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Archive for November, 2013

Turkish ships support Egypt’s pro-democracy movement

Sunday, 01 September 2013

Turkish-flagged ships in Istanbul harbor have been involved in a unique demonstration in support of Egypt’s pro-democracy movement. Crews on board a number of ships projected images of the young martyr Asma Al-Beltaji onto the building housing the Egyptian Consulate in the city in condemnation of the military coup in July.

Seventeen-year-old Miss Al-Beltaji was the daughter of Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Al-Beltaji. She was shot and killed by coup forces in Rabaa Al-Adawiyya Square last month and has become a symbol of the anti-coup protests along with the four-fingered symbol of freedom used in the demonstrations. This was also projected onto the consulate alongside Asma’s picture as part of the ships’ protest.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Erdogan: IOC cut ties to Muslim world in rejecting Istanbul

Monday 9 September 2013

ANKARA: The choice of Tokyo instead of Istanbul to host the 2020 Olympic Games was unfair and meant the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was turning its back on the Muslim world; Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan was quoted as saying on Monday.

Tokyo beat Istanbul by 60 votes to 36 in a head-to-head vote by IOC members in Buenos Aires on Saturday, giving the Japanese capital the Games for the second time. Madrid had been eliminated in a first round of voting.

“Both Tokyo and Madrid have hosted the games before; Istanbul hasn’t. It hasn’t been fair,” Erdogan was quoted as saying in Turkish media. “In a way, they are cutting ties with the 1.5-billion-people Muslim world.

Civil unrest, the unstable political situation on the country’s doorstep and a wave of high-profile athletics doping cases are seen as the chief culprits for the IOC’s decision to overlook Turkey, which has a predominantly Muslim population, again after Istanbul failed in bids to land the 2000, 2004, 2008 and 2012 Games.

While the unrest in neighboring Syria was seen by some as counting against the bid, others felt a heavy-handed police crackdown during recent anti-government protests also damaged Turkey’s image.

Tokyo, which hosted the 1964 Games, had an estimated non-Games budget of around $4.4 billion for 2020 plus $3.4 billion for the actual event.

Istanbul’s proposal had a total cost of $19 billion, making it more ambitious but also risky given the country’s lack of experience in staging major sports events.

Another worry for Istanbul has been the wave of doping cases which have resulted in the Turkish Athletics Federation banning dozens of athletes for drugs violations, most recently double European 100m hurdles champion Nevin Yanit.

Turkey’s Sports Minister Suat Kilic said doping was not an issue peculiar to Turkey while Erdogan said the country was taking steps to fight it.

“We have said ‘zero tolerance against doping’ and have started our work,” Erdogan said.

Source: Arab News.

Albania refuses to accept Syria’s chemical weapons

November 15, 2013

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — The mission to destroy Syria’s poison gas stockpile was dealt a serious blow Friday when Albania refused to host the destruction, but the global chemical weapons watchdog said it is still confident it can eradicate the arsenal outside Syria by the middle of next year.

The surprise refusal by the small and impoverished Balkan country left open the question of where the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons would send Syria’s estimated 1,300-ton arsenal, which includes mustard gas and sarin.

“I can’t name a country at this point, but obviously there are options and there are ways in which this can be accomplished,” senior OPCW official Malik Ellahi said at the organization’s headquarters at The Hague, Netherlands.

Syria has said it wants the weapons destroyed outside the country, which is in the throes of civil war. Albania had been considered the strongest hope, and few diplomats expected the NATO country of 2.8 million people to reject what Prime Minister Edi Rama said had been a direct request from the U.S.

But the plan was unpopular in Albania, and young protesters had camped outside Rama’s office to oppose it, fearing it would be a health and environmental hazard. Chemical weapons have to be incinerated at extremely high temperatures or neutralized using other chemicals — both costly, risky and time-consuming operations that require specialized machinery.

In a televised address from the capital of Tirana, Rama said that it was “impossible for Albania to take part in this operation” — an announcement that brought a loud cheer from some of the 2,000 protesters.

Rama said he rejected the request because other countries, which he did not identify, were not prepared to be a part of the operation. The OPCW’s Ellahi said: “It was a sovereign decision that Albania has taken.”

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Jan Psaki said the decision would not hurt U.S.-Albanian relations. “We appreciate Albania looking seriously at hosting the destruction of chemical weapons,” she said. “The international community continues to discuss the most effective and expeditious means for eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons program in the safest manner possible.”

