Amid his standoff with the Obama administration on a Bilateral Security Agreement, embattled President Hamid Karzai has asked the US and its allies not to “interfere” in Afghanistan’s crucial presidential polls.
Presidential candidates in the war-ravaged country began two months of campaigning on February 2 for an election that Washington and its allies hope will bring much-needed stability before the US-led troops exit after 13 years of inconclusive war.
Karzai, 56, said his government will ensure “transparent and fair” elections to be held on April 5. “Surely, from our side, it will be transparent and fair and that’s what Afghanistan needs and I hope also that the United States and its Western allies will make sure that they refrain from interference and that they allow Afghans to cast their vote and to elect their president,” he said on Saturday in Afghanistan’s second largest city.
He was speaking after he jointly inaugurated Afghanistan’s first agriculture university, built with Indian aid, with External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid. Karzai is ineligible to seek a third term and among the front-runners in the polls are his elder brother, Qayum Karzai, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and former Islamist warlord Abdul Rassoul Sayyaf.
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The Afghan President’s refusal to sign the security pact has strained relations with the US. Karzai further escalated tensions last Thursday by releasing 65 Taliban militants from a former US prison at Bagram near Kabul. If the security pact is not signed, the Pentagon’s biggest challenge will be closing huge military facilities like those in Bagram and Kandahar. US-led combat operations in Afghanistan are set to end by the end of this year, but the Obama administration is seeking to keep up to 10,000 troops on the ground for counter-terrorism and training missions.
Karzai explained his stance on the delay in signing the Bilateral Security Agreement with the US. “I am not against a limited presence of NATO troops in Afghanistan after 2014. What we are seeking is that their presence must become a source of support for Afghanistan, a stable Afghanistan without incidents of the type we have had in the past 10 years,” he said.
He emphasised Afghanistan needs the support of both the US and Pakistan to move forward with its peace process. Reacting to reports that he had clandestinely opened his own channels of communication with the Taliban, Karzai said it was important to find “all opportunities” for engagement. “The Afghan High Peace Council’s job is to engage in peace talks with the Taliban and to find all avenues, all opportunities of such engagements and that should be of happiness to the US and NATO. It should be a positive news for them,” he said.
“What you read in the media is a different story of course,” he said as the Taliban yesterday marked the 25th anniversary of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Karzai stressed that the West “must look towards the defeat of terrorism in Afghanistan in trying to address the sanctuaries, the training grounds, the motivational factors, the financial sources of terrorism and not in continuing or turning a blind eye to the continuation of conflict”.
The Afghan President also commented on the Pakistan government’s efforts to hold talks with the Pakistani Taliban. “Peace talks between the government of Pakistan and the Pakistani Taliban is something that we welcome and we hope that Pakistan also recognises that it is in its interest to help the Afghan Taliban also begin talks with the Afghan government,” Karzai said.