KABUL, Afghanistan – The posters are printed. The rallies are organized. A televised debate is planned.
Campaign season for Afghanistans presidential election kicks off today, and the stakes are high for the 11 candidates vying to succeed President Hamid Karzai and oversee the final chapter in a NATO-led combat mission.
The April 5 vote is a pivotal moment in Afghanistans history, its outcome seen as make-or-break for the countrys future and key to the level of foreign involvement here after nearly 13 years of war. Billions of dollars in funds are tied to the governments holding a free and fair election – the first independent vote organized by Afghanistan without direct foreign assistance.
Amid a surge in violence from the Taliban ahead of the NATO combat troop withdrawal at the end of the year, the poll also will be a crucial test of whether Afghanistan can ensure a stable transition. And the West will be watching the vote as means of gauging the success of its efforts to foster democracy and bolster security over the past 12 years.
If the result is so contested that the new government lacks all legitimacy and authority, if the election is so manifestly rigged and corrupt that it destroys the willingness of the U.S. even more than is happening already to go on funding Afghanistan, then indeed you can see the setup that we have created going to pieces, said Anatol Lieven, a professor in the War Studies Department at Kings College in Britain.
A withdrawal of U.S. funding and support would put the future president in a compromised position, struggling to hold together the armed forces while staving off an emboldened Taliban.
Karzais refusal to sign a security agreement allowing some American troops to remain here after 2014 has thrown a wrench into U.S.-Afghan relations and put the issue front and center in the campaign. The prospect of having to withdraw all American troops has U.S. officials worried about stability.
Abdullah Abdullah is the only candidate to publicly support the deal. The former foreign minister was the runner-up to Karzai in the 2009 elections and dropped out just ahead of a runoff vote following allegations of massive fraud in the first round.
Two members of his campaign were shot and killed as they left their office Saturday evening in the western province of Herat, according to campaign spokesman Fazal Sangcharaki.
Violence hampers Thailand elections
Thailand braced for tense nationwide elections, a day after gunbattles broke out at a busy Bangkok intersection between government supporters and protesters trying to derail the polls. Polls opened today with early indications that dozens of polling stations in Bangkok would not open because of protesters blocking the delivery of ballots.
At least seven people were wounded in Saturdays clashes, including an American photojournalist who was grazed by a bullet in the leg.
Protesters say they plan to fill the streets of the Thai capital to prevent voters from reaching polling stations.
Syrian forces kill 23 in airstrikes
Syrian military helicopters dropped barrels packed with explosives in the governments latest air raids on rebel-held areas of the northern city of Aleppo on Saturday, killing at least 23 people including a family trapped in a burning car, activists said.
In Lebanon, a car bomb blew up near a gas station in a Shiite town, killing at least three in the latest attack linked to the war in Syria.
Footage on al-Manar television, associated with the Shiite group Hezbollah, showed a bright orange blaze as black silhouettes of people ran by the gas station in the northeastern town of Hermel that lies near the Syrian border. Blasts could be heard in the background.
It was the latest in a series of attacks targeting Lebanons Shiite community, as Syrias violence causes neighboring Lebanons sectarian tensions to escalate into outright violence.
Deadly month in Iraq
The United Nations said Saturday that at least 733 Iraqis were killed during violence in January, even when leaving out casualties from an embattled western province.
The figures issued Saturday by the U.N.s mission to Iraq show 618 civilians and 115 members of the security forces were killed in January.
Also, the U.N. said at least 1,229 Iraqis were wounded in attacks last month.
UN chief pushes for Syrian peace talks
The United Nations secretary-general pressed the U.S. and Russia to help ensure that peace talks aimed at stemming Syrias civil war can soon resume, while Russias foreign minister said Saturday that it was very difficult to push Syrian President Bashar Assads government to make concessions.
A week of peace talks ended in Geneva on Friday with no concrete progress and no immediate commitment from Assads envoys to return on Feb. 10 for more meetings as suggested by mediator Lakhdar Brahimi.