Albania is one of only three nations that have declared a chemical weapons stockpile to the OPCW and destroyed it. The U.S. and Russia have also declared stockpiles but have not yet completed their destruction.

Tirana has been an avid supporter of Washington since the U.S. and NATO intervened with airstrikes in 1999 to stop a crackdown by Serb forces on rebel ethnic Albanians in neighboring Kosovo. “Without the United States, Albanians would never have been free and independent in two countries that they are today,” Rama said in an apologetic speech.

But the relationship was not enough to convince the hundreds of protesters. “We don’t have the infrastructure here to deal with the chemical weapons. We can’t deal with our own stuff, let alone Syrian weapons,” said 19-year-old architecture student Maria Pesha, among the protesters camped out overnight outside Rama’s office. “We have no duty to obey anyone on this, NATO or the U.S.”

Albania has had problems with ammunition storage in the past. In 2008, an explosion at an ammunition dump at Gerdec near Tirana killed 26 people, wounded 300 others and destroyed or damaged 5,500 houses. Investigators said it was caused by a burning cigarette in a factory where some 1,400 tons of explosives, mostly obsolete artillery shells, were stored for disposal.

Wherever it happens, the destruction of Syria’s weapons will be overseen by experts from the OPCW, which won the Nobel Peace Prize this year for its efforts to eradicate poison gas around the world. Just getting Syria’s weapons out of the war-torn country will be a major challenge.

Sigrid Kaag, the Dutch diplomat running the joint U.N.-OPCW mission in Syria, said her team is working “in an active war zone, in an extreme security situation with serious implications for the safety” of all personnel.

Norway has offered a cargo ship and naval frigate to help transport the chemicals. The disarmament operation started more than a month ago with inspections. Machinery used to mix chemicals and fill empty munitions was smashed, ending the Syrian government’s capability to make new weapons.

The disarmament mission stems from a deadly Aug. 21 attack on rebel-held suburbs of Damascus in which the United Nations determined that sarin was used. Hundreds of people were killed. The U.S. and Western allies accuse Syria’s government of responsibility, while Damascus blames the rebels.

Syria’s conflict, now in its third year, has killed more than 120,000 people, according to activists. It started as an uprising against President Bashar Assad’s rule but later turned into a civil war.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which relies on activists on the ground, said Friday that a government airstrike the previous night in northern Syria killed a senior rebel figure and wounded two commanders and the spokesman of the Tawhid Brigade, the main rebel outfit in Aleppo province.

Corder reported from The Hague, Netherlands. Bassem Mroue in Beirut contributed to this report.

New Albanian PM vows less reliance on remittances

September 11, 2013

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albania’s new Socialist prime minister is promising to make his country less reliant on remittances from migrant workers by creating 300,000 jobs at home.

Prime Minister Edi Rama formally presented his policies Wednesday to parliament at the start of a two-day debate to confirm nominations for his 20-member cabinet. The 49-year-old Socialist leader will be formally sworn in later this month.

Rama warned that Albania’s economy is in troubled waters, and said he would seek advice from the International Monetary Fund. “We shall talk closely with the IMF … to understand how deep the crisis is and get advice and help on how to respond to the threat of its explosion,” Rama said.

The former communist country has relied for decades on money sent home by hundreds of thousands of immigrants living in Italy and neighboring Greece, which have been significantly reduced in recent years. Growth in Albania has slowed since those two countries were hit by the financial crisis.

Albania has a population of just over 3 million and up to 1 million other Albanians are estimated to be working abroad. Rama won a landslide election victory in June, defeating conservative Prime Minister Sali Berisha on pledges of fighting widespread corruption and bringing the NATO member closer to its goal of joining the European Union.

“Albania is our homeland while Europe is our future,” Rama said. His new government will be formed in alliance with a junior partner, the Socialist Movement for Integration Party of Ilir Meta, a 44-year-old former prime minister.

Rama, a former mayor of the capital Tirana, rose to prominence with a popular campaign to brightly decorate the facades of austere Communist-era apartment blocks. His new Cabinet is filled political newcomers and includes six women — an unprecedented step in Albania.

