— Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s brother dropped out of the April 5 presidential race and urged supporters to back former foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul in the election. Observers believe the political move is part of President Karzai's strategy to boost his preferred successor.
Qayum Karzai, the elder brother of the incumbent president, told reporters in Kabul he made the decision after consulting elders in 28 of the 34 Afghan provinces. He described his team as "an essential part" of the new alliance.
Karzai requested “all respected religious scholars, tribal elders and Afghan youth to fully back Zalmai Rassoul to ensure that Afghanistan is able to sustain gains it has made over the past 12 years and the country can be guided toward achieving lasting peace, stability and economic development, and a repeat of the bitter experiences of the past can be prevented.”
Presidential candidate Zalmai Rassoul (2nd L) shakes hands with Qayum Karzai (C) and their teams in Kabul, March 6, 2014. Karzai has announced he is withdrawing from the presidential race.
Afghan presidential candidate Abdul Rasoul Sayyaf speaks during a campaign rally in Kabul, March 6, 2014.
A supporter of Afghan presidential candidate Abdul Rasoul Sayyaf chants slogans during a campaign rally in Kabul, March 6, 2014.
Supporters of Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah listen to his speech during a campaign rally in Deh Sabz district on the outskirts of Kabul, March, 5, 2014.
Bodyguards of Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah stand guard as they listen to his speech during a campaign rally in Deh Sabz district on the outskirts of Kabul, March, 5, 2014.
Presidential candidate Rassoul, sitting next to Qayum Karzai, welcomed the announcement. He said his “strong team, with the help of friends and support of the people” will emerge the winner in next month’s elections.
Karzai’s exit leaves 10 candidates in the race, including opposition politician Abdullah Abdullah, runner-up of the fraud-riddled 2009 presidential polls, and Ashraf Ghani, who has served as former finance minister under President Karzai’s administration.
The Afghan constitution bars Karzai from running for a third consecutive term and he has vowed not to publicly endorse any candidate to strictly maintain his neutrality in the election. But critics see Thursday’s move as a signal that Zalmai Rassoul is the incumbent president’s “preferred choice.”
Political analysts in Kabul suggest that Karzai appears to be striving for an influential background role after his presidential term ends.
Said Azam, a former election official and commentator in Kabul, said he has tried to "create a kind of atmosphere, a kind of scenario that makes his desired candidate to be the absolute winner and a winner of the election just in the first round."
Voting on April 5 could be followed by a run-off election between the two leading candidates, with a new president finally being chosen in June or July. The election will mark the first democratic transfer of power in the history of the war-ravaged nation.
Security agreement with US pending
Observers say that President Karzai’s refusal to sign a bilateral security agreement with the United States to extend the American military mission in Afghanistan beyond 2014 could be part of his election strategy to win public support for his favored candidate.
Analyst Azam said all prominent presidential candidates, including Rassoul, supported signing the security deal with the U.S.
“I think the main reason is the election. I think once President Karzai sees that the outcome of the election is in his own favor and that his desired candidate will be his successor, even after the election he will still be the president he will sign it [BSA],”said Azam.
The standoff over the security agreement has strained bilateral ties while President Karzai has also launched regular verbal assaults on the U.S.-led coalition’s counterterrorism activities in Afghanistan and civilian casualties in these operations.
Thursday’s killing of five Afghan soldiers in a NATO air strike is likely to fuel that criticism. A presidential spokesman said Karzai has ordered an investigation into the incident that took place in eastern Logar province.
Coalition forces say they are conducting their own probe to determine the circumstance that led to the “unfortunate incident.”