With Hamid Karzai's presidential term set to end next year, the deteriorating security situation in parts of Afghanistan appears to be harming his chances for reelection.
Although a date has yet to be set for Afghanistan's next presidential election, skeptics are already questioning whether they should be held at all.
Most observers believe the vote will be held in the fall of 2009, but Shukaria Barakzai, a member of Afghanistan's lower house of parliament (Wolesi Jirga), tells RFE/RL that the security situation in parts of the country is not conducive to free and fair polls.
"I don't think elections merely mean that you put boxes before voters. People need to have physical and psychological security so that they can cast their ballots with confidence," Barakzai said. "We will be holding elections in an atmosphere when people were killed just because they carried voter registration cards. Do you think that Afghanistan can hold elections in such conditions? It's a known fact that we cannot have elections under such circumstances."
Some 4,000 people, almost one-third of them civilians, have been killed this year in Afghanistan. Sources tell RFE/RL that even the government itself admits that the Taliban practically controls or dominates some 50 districts in the southern and southeastern provinces. For the majority of Afghans, security remains the No. 1 concern.
Some areas are simply too dangerous for politicians or their supporters to openly campaign, but this hasn't prevented some from announcing and promoting their candidacies, although informally at this point. The country's Independent Election Commission has begun registering voters, including some 2 million new voters across nearly half of the country's 34 provinces. And while it's still very early in the game, the incumbent -- Hamid Karzai -- is widely viewed as the front-runner.
Time For Change?
Of course critics of Karzai, who served as acting chairman and later president of the country's Transitional Administration before being elected president in 2004, are looking for a different outcome. Taking U.S. President-elect Barack Obama's proposed "fresh start" in Afghanistan to heart, they are looking for new leadership in Kabul.
Parliamentarian Kabir Ranjbar is one of them. And as he tells RFE/RL, insecurity in Afghanistan is not the only thing he attributes to Karzai; he says the president has little positive to show the electorate when he asks them for their votes next year:
"If you look at the overall state of affairs, he is a failed president," Ranjbar said. "I don't have any doubt that certain tasks have been accomplished. But those things happened because of the international community, because of their pressure, cooperation, and direct interventions."
Such perceptions are increasingly gaining ground in Western capitals, too. Daniel Markey, a senior fellow for South Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington and a former U.S. State Department policy planner, said after a recent tour of Afghanistan that U.S. policy makers have become increasingly concerned about the kinds of signals Karzai has been sending lately.
"Both in terms of his public criticism of the international community, which has become more shrill over the past year; and also in terms of the broader questions being raised by other Afghans about his effectiveness and the effectiveness of his government; and especially, questions about the widespread corruption within the government... All these things have led people to wonder whether his reelection to another five years would be something that will benefit the state-building project that's essentially under way in Afghanistan. Right now it's still very much up in the air," Markey said.
RFE/RL took those concerns to Karzai's official spokesman, Humayun Hamidzada, who is among the hundreds of Western-educated Afghans working for the current administration. Asked to list the main achievement of the country's first elected president, Hamidzada said Karzai has given the country stable democratic order under "the most progressive constitution in the Islamic world."
And Hamidzada stressed that Karzai's achievements are not limited to politics. "The president has led the country into a steady growth rate -- from [a negative growth] rate in 2001 to last year Asia's fastest growing economy," Hamidzada said. "More than 85 percent of the population has access to some kind of health services. On the education front, millions of children are going to school -- boys and girls. The president has become the messenger of peace, development, security, and reconstruction of his country all over the world. And he has the confidence of the Afghan people and the partnership of the international community."
On ground in Afghanistan, analysts see few serious challengers to Karzai's reelection bid.
His main opposition are armed Taliban who want to forcefully overthrow his government and evict the Western forces from the country, an approach that keeps them out of the political arena.
Despite the emergence of a variety of political parties in the country, the United National Front of Afghanistan remains the only one seen as capable of fielding a strong challenger.
But this party is a coalition of royalists, former communists, and their one-time enemies - the anti-Soviet mujahedin commanders. In the eyes of many Afghans, some senior leaders in the alliance are closely associated with past atrocities.
Lawmaker Barakzai, the fierce critic of the security situation, says that while Karzai's popularity has dwindled, his opponents have also failed to win popular confidence. "We don't have security, poverty still is everywhere, and the rule of law exits only on paper," he said. "Despite all this, the political atmosphere has not produced new leaders that people will recognize [and follow]."
Afghan experts believe that, in the end, the presidential election will essentially be a contest between leading political personalities. And for many Afghans, Karzai remains the country's brightest political star.
Ajmal Toorman Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent in Kabul and Ron Synovitz contributed to this report