Unemployment currently stands at 12.8 percent. But the Socialists argue the jobless rate is hugely underreported because many rural residents are typically not counted. Rama’s new government is promising to transform the economy “from one based on remittances, international aid with soft loans, privatization income, self-employment in agriculture, small retails shops, and construction … to one based on production,” according to the government program.

It promises to ease taxes on medium-sized businesses and reform the revenue system, abandoning a 10 percent flat tax on personal income in favor of a scaled framework. Albania remains one of Europe’s poorest countries, with a minimum wage salary of 21,000 leks ($210; €150) per month.

Afghan election season off to a messy start

November 20, 2013

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — With Afghanistan’s next presidential election just five months away, authorities say they are facing a possible repeat of the abuses that have discredited the country’s efforts to build a democracy.

They say they have no idea how many voters are really on the rolls because multiple registrations have resulted in nearly twice as many registered voters as eligible ones, said Noor Mohammed Noor, spokesman for the Independent Election Commission.

The registration cards have no expiry date, there is no database to track them, and they are good for any election, he said. Nader Nadery, head of the nonpartisan Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, said it is too early to charge fraud, but “there is a lot of smoke out there . . . the level of suspicion is high.”

With foreign troops set to withdraw from Afghanistan at the end of next year, a credible April 6 election would do much to validate the West’s efforts over 12 years to foster democracy in the country.

The 2009 election, which gave President Hamid Karzai a second term, was severely marred by allegations of fraud. Suspicions ran from ballot-box-stuffing and bogus registration cards to men from deeply conservative areas turning up at polling stations with handfuls of registration cards to vote on behalf of female relatives, arguing that custom forbade the women to appear in public.

Constitutionally limited to two terms, Karzai is not in the running. But Noor said he worries the glut of registration cards could taint the April 6 poll, while Andrew Wilder of the U.S. Institute of Peace, a federally funded conflict-resolution body, said ballot-stuffing was an even bigger threat.

Holding an election in a country still reeling from 30 years of conflict and struggling to strengthen weak and often corrupt institutions is a herculean task, say experts and candidates. Taliban threats cast a further damper.

“Poor security in parts of the country will make it difficult and dangerous for candidates to campaign, and for voters to go to the polls and vote on election day,” said Wilder. “Poor security, as we saw in the 2009 elections, also makes it difficult for observers and party agents to monitor elections, and provides a great opportunity for ballot-box-stuffing.”

While past Taliban warnings have failed to disrupt elections, the insurgents are again threatening to kill candidates, election workers and voters, and there are fears that the approaching departure of foreign troops will sharpen the Taliban’s appetite for violence.

The threats to the fragile democratic process are reflected in the election commission’s Kabul headquarters, surrounded by anti-blast walls, barbed wire and phalanx of security forces in an otherwise ordinary district of the capital.

Speaking to The Associated Press in his office here, spokesman Noor says: “This is the reality of this country. We are conducting elections in a difficult situation, with poor security, but we must conduct elections.

“It is the only way for our country to succeed.” He said he wished the old registration cards had been thrown out and new ones prepared for this election. Instead, the commission is working on “a badly laid foundation” of an accumulation of cards issued over the course of four presidential and parliamentary elections since 2004, plus a fifth just concluded for next April’s poll.

Also, there are no voter lists, meaning no way of checking eligibility on election day. Instead, anyone can show up at any of the 22,000 polling stations with a card and vote. A credible election would do much for the West’s efforts to foster democracy in Afghanistan after the allegations of fraud leveled by Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai’s 2009 challenger. He refused to participate in a second round of voting because he said he didn’t believe it would be fair.

This time he’s one of the front-runners in a field of 11, including Qayyum Karzai, brother of the outgoing president who insists he urged him not to run. On Wednesday, the Independent Election Commission announced an eleventh presidential candidate, a man who was originally disqualified but won his appeal. Five other disqualified hopefuls were unsuccessful in their appeals. A lottery next week would decide the order that names appear on the ballot papers, the commission said.

Mahmoud Saikal, a member of Abdullah’s party, said “we do have a little bit of time to develop an anti-fraud plan.” Voter turnout must be pushed well above the estimated 2009 turnout of less than 30 percent to reduce the impact of ballot box stuffing on the election results, he said, and there should be curbs on proxy voting by men for women. “My preference would be for the women of Afghanistan to come out.”

Saikal also said he hoped for “some courageous monitors who have the guts to go to the remote areas.”

