonized Pushtun as the enemy at the time, even more so Talliban, legal Afhgan army, mostly composed of Pushtun, for macho attitude for their freedom.<br /><br />Giving all of the above, President is doing so far not so bad.<br />The main problem that unity of Afghans in building better future must consider both, the North and the Pushtun.<br />To fight against terrorism and in the same time to antogonize magority of the country as terroristsic, just because their macho attitude for their freedom displease British and Russian imperial resurectors and just because Bush government was misguided by them will not lead to reconsiliation and better future...<br /><br />I think it is the time for Afghan president to find the open and honest way to heart and soul of his country, starting with Pushtun.<br /><br />To be freedom loving and not to bow to a British or to a Russian occupier doesn't make one nessesary a terrorist or a War-Lord...<br /><br />Konstantin.

by: Anisa from: India
August 18, 2009 05:56
I feel very unfortunate not being in Afghanistan right now..i wanted to vote for the genuine contender, who according to me is Hamid Karzai. I really hope he wins. And the reason why Mr. Adbullah was absent from this debate was because he is completely incompetent. I am sure he wouldnt have been able to stand besides these learned individuals..votes he would get by the power of gun..but he was required to use his brain here..thats the reason he bcak out of this presidential election..God Bless Afghanistan...and ALL THE VERY BEST HAMID KARZAI!!

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