Former Afghan defense minister Abdul Rahim Wardak has dropped out of next month's presidential election, leaving a field of nine candidates to replace outgoing President Hamid Karzai. Wardak announced Sunday he is dropping out of the race but gave no reason for his withdrawal and endorsed no other candidate for the April 5 vote.
Afghanistan's elections for president and 458 provincial councilors are slated for April 5. But Taliban threats and deadly attacks on campaign workers and election officials have worried local as well as international observers.
Since the Feb. 2 start of the campaign period, independent monitors from Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan have reported at least seven murders, one assassination attempt and several incidents of election-related violence and intimidation.
The Taliban insurgency has vowed to “use all force” to disrupt the polls and has warned Afghans not to participate in it.
Human Rights Watch has criticized as “despicable” and “unlawful” the Taliban’s threat to use violence to prevent voters from choosing a new president. The group has urged Afghan authorities to take all possible steps to protect campaign activities and voters.
An Afghan interior minister spokesman, Mohamad Najib Nikzad, says the government is fully prepared to organize free and transparent elections. He tells VOA about 400,000 Afghan soldiers and policemen are ready for deployment across the country to deter any threat to the democratic process.
The spokesman dismissed the Taliban’s threat of violence as propaganda, saying the Afghan government is not concerned and such moves will not prevent it from holding the elections. He added that only four districts across Afghanistan face serious security threats, but steps are being taken to deal with the challenge.
While testifying before U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee in Washington last week, the top American commander in Afghanistan, General Joseph Dunford, also warned of an increase in the election-related violence, but said physical ability of the Afghan security forces is sufficient to deal with the security challenge.
“There is no doubt in my mind and that we know this both from our intelligence and from open source that the insurgency is focused on disrupting elections in 2014 and focused on crushing the spirit and will of the Afghan forces in 2014 because they believe that we are leaving at the end of 2014 they look at this as a very critical year," said Dunford. "So, what we expect to see are high-profile attacks to create the perception of insecurity."
The NATO-led international force will end its combat mission in December.
The fate of a smaller American military presence in Afghanistan post-2014 remains uncertain because President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign a bilateral security agreement with Washington until certain conditions are met.
On Sunday, former Afghan defense minister Rahim Wardak said he is withdrawing from the presidential race and will not endorse any other candidate. He did not give any reason for ending his campaign and was not considered a front runner.
Earlier this month, the current president’s elder brother Qayyum Karzai announced he was ending his presidential campaign and supporting a former foreign minister, Zalmai Rassoul, who is widely perceived as President Karzai’s favored candidate.
There are 10 male candidates in the race to replace President Karzai, who is unable to run in next month’s vote due to constitutional term limits. In his last address to the joint session of parliament in Kabul Saturday, the Afghan leader reaffirmed his resolve to hold transparent and free elections