Kathy Gannon is AP Special Regional Correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Afghanistan disqualifies 16 from presidential race

October 22, 2013

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The top contenders for Afghanistan’s 2014 presidential elections all survived a preliminary disqualification round on Tuesday that eliminated 16 minor candidates for not meeting requirements, officials said.

Independent Elections Commission chief Ahmad Yousuf Nuristani said the disqualified candidates have 20 days to raise any objections to the commission. He added that 10 of the 26 candidates who registered by the Oct. 6 deadline made the cut.

Most of the eliminated candidates were barred because of improper documents and other violations, including dual nationalities and lack of university degrees, but the favorites all easily qualified for the vote.

Candidates had to declare tickets that included two vice presidents, and have at least 100,000 signatures that included ones from all 34 of Afghanistan’s provinces. “There are different reasons (for the disqualifications). Some of them had problems with documents, education levels, the number of registration signatures,” Nuristani said. “They now have 20 days to criticize and complain.”

All the candidates have tried to shape tickets that draw support from across an ethnically fractious political scene marked by patronage and alliances among the elite, including warlords and tribal elders who can marshal votes from their communities. The population of 31 million is roughly 42 percent Pashtun, 27 percent Tajik, 9 percent Hazara, and 9 percent Uzbek along with other, smaller factions. The Taliban are predominantly Pashtun.

The April 5 vote could determine the future course of Afghanistan and the level of foreign involvement here after 12 years of war. President Hamid Karzai is not entitled to run for a third consecutive term in elections, but is expected to back at least one of the candidates — his former foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul, despite the fact that his businessman brother Qayyum Karzai is also running for president. Both men are Pashtun.

Both men qualified for next year’s vote. Other top contenders who remain in the running include former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, who was the runner up to President Hamid Karzai in the 2009 elections and dropped out just ahead of a runoff vote following allegations of massive fraud in the first round.

Another is Ashraf Ghani, a Pashtun former finance minister who oversaw the transition of security from foreign forces to the Afghan army and police. Ghani ran and lost in the 2009 elections. Two former Afghan warlords who are sharing a ticket, one for president, the other for vice president, also qualified. They are Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayyaf, an influential Pashtun lawmaker and religious scholar, who is running for president along with former energy and water minister Ismail Khan, a Tajik.

Rahim Wardak, a longtime defense minister, also made the cut.

Patrick Quinn contributed to this report from Kabul.

Afghan presidential candidates finish registration

October 06, 2013

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — A slew of political heavyweights, along with the Afghan president’s brother and a number of former warlords, will take part in next year’s elections for the country’s top office in a critical vote that that could determine the future course of the country and the level of foreign involvement in Afghanistan after 12 years of war.

The candidacies ended weeks of speculation over who will aspire to replace President Hamid Karzai, who has essentially run the country since the Oct. 7, 2001 invasion that ousted the Taliban. Karzai is not entitled to run for a third consecutive term in the April 5 elections, but is expected to back at least one of the candidates — his former Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul, despite the fact that his businessman brother Qayyum Karzai is also running for president.

The contenders are a mix of Afghanistan’s past and current power players, including some warlords with a tainted history, a couple of technocrats and some complete political outsiders. All, however, come from Afghan elite that has to one degree or another shaped the country over the past 12 years.

By the end of the day and after a mad scramble by candidates and hundreds of supporters and heavily armed bodyguards, about 20 presidential candidates had registered for the first independent vote organized by Afghanistan without direct foreign assistance.

The registration came on the eve of the 12th anniversary of the invasion, which led to an insurgency that shows no signs of abatement and a war that has become largely forgotten in the United States and among its coalition allies, despite continued casualties suffered by their forces on the ground.

A bomb killed four U.S. soldiers in southern Afghanistan on Sunday, military and Afghan officials said, and they became the latest casualties in the conflict. The U.S.-led international military coalition had earlier said four of its service members were killed in the south, and a military official confirmed all were Americans killed by an “improvised explosive device.” The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

Their deaths bring the toll among foreign forces to 132 this year, of which 102 are from the United States. At least 2,146 members of the U.S. military have died in Afghanistan as a result of the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, according to an Associated Press count. They are part of a total of nearly 3,390 coalition forces that have died during the conflict.

The attack came as Afghan security forces take over the brunt of the fighting after the coalition handed over security responsibilities for the country earlier this summer. This year, an average of least 100 Afghan soldiers and police has died each week.

