Game of thrones — Afghan leadership vacuum raises summit questions

KABUL: Who, if anyone, will represent Afghanistan at next month’s NATO summit is becoming an increasingly pressing and awkward question for the alliance, as it seeks to withdraw most of its troops and bring a long and deadly engagement closer to completion.
Afghanistan’s two presidential candidates remain at loggerheads, unable to agree who won an election the West hoped would signal a smooth transition of power and confirm Kabul’s readiness to take over the running of the war-torn nation.
A day before the new leader was due to be sworn in at the presidential palace in the Afghan capital, and four months after the first round of voting, the incumbent, Hamid Karzai, remains in place. Diplomats say that he could be invited, or pick who represents the country, at Celtic Manor in Wales on Sept. 4-5.
The prospect of Karzai’s participation raises technical problems - the constitution deems his term is already complete.
It also risks upsetting the United States, with whom Karzai has had a fraught relationship, and complicating the signing of two agreements that would allow the United States and NATO to keep some soldiers in Afghanistan for training and counter-insurgency operations.
Without the pacts, which both presidential candidates have said they would sign but Karzai rejects, all foreign troops must leave by the end of the year, just as the hardline Islamist Taliban insurgency ups attacks on civilian and military targets.
“They (NATO) don’t want him (Karzai) to spoil the party,” said one diplomat, who asked not to be identified.
Not only are civilian casualties from Taliban attacks at their highest since US.-led forces overthrew the movement in 2001, but foreign aid is dwindling and the economy is suffering.
Those circumstances make a swift resolution to the political crisis pressing, but there is little sign of compromise between Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank official, and Abdullah Abdullah, a former Afghan foreign minister.
With the country carrying out a complete recount of some eight million ballots cast during the run-off vote in June, and amid allegations by Abdullah of widespread fraud, the formation of a proposed unity government could drag on for months.
“We really hope that the election is wrapped up by then (the NATO summit) ... it will be a huge concern for us and the international community if this drags on,” said Tahir Zaheer, a spokesman for Ghani, the winner of the run-off presidential vote according to a preliminary count.
“It is for the next president to participate, but if we are invited and the election result is still unclear, we will not go because it will be embarrassing.”
Abdullah favours sending both candidates, or their envoys, to represent Afghanistan at the summit.

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