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Deadline for U.S. security detail top topic for debate

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By The Associated Press
Tuesday, Feb. 4, 2014, 5:42 p.m.

KABUL, Afghanistan — Tackling topics ranging from the Taliban to the future of foreign troops in Afghanistan, candidates battling to replace President Hamid Karzai faced off on Tuesday in the first televised debate of a crucial election campaign.

The presidential race is playing out in the run-up to the planned withdrawal of NATO combat troops, and the vote on April 5 will be a crucial test of whether the country can ensure a stable transition after years of war and while facing a Taliban insurgency that has vowed it will attempt to disrupt the poll.

With Karzai ineligible to run for a third term, a successful election would mark Afghanistan's first real democratic transfer of power.

Hanging over the campaign is a question about a security deal between the United States and Afghanistan to allow a small number of American troops to stay in the country and continue training Afghan security forces after NATO's combat mission ends in December 2014.

Karzai has been refusing to sign the deal despite pressure from Washington, placing the issue front and center for the 11 candidates vying to succeed him.

On a snowy Tuesday night in Kabul, five of those candidates took their places behind podiums in front of a studio audience.

After each of the candidates — Abdullah Abdullah, runner-up in the 2009 election; former foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul, ex-finance minister Ashraf Ghani, ex-defense minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and Karzai's brother, Qayyum Karzai — gave a brief opening statement, the questions began.

The U.S. security deal took center stage right off the bat, with Qayyum Karzai, Ghani and Rassoul all expressing their support for its signing. The remaining two candidates were not asked the question.

“The security forces and the people of Afghanistan will not have the ability to function on their own,” Qayyum Karzai said.

Abdullah echoed his sentiments, adding that “support from the international community to our security forces will help our security.”

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