The insurgency has tried to take advantage of the withdrawal of foreign forces to regain territory around the country. There are currently about 87,000 coalition troops in Afghanistan, including around 52,000 Americans. That number is expected to be halved by February, with U.S. numbers going down to about 31,000.

The April 5 vote will help determine the success or failure of all those years of U.S.-led military and political intervention in the country. All the candidates have tried to shape tickets that attempt to unify an ethnically fractious political scene marked by patronage and alliances among the elite — a group that includes warlords and tribal elders who can marshal votes among the country’s various ethnic groups. The population of 31 million is roughly 42 percent Pashtun, 27 percent Tajik, 9 percent Hazara, and 9 percent Uzbek along with other, smaller factions. The Taliban are predominantly Pashtun.

Candidates declare tickets that include two vice presidents and will be reviewed by the Independent Electoral Commission before final approval on Nov. 11. To run, candidates must have at least 100,000 signatures from all 34 of Afghanistan’s provinces.

Billions of dollars in funds pledged to Afghanistan are tied to the government’s holding transparent and credible elections, a challenge in a country rife with patronage and corruption and a resilient Taliban insurgency. The Taliban have asked people not to vote and do not recognize the election process.

Top contenders include former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, who was the runner up to President Hamid Karzai in the 2009 elections and dropped out just ahead of a runoff vote following allegations of massive fraud in the first round.

Ashraf Ghani, a Pashtun former finance minister who oversaw the transition of security from foreign forces to the Afghan army and police. He weighed in with support from two of Afghanistan’s ethnic groups. His choices for vice president are Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, a former warlord who is thought to control the majority of the Uzbek vote and Sarwar Danish, a former justice minister who has the support of former Hazara warlord and vice president Mohammad Karim Khalili. Ghani ran and lost in the 2009 elections.

Two former Afghan warlords are sharing a ticket, one for president, the other for vice president. They are Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayyaf, an influential Pashtun lawmaker and religious scholar, who is running for president along with former energy and water minister Ismail Khan, a Tajik.

Rassoul, a Pashtun, is running with Ahmad Zia Massoud, the brother of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Northern Alliance commander killed in an al-Qaida suicide bombing two days before Sept. 11, 2001. Habiba Sarabi, a Hazara who was governor of Bamyan province and is one of five women vice presidential candidates, fills out the ticket.

Karzai’s brother is also running with Wahidullah Shahrani, an Uzbek who was minister of mines, and Abrahim Qasimi, who was a Hazara member of parliament.

Germany hands over military base to Afghans

October 06, 2013

BERLIN (AP) — Germany handed Afghanistan’s security forces control Sunday of a key military base in the country’s northern province of Kunduz, where German troops spent almost a decade as part of the international effort to combat Taliban insurgents.

The handover is part of the gradual pullout of Western forces due to be completed by the end of next year. The Kunduz base, which lies some 250 kilometers (155 miles) north of Kabul, shaped the German armed forces “like hardly any other place,” German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere said according to prepared remarks. Nowhere else since World War II have more German soldiers died in combat.

“(We) built, fought, cried and consoled, killed and fell here,” de Maiziere was quoted as saying. Some 20,000 German troops were deployed in Kunduz during a 10-year operation, and 20 of Germany’s 35 combat deaths in Afghanistan occurred in the province. Another 17 died of noncombat injuries, including seven who were killed in a 2002 helicopter crash in Kabul.

For many Germans, the base is synonymous with a 2009 NATO airstrike ordered by German forces that killed 91 Afghans and wounded 11, most of them civilians. De Maiziere made an indirect reference to the incident, which caused a political furor and the resignation of several senior German officials at the time.

“Kunduz was also the place where grave decisions were made, had to be made,” he said. “It is a place where there were many deaths — on all sides. Let us today remember all of these deaths together.” Germany, the third-largest international troop contributor in Afghanistan after the United States and Britain, plans to reduce its force levels in the country from 4,000 to about 800 by 2015. Those remaining will be stationed in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, responsible largely for training and support of Afghan troops.

The U.S. is expected to keep about 10,000 troops in Afghanistan as a residual force after 2014, but no final decision has been made.

Afghan politician defects to Taliban

September 20, 2013

A former Afghan senator and district governor has defected to the Taliban in the northern province of Sar-e-Pol, officials have told the BBC.

