Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the country's first-ever elected leader, is considered the front-runner for the August 20 ballot. He commands all the resources of the state, including the army and the police, and billions of dollars in U.S. and other foreign aid.
Yet, Mr. Karzai faces an increasingly wary public that blames him for a lack of economic progress and widespread official corruption. He enjoyed strong support from the U.S. government under the Bush administration. The Obama administration has remained publicly neutral, but U.S. officials have not hidden their discontent with Mr. Karzai, whose government is considered corrupt and incompetent. In written testimony before the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee in February, the Director of U.S. National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, described the Karzai government as increasingly ineffective and unpopular.
Afghanistan is also battling an increasingly violent Taliban insurgency: just last year, Mr. Karzai escaped an assassination attempt by suspected militants during a military parade in the capital, Kabul.
President Karzai, known for his trademark Karakul hat is often called the "Mayor of Kabul," a reference to his lack of control and power over vast parts of Afghanistan, much of which is controlled by warlords, the Taliban and other insurgent groups.
If elected to a second term, Mr. Karzai says he will double Afghanistan's security forces and push plans for Saudi-mediated peace talks with the Taliban.
The president is an ethnic Pashtun and a member of the powerful Populzai clan, from which many Afghan Kings have come. He was born into a family that strongly supported King Zahir Shah, the country's last monarch. Thus, Mr. Karzai was exposed to Afghan politics early in life.
He came to power on the heels of the U.S. led invasion that ousted the Taliban regime in 2001. In December that year, Mr. Karzai was named chairman of an interim government that replaced the defeated Taliban, making him the leader of Afghanistan. He took office as interim president in June 2002 and went on to win Afghanistan's first-ever elections in 2004.
While President Karzai appears to be leading in the race, he may be forced into a run-off, with his former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah staging a strong campaign.