WASHINGTON // The United States is continuing to back the original August date set for presidential balloting in Afghanistan, which was affirmed yesterday by the Afghan election commission in defiance of a decree by Hamid Karzai to move the vote to next month.
The Independent Election Commission rejected the weekend decree of the Afghan president that the vote be held in April. At a news conference in Kabul, Azizullah Lodin, the commission's head, cited "weather, funding, operational challenges and logistical issues and of course security" as obstacles and said it would be "impossible" to meet Mr Karzai's deadline. The United States, meanwhile, said it welcomed the commission's reconfirmation of the Aug 20 voting date. By then, the 17,000 more US troops recently ordered to Afghanistan by Barack Obama, the US president, are expected to be in place.
"We share the Independent Election Commission's view that an August election is the best means to assure that every Afghan citizen is able to freely and fairly express his or her political preference in a secure environment and that all candidates will have an opportunity to participate on an equal basis in a transparent, fair and open competition," Gordon Duguid, a spokesman at the US state department, said in a statement.
Nato officials have warned of security problems if voting is held earlier than summer, as planned. And in a conference call yesterday with reporters in Washington, a top US military commander in Afghanistan tasked with training and equipping the Afghan national army and police also said a later vote would be preferable. "Security will be better if the elections were to be held in August," Major Gen Richard Formica, commander of the Combined Security Transition Command Afghanistan, said.
According to the Afghan constitution, the president's five-year term expires on May 21 and elections must be held 30 to 60 days before that - meaning no later than April 20. In January, though, the election commission set a polling date of Aug 20, saying more time was needed to prepare for national balloting that will present enormous logistical and security challenges, given the resurgence of the Taliban and the insurgents who back it.
But last weekend Mr Karzai called for an April election, a move widely viewed as an attempt by the Afghan president to fend off any challenges to his hold on power after May 21. Opposition leaders have said they will not recognise him as the legitimate president after that date, calling instead for an interim leader before an August vote. It is thought nearly impossible that an election could be arranged and held by the date Mr Karzai has set, at least not one deemed fair and legitimate by international standards. If there is no vote by the time his term expires in May, the Afghan president could declare a state of emergency and remain in office, or seek some political arrangement that would allow him to stay on temporarily while he runs for re-election.
Mr Duguid said in his statement the United States "calls upon Afghanistan's leaders to find a formula within the constitutional framework for ensuring the continuity, legitimacy and stability of government from May through the presidential inauguration". "The United States urges all Afghan parties to work together toward these goals, which the United States supports," he said. The United Nations added its voice this week to those opposing an early vote. Alain Le Roy, the UN undersecretary general for peacekeeping operations, said any election before summer - he indicated July - would be "very difficult to organise" because of security concerns and other "logistical and technical reasons".
Hervé Morin, the French defence minister, said during a visit to Washington this week that holding elections early would be "complicated", and he called on Mr Karzai to set a date only after consulting with other political leaders and finding a way "to reconcile the need for democracy with constitutional requirements". Gilles Dorronsoro, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the dispute over the election date points to a much larger crisis that not only calls into question Mr Karzai's legitimacy but highlights the weaknesses of Afghanistan's young political system and institutions.
"It's the deconstruction of the political centre that we're seeing now," he said. "After that, there's nothing left. There's no real state in Afghanistan. The only thing that was working is Karzai." How well he is working, of course, has become a matter of debate in Washington. Indeed, the Obama administration has taken a tougher line than George W Bush on Mr Karzai, whose government has been unwilling or unable to address increasing violence and is widely viewed as allowing corruption to thrive. In her confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill, Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, branded Afghanistan a "narcostate" and said its government is "plagued by limited capacity" and "widespread corruption".
But there is some risk in the United States distancing itself from - or even outright abandoning - Afghanistan's president, Mr Dorronsoro said. "Some people are thinking that we have to get rid of Karzai or at least put pressure on Karzai," he said. "The problem is it's not so easy to distinguish between Karzai and the institution [of the presidency] itself. We are also destroying the idea of the Afghan state, fighting Karzai like that.
"It's the last chance to build some kind of an Afghan state," he said of the election. "It's in jeopardy, honestly. Who's going to replace Karzai?" firstname.lastname@example.org