Qazi Abdul Hai served as a senator between 2004 and 2008 and was later made a district governor in Sar-e-Pol.

Correspondents say he is thought to be the highest-ranking civilian official to have joined the Taliban.

The move comes as foreign combat forces prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014 and ahead of elections next year.

Hai is believed to have defected to the Taliban along with two of his bodyguards on Tuesday.

As a tribal elder and former senator and official, Qazi Abdul Hai has some influence locally. But he doesn’t have a big following and it is unlikely that it would dramatically increase Taliban strength in the area. Nevertheless, this defection is symbolically significant.

Low-level defections to the Taliban, mostly by Afghan policemen, have happened in several parts of the country. But this is the first time a former official and politician of this status has defected.

But there is also a significant propaganda element for the Taliban. They have been promoting this as a success of their integration program and say that he switched sides after “realizing the reality” and “seeing the truth”.

Source: The Punch.

Wide-open Afghan presidential race kicks off

September 17, 2013

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghanistan’s presidential race kicked off Monday as election authorities began accepting the nominations of would-be candidates, the start of a wide-open race whose winner will oversee the final phases of the withdrawal of U.S.-led troops amid a relentless Taliban insurgency.

The first day of registration drew … no one. No major candidates are expected to submit their nominations until closer to the Oct. 6 deadline, part of a waiting game to see how the field shapes up. The election, set for April 5, will determine who succeeds incumbent President Hamid Karzai, who has in some form or shape led Afghanistan since the Taliban government was ousted in the American-led invasion in 2001. Karzai, who will have served two five-year terms, is barred from running for a third.

Candidates have until Oct. 6 to submit their names and meet election requirements, including depositing a fee of 1 million Afghanis ($18,000) and proving they have the backing of 100,000 people. At least 20 people have picked up information packages about running for president in recent days, but there were no submissions on Monday, said Sareer Ahmad Barmak, an election commissioner.

There are no clear favorites in the race, but speculation in recent days has focused on Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul. Rassoul is a former national security adviser with a medical degree who has tended to stay out of the limelight and could end up being a consensus candidate among some of the many political factions in this nation of 31 million.

Other potential candidates include: Abdullah Abdullah, an opposition leader who lost to Karzai in 2009; Ashraf Ghani, a well-known academic and former finance minister with a reputation as a technocrat who also lost the last election; Hanif Atmar, a former interior minister who has grown critical of Karzai; and Farooq Wardak, the education minister who has been involved in efforts to pursue peace talks with Taliban insurgents.

Some speculation also has focused on Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayyaf, an influential lawmaker with a long history as a jihadist and allegations of past links to Arab militants including Osama bin Laden. He would likely be the most controversial candidate, at least among Afghanistan’s foreign allies.

Afghanistan is a desperately poor, ethnically fractious country whose economy relies heavily on foreign assistance. Its politics are marked by patronage and alliances among the elite – a demographic that includes warlords and tribal elders who can marshal votes.

But those alliances are very fluid, and so-called political coalitions that have been set up in recent months have quickly experienced fissures. Even within ethnic groups – the population is roughly 42 percent Pashtun, 27 percent Tajik, 9 percent Hazara, and 9 percent Uzbek along with other, smaller factions – there are divisions that make it difficult to predict who will line up with whom.

Karzai, who has been accused of being unwilling to crack down on the pervasive corruption in his government, has said he would not endorse a candidate, but his presence is expected to loom large during the campaign.

Also looming are the Taliban, the militant Islamists who ruled the country from 1996-2001 before being overthrown by America after refusing to hand over bin Laden, whose al-Qaida terrorist network staged the Sept. 11 attacks. The Taliban insurgency has strengthened in recent years and seems primed to wreak more havoc as U.S.-led foreign troops finish withdrawing in late 2014, leaving Afghan troops fully in charge.

Whether the election can be held safely is a major concern, as is whether it can be held without fraud. The 2009 elections were marred by allegations of vote-rigging against Karzai’s camp. Thomas Ruttig, an expert with the Afghanistan Analysts Network, said there are already warning signs about how the vote will go April 5, including reports of “many more voter cards in circulation than voters in Afghanistan” and failures to make progress in peace talks with the Taliban.

At this stage, “one has to be doubtful about how reliable these elections will be,” he said.

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