Afghans tuned in to the first televised debate of the presidential campaign on the evening of July 23, but while they had the opportunity to watch two top contenders face off, President Hamid Karzai was noticeably absent.
That meant two of Karzai's biggest rivals, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani, took turns criticizing the incumbent president's policies
Afghan and international media widely suggested that incumbent Karzai had pulled out of the debate, but it remains unclear
whether the sitting president ever agreed to participate in the first place.
The latest opinion polls indicate that Karzai is the clear front-runner, with Abdullah a distant second and Ghani well back in third.
With violence peaking to its highest levels since the demise of the Taliban regime eight years ago, security -- or lack thereof -- was a main topic of debate.
During the debate, organized and aired live on privately owned Tolo TV, Abdullah blamed Karzai's rule for the deteriorating security situation and the Taliban's advances.
The statement claimed that Tolo TV was 59 percent against Hamid Karzai
"Because of injustice and the lack of an efficient judiciary and government, we are losing the Afghan people, and they are going toward the enemy's side and improving enemy capability," Abdullah said.
"We cannot blame anyone else for this other than this current government, the leader of which is, unfortunately, is not here to answer to the people of Afghanistan."Military Surge
The increased violence comes amid a major surge in military operations being conducted by U.S., British, German, and Afghan troops. The push is largely intended to provide a secure environment for the August 20 elections, with a particular emphasis on remote regions.
Ghani, a former academic and World Bank official, touched on the sensitive issue of the presence of Western combat troops in the country.
He indicated that, if elected, he would deliver a clear roadmap for the troops' conduct and eventual exit:
"When can foreign forces leave Afghanistan? In this regard, I want to reach an agreement [with them] so we can shut down Bagram prison within three years."
While his opponents tried to paint Karzai's absence as proof of his unwillingness to confront them head-on, Karzai's camp offered other explanations.
Karzai's campaign said in a statement that it received a formal invitation to participate in the debate just one day before the event.
Citing a report conducted by the media-monitoring arm of the Independent Election Commission, the statement also claimed that Tolo TV was "59 percent against Hamid Karzai" in its election coverage.
In recent years, the Kabul-based television station has had numerous disagreements with senior Afghan officials over its reporting.
Karzai campaign spokesman Wahid Omar said the incumbent president would only participate in debates officially organized by the country's election commission, offered to multiple media outlets, and open to all 41 candidates running in the poll.
"We want to hold this debate under truly neutral circumstances. We want to hold one debate that can be covered by all Afghan media outlets so it satisfies them and people from across Afghanistan can access the contents of that debate from multiple channels," Omar said.
At this point, no definitive dates have been set by the election commission for future debates.