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Karzai backers push to postpone election

| Wednesday, July 31, 2013, 10:03 p.m.

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — With a major election just eight months away, power brokers across southern Afghanistan are pressing President Hamid Karzai to not leave office on schedule in 2014, a move that could complicate the U.S. withdrawal.

In tribal gatherings, protests and private conversations, Afghan leaders from the south have voiced support for an extension of Karzai's presidency. Some want the April election delayed for several years, arguing that security is so poor that it would limit voter turnout in southern provinces. Others say Karzai is simply the best man for the job and should be allowed to run for a third term — even though the constitution limits him to two.

“The withdrawal of international forces is not the right time for new leadership,” said Kandahar governor Toryalai Wesa, suggesting that the election be postponed for about two years. “Karzai should stay in office.”

Karzai has publicly denied that he will remain in power beyond the end of his term, but many international observers are skeptical. Even top Afghan officials, including several in his cabinet, believe that Karzai is planning to delay the election.

U.S. officials say long-term support for Afghanistan, including billions of dollars in aid, could be withheld if the vote is postponed. That message, they say, has been conveyed to Karzai in private meetings.

“I can't imagine us having an effective transition in 2015 without the single most important thing that has happened in the campaign, which is the elections of 2014,” Gen. Joseph Dunford, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said last month.

U.S. officials contend that a smooth transfer of power after next year's election is critical to Afghanistan's stability. And if he prolonged his presidency, Karzai might raise questions among American officials about whether U.S. troops should remain in support of a government that openly violated a U.S.-backed constitution.

But the recent pleas from Afghanistan's southern heartland — Karzai's ancestral home and the source of his power — reveal the pressure the president will have to resist if he is to step aside on schedule.

In June, about 800 tribal elders, religious leaders and government officials attended a meeting at a stadium in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, during which many warned that the Taliban would keep thousands of people in the area from voting if elections were held in April.

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