KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan’s main presidential candidates have held a television debate two months before polls that Western allies hope will consolidate stability as their forces prepare to leave after nearly 13 years of war.
Five candidates agreed on a range of subjects from cleaning up government to rights for women and all backed a security deal with the United States which would keep a contingent of U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
President Hamid Karzai’s refusal to sign the deal is sapping already scant support for the war in Washington, which has halved aid for civilian assistance in the 2014 fiscal year.
Following are some details about and policies of the five candidates who took part in the Tuesday debate on Tolo TV, and one who did not.
The U.S. trained anthropologist returned to Afghanistan after the Taliban were ousted and held various posts including finance minister. In the last presidential election, in 2009, he won about four percent of the vote.
In the debate, Ghani was among the strongest backers of the proposed security pact with the United States: “Funding of Afghan security forces cannot take place without the assistance of the international community.”
On women’s rights, Ghani said efforts should be made to involve family heads and clerics in combating violence against women and legislation should safeguard hard-won rights.
Ghani, an ethnic Pashtun, Afghanistan’s biggest ethnic group, has defended his decision to pick ethnic Uzbek ex-warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum as a running mate.
“The ticket is a realistic balance between forces that have been produced in the last 30 years and have a base in this society,” Ghani told Reuters earlier.
Ghani has said he plans to focus on the young: “The generation that has come of age in the last 13 years and does not bear the scars of war and conflict.”
The former foreign minister has been one of Karzai’s closest confidants and is seen as one of two candidates most likely to secure Karzai’s backing, although Karzai, who has a brother running, has said he would remain neutral.
Speaking in Dari, a dialect of Farsi spoken in Afghanistan, Rassoul, an ethnic Pashtun, said he was committed to pressing ahead with a peace process but perpetrators of crimes, including war crimes, should be punished.
“Those who burn down our schools, mosques and kill our innocent people and behead our soldiers are the enemies of this soil and we will firmly fight against them.”
Rassoul said there should be more women in the workforce and in government. Rassoul was educated in France and is fluent in French, English and Italian.
A former ophthalmologist turned fighter of Soviet forces in the 1980s, Abdullah dropped out of a run-off against Karzai in the 2009 election citing fraud.
“The elections must be transparent and free of fraud in order for the next government to be able to tackle corruption,” Abdullah said.
An adviser to the late guerrilla leader Ahmad Shah Masood, Abdullah was foreign minister until his abrupt dismissal in 2006. He spoke out strongly in support of rights for women and said he favored peace with the Taliban but not at any cost.
Abdullah, whose base of support is in the ethnic Tajik community, said the next administration would need to differentiate between those fighting injustice committed by the current administration and insurgents attacking the innocent.
Qayum Karzai, the president’s older brother, said a political solution to the insurgency and rooting out corruption would be his priorities. He said a distinction had to be made between Taliban who were ordinary folk, like farmers and teachers, and those based outside the country.
“Among them are people who have no place in our society because they are very extremist and I think it will take a long time for them to lay down their weapons.”
He said U.S. troops should stay beyond this year: “Afghan forces are not able to maintain security on their own.”
Qayum Karzai is widely believed to have the president’s tacit support, despite a history of feuds, and Qayum has said he would offer his brother a post.
“Afghanistan is particularly in need of senior people like the president,” he told Reuters earlier.
An ethnic Pashtun former guerrilla commander and a former defense minister, Abdul Rahim Wardak, appeared the least confident of the candidates but was decisive when it came to the Taliban.
“They are those Taliban who are ideologically very radical and there are those who are directly for the service of foreign interests. We will never make peace with those Taliban who endanger our 10-year achievement and our constitution and continue ties with terrorist organizations.”
Most Afghans say Pakistan backs the Taliban. Pakistan denies that.
Wardak vowed firm action against irregular militia forces which he said jeopardize security and he spoke about improving rights and democracy.
Wardak says his eight years as defense minister make him an ideal candidate.
“I have an achievement ... the creation of Afghan army from scratch,” he told Reuters earlier.
Sayyaf, a feared and revered Pashtun ex-warlord who fought the Soviet occupation, was the only main candidate who did not take part in the debate.
One of the few hardline Islamist commanders to oppose the Taliban, Sayyaf told Reuters in October peace could be reached with the Taliban if they renounced outside influence.
“If they come out from the shadow of others it will be so easy to solve,” he said.
The white-bearded Sayyaf, who is in his sixties, presents himself as a voice of wisdom and a bridge between warring factions, but his appeal is limited with women.
Reporting by Hamid Shalizi and Jessica Donati; Editing by Robert Birsel