Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Yahoo! News - U.S. Envoy Smoothes Way for Karzai Win in Afghan Poll

Yahoo! News - U.S. Envoy Smoothes Way for Karzai Win in Afghan Poll: "U.S. Envoy Smoothes Way for Karzai Win in Afghan Poll

By Simon Cameron-Moore
KABUL (Reuters) - The flashing smile, the patrician wave of the hand for the cameras as he stepped into his bullet-proof car belonged to a man who had just won Afghanistan (news - web sites)'s presidential election.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, nicknamed "the Viceroy" and familiarly known as Zal, had just helped to smoothe the path to almost certain victory for Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai after meeting his chief rival.

The historic election on Saturday was nearly derailed when Karzai's 15 opponents threatened to boycott over suspicion of irregularities, but soon most of his main challengers had fallen into line and promised to respect the result -- thanks to a little word in their ear from the U.S. envoy.

"They came to him asking for advice on ways to save face," said one Western official, describing the urgent consultations Khalilzad held with Yunus Qanuni, the main candidate from the ethnic Tajik minority. That was on Monday evening.

Qanuni later withdrew his boycott, citing national interests.

A day earlier, a visit from Khalilzad was followed by a decision by another key opponent -- Mohammad Mohaqiq from the Shi'ite Muslim Hazara minority -- to take back his threat to refuse to recognize the election.

On Tuesday, presidential contender General Abdul Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek commander from the north, was to meet the Afghan-born Khalilzad who is the face of President Bush (news - web sites) in Kabul.

Most expect Karzai to win Saturday's historic vote, although three weeks of counting only begin on Wednesday.

It's no secret that Washington wants to see Karzai endorsed as president.

Khalilzad was under pressure to move quickly because Bush, on his own campaign trail, was hailing last weekend's election as his foreign policy triumph and could not risk allegations of fraud jeopardizing the success story.

Khalilzad, who has a doctorate from the University of Chicago and is a former professor at Columbia and long-time Republican, was appointed special envoy to Afghanistan after U.S. forces toppled the hardline Taliban regime in late 2001.

Many Afghans say Khalilzad has been engaged in political horse-trading on Karzai's behalf, possibly carrying offers of ministerial posts or provincial governorships.

"He's put pressure on them and they won't change their position free of charge," said one candidate, who believed the deals could backfire on Karzai.

Khalilzad and Karzai go back a long time -- they studied together at the American University of Beirut in the 1970s.

It was Khalilzad, as a foreign policy adviser to the National Security Council, who lobbied Washington to pick Karzai as head of a transitional government after the Taliban were overthrown. Khalilzad says he has always been ready to act as a go-between, carrying messages between rival Afghan politicians, but denies direct interference in Afghanistan's domestic affairs.

Afghans fear U.S. impatience for a Karzai win may have resulted in a series of expedient deals and that could result in warlords and drug runners retaining a say in government.

Qanuni, Dostum and Mohaqiq are commanders of ethnic militias that fought the Soviet occupation and the hardline Taliban. Those same factions now fear they are being squeezed out of Afghanistan's political future as U.S. policy seeks to dissociate itself from warlords.

"It is important that the United States is not seen as pushing for deals that would be perceived by Afghans as maintaining the status quo, but rather for producing positive political change," said Andrew Wilder, director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit.

"The legitimacy of the election result rests on who will be in the next cabinet," he said. "Afghans desperately want political change and whoever is elected should bring in new faces, more professional people into government."

Dumping leaders who rely on ethnic loyalties and armed militias is difficult, given the composition of the nation and a far from complete disarmament process. Moreover, the vote will demonstrate they represent constituencies too large to ignore.

Khalilzad studiously avoided endorsing Karzai's candidacy in the run-up to the election.

But few Afghans doubt a Karzai win is what Bush wants to hold up as a triumph of democracy before the Nov. 2 U.S. election.

"Everybody knows who is calling the shots," said Hamidullah Tarzi, a former finance minister from one of the country's best-known political families."


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