Three candidates in the Afghan presidential election, including incumbent President Hamid Karzai, have faced off in a nationally broadcast debate. It was the first time a sitting president has participated in such an election debate.
Just hours before official campaigning ended, President Karzai debated two challengers in the first such event in which he agreed to participate. But former foreign minister and presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah did not attend, denying Afghan voters a chance to assess head-to-head the top two contenders.
Also on stage in Kabul with the president were former planning minister Ramazan Bashardost and a former finance minister, Ashraf Ghani.
The president was relatively subdued in defending the record of his seven years in office. He touted his performance in creating jobs, improving the economy and giving more Afghans an opportunity for education, especially women.
He said he believes his experience, patience, tolerance and vision can be of service to Afghanistan for another five years. But Mr. Karzai acknowledged the lack of security, development and prosperity in the country.
Looking ahead, the president told Afghans that, with the strengthening of the country's army, the role of the 100,000 foreign forces in Afghanistan can be reduced.
Mr. Karzai says, over the next three to 10 years, the operations by the NATO-led and U.S. forces will decline, and Afghans will be in control. But he said, in some unstable regions, the presence of the foreign troops is needed and welcome.
Bashardost, who runs his campaign out of a tent on the side of a highway, has surged into third place in the most recent opinion polls of likely voters. He contends he is the ideal candidate to bring about peace because he is the candidate of the people, including those who are fighting against the state.
The French-educated anti-corruption campaigner says all candidates have promised to talk with the Taliban, but the real question is would the Taliban agree to communicate with them?
Ghani, a former executive of the World Bank, criticized the Karzai administration for putting warlords in power and not bringing about stability, despite pouring huge amounts of money into the police force.
Ghani terms the police as more resembling a corrupt militia than a respected law enforcement agency.
The debate was organized and broadcast by both the state TV channel, Radio Free Afghanistan and Radio Azadi, which is funded by the U.S. Congress. The event also aired live on the frequencies of VOA's Afghan Service.
Afghanistan goes to the polls Thursday for the first presidential election in five years. Several dozen candidates are on the presidential ballot.
If no candidate captures 50 percent of the ballots in the first round, a runoff election will be held between the top two finishers.