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U.S. Hand Seen in Afghan Election

Some candidates say the embassy pressured them not to run against President Karzai. American officials deny the accusations.

September 23, 2004|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

KABUL, Afghanistan — Mohammed Mohaqiq says he was getting ready to make his run for the Afghan presidency when U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad dropped by his campaign office and proposed a deal.

"He told me to drop out of the elections, but not in a way to put pressure," Mohaqiq said. "It was like a request."

After the hourlong meeting last month, the ethnic Hazara warlord said in an interview Tuesday, he wasn't satisfied with the rewards offered for quitting, which he did not detail. Mohaqiq was still determined to run for president -- though, he said, the U.S. ambassador wouldn't give up trying to elbow him out of the race.

"He left, and then called my most loyal men, and the most educated people in my party or campaign, to the presidential palace and told them to make me -- or request me -- to resign the nomination. And he told my men to ask me what I need in return."

Mohaqiq, who is running in the Oct. 9 election, is one of several candidates who maintain that the U.S. ambassador and his aides are pushing behind the scenes to ensure a convincing victory by the pro-American incumbent, President Hamid Karzai. The Americans deny doing so.

"It is not only me," Mohaqiq said. "They have been doing the same thing with all candidates. That is why all people think that not only Khalilzad is like this, but the whole U.S. government is the same. They all want Karzai -- and this election is just a show."

The charges were repeated by several other candidates and their senior campaign staff in interviews here. They reflected anger over what many Afghans see as foreign interference that could undermine the shaky foundations of a democracy the U.S. promised to build.

"This doesn't suit the representative of a nation that has helped us in the past," said Sayed Mustafa Sadat Ophyani, campaign manager for Younis Qanooni, Karzai's leading rival. "You have seen Afghanistan suffering for 25 years, from the Russians, then the Taliban. Why is the U.S. government now looking to make people of Afghanistan accept whatever the U.S. government says?"

Qanooni said he and 13 other presidential candidates planned to meet today in Kabul, the capital, to air complaints about Khalilzad's interference.

In a statement released this week, Khalilzad denied the allegations that he and his staff were meddling in the election.

"U.S. Embassy officials regularly keep in touch with all presidential candidates, and we listen to their ideas and proposals," he said in an e-mailed response from New York, where he was attending the opening of the U.N. General Assembly.

"Officials from the U.S. mission support the elections process, not individuals," the statement added. "No U.S. official can or will endorse or campaign on behalf of any individual presidential candidate."

Khalilzad also said he "has never asked a candidate to withdraw -- this is a decision for each candidate to make for him or herself."

Since coming to power after the American-led invasion that overthrew the Taliban in 2001, the interim Afghan government largely has been beholden to the United States for its survival. The U.S. has deployed about 18,000 troops and is spending about $1 billion a year on reconstruction in the Central Asian nation. Karzai depends on the Americans for his safety: DynCorp, a Virginia-based firm, has provided his bodyguards since November 2002 under a contract with the State Department.

Khalilzad has been nicknamed "the Viceroy" because the influence he wields over the Afghan government reminds some Afghans of the excesses of British colonialism. Some of Karzai's rivals think that the ambassador has taken on a new role: presidential campaign manager.

This is not the first time Khalilzad has been accused of meddling in Afghan politics. Delegates to gatherings that named Karzai interim president in 2002 and ratified Afghanistan's new Constitution last December also accused the ambassador of interfering, even of paying delegates for their support. Khalilzad denies the claims.

The latest allegations are perhaps more serious because the Bush administration is portraying Afghanistan's presidential election as a democratic victory for the country's people, who suffered under more than two decades of strife. President Bush has touted bringing Afghan democracy as a foreign policy success in his election campaign.

There are 18 candidates in the Afghan election. Such a divided field is expected to favor Karzai, whom Afghans hear and see frequently on state-controlled radio and television.

The president, who is usually holed up in his heavily fortified palace because of threats to his life, has made only one campaign trip outside Kabul since the election campaign began Sept. 7. That trip last Thursday was aborted when a rocket missed the U.S. military helicopter in which he was traveling.

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