President Karzai is stuck between a rock and a hard place. He is constitutionally obligated to leave his post by May 21, but the Afghan elections had been scheduled for August 21. His critics howled about him trying to hang onto power. So he has called the election for April 21. His critics then howled that his motivation was to catch his opponents off-guard and to get the leading edge on the campaign trail.
Damned if he did, damned it he didn't. But Karzai is pretty thoroughly damned these days; everything he does is now regarded as suspicious, desperate or incompetent.
Potential candidates, though, have already been getting their kit ready for the campaign. One of the top contenders is Ali Ahmad Jalali.
Jalali is a former colonel in the Afghan army, currently living in Washington where he is a professor at the National Defense University. Although Jalali has lived outside of Afghanistan for many years, he did return home after the fall of the Taliban and took the job as interior minister in January 2003. It was his first opportunity for a public profile.
"I have support(ed) him since he was our (interior) minister," says student Safiullah Ahmadi. "Mr. Jalali was the first minister who took the initiative to (commit to) Afghan constitution law."
It was rumored (thought never confirmed) that a falling out with President Karzai was the main reason Jalali resigned his post, in the fall of 2005. "When he resigned then that was the worst moment for Afghanistan," says Ahmadi.
Jalali is an in-demand analyst of military operations in Afghanistan; he has criticized US engagement of local chiefs and strongmen in the war, saying it is counterproductive and delivering more power to warlords. He is an outspoken critic of corruption, nepotism, and the lack of capacity that cripples Afghanistan, and he has written extensively of the need for rule of law, infrastructure, agricultural reform and capacity building.
Two out of three Afghans are under the age of 25. This is good for Jalali as his support is strong among young people, who see him as a corruption buster, a guy who will not be beholden to vested interests. He is also viewed as a modernizer, unwilling to hold onto outdated customs and culture.
Nazia Jaan is a young female student in Kabul who set up a Facebook group for Jalali supporters. "My sixth sense is telling me that he is going to do something for my country," she says. "I am showing support because in (the) real world we (meaning Afghan girls) can't come on the streets and can not volunteer for a presidential candidate."
The support from educated young people also means there are less likely to be votes purely along ethnic lines. Jalali has been described as "a Pashtunized Hazara from his father's side of the family and a Tajik from his mothers side." Mohammad Babur, a young Tajik activist, sees Mr Jalali as essentially Pashtun, but supports him, though he says that "Pashtuns always believe that the president must be a Pashtun otherwise they will be against the government. (But) Jalali would be a good choice; he is Pashtun but not that conservative and nationalist."
Another supporter, Hanan Habibzai, thinks that the largely Pashtun Taliban will make Jalali's candidacy difficult. "The Taliban emerged stronger this year and the election process would be increasingly a cause of bloodshed and instability," he says. "In the last five years many people saw deaths of their relatives and sweethearts (as a) result of the last election. So winning mind and heart of the angry majority is too hard."
Like his close competitor, Dr Ashraf Ghani, Jalali has strong supporters and a solid reputation in the international community. He is viewed as one of the front-runners in a race that's going to get down and dirty before the polls close.
And despite the accusations that are flying about President Karzai calling an early poll, for some it just can't come soon enough.
"We are tired of all this," says Nazia Jaan . "You can't believe how hard (it) is it to live in such conditions. Mr. Jalali looks like the only hope to me."
Read this profile of Jalali's competitor, Dr. Ashraf Ghani.
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