Musadeq Sadeq, Associated Press
KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Thursday that it might be better to hold presidential elections a year early to lessen the strain that could be caused by foreign combat troops leaving Afghanistan at the same time he ends more than a decade as leader of a nation at war.
Karzai, who assumed the helm of the country shortly after the U.S. invasion that ousted the Taliban rulers, has been the face of a yearslong international drive to transform the country and end the insurgency. Recently, however, his relations with the United States and other international partners have become heavily strained by his anti-Western verbal assaults and mercurial approach to policymaking.
The next presidential elections are scheduled for 2014 and the majority of NATO combat forces will leave Afghanistan by the end of that same year. At that time, Karzai will be at the end of his second five-year term and the constitution bars him from running for a third term.
The prospect of an early departure for the controversial leader would please Afghans and others who are ready for a fresh start because they don't think Karzai has not done enough to battle corruption or improve daily life in the impoverished country.
Electing a new leader in 2013 also would clear the slate as the international community looks for a smooth transfer of power before most of the foreign troops go home or move into support roles.
"I have been talking about this for a few months now," Karzai said during a press conference with visiting NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. "With all the changes that are taking place — with the complete return of international forces to their homes from Afghanistan and the holding of the presidential election at the same time — whether that will be an agenda that we can handle at the same time."
Karzai said no final decision has been made about early elections and that such a decision would take a long time.
He said he had been thinking and consulting for some time about finding a way to avoid holding the election and the troop pullout simultaneously.
Karzai has said he wants Afghan forces to be in charge of protecting and defending the nation by the end of 2014, the same time the international military coalition has decided that it would end its combat mission and move to a support role.
Karzai already has said that he would be happy if the transition could be accomplished sooner, but either way is fine.
"Should we allow the transition process to complete itself in 2014 and bring the presidential elections one year earlier to 2013?" he asked, rhetorically.
"This is a question that I've had and I've raised it in my inner circle," Karzai said. "I've not had a final decision yet, but it will not be soon."
Karzai's term expires in May 2014 and the constitution says elections must be held 30 to 60 days before an incumbent leaves office.
An official with Afghanistan's election commission, which is in charge of conducting the poll, said preparations were still under way for the balloting in March 2014 and no one had approached the commission about organizing an earlier vote.
"My understanding is that early elections can happen if something happens to the president or if the president resigns," said Zekria Barakzai, deputy chief electoral officer. In such a case, the commission would have three months to organize elections, he added.
Wahid Muzhda, a Kabul-based political analyst, said holding elections while NATO troops are leaving would be difficult because of concerns that attacks would spike during the vote.