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The Independent/UK

Secret Deal to Keep Karzai in Power

Afghan President's alliance with rival designed to prevent civil war after election

Jerome Starkey in Kabul

Afghan president Hamid Karzai delivers a speech during a campaign event. (AFP/Getty)

With less than two weeks to go until national
elections, the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, is trying to cut a
secret deal with one of his rivals to knock out his leading contender
and ensure a decisive victory to avoid the chaos that a tight result
might unleash.

Afghanistan's second
democratic polls threaten to split the country along sectarian lines.
That would risk undermining US and British-led peace efforts which are
already under pressure from a resurgent Taliban.

Karzai and his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, hail from different
ethnic groups and different regions. If neither wins outright in round
one on 20 August, officials fear Afghanistan could be engulfed by
violence reminiscent of the civil war of the 1990s.

"The whole country is armed. Everybody has
weapons. You have to keep everyone happy," an Afghan analyst said. Mr
Abdullah's campaign staff have threatened to hold demonstrations should
Mr Karzai win, insisting that he could only do so fraudulently.

Abdullah's supporters, who are largely Tajik, have warned of
Iranian-style protests, but "with Kalashnikovs", should the President
win a second term. Although Mr Karzai, a Pashtun, is still the
favourite, his supporters fear that a third candidate, Ashraf Ghani,
could split the Pashtun vote, depriving the President of the 51 per
cent share he needs to win, and opening the door to Mr Abdullah.

details emerged of how the President was trying to join forces with Mr
Ghani to unite the Pashtun vote and knock Mr Abdullah out of the race.
Officials said the President had offered Mr Ghani a job as chief
executive - a new post described as similar to prime minister. "If
Ghani agrees to the terms, Karzai will dump his team and move forward,
with Karzai as President and Ghani as chief executive," a campaign
official told The Independent last night.

Holbrooke, the US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Karl
Eikenberry, the US ambassador, are understood to have discussed the
proposal with Mr Ghani late last month. "It makes sense," a policy
analyst with close links to the US administration said. "Holbrooke
likes Ghani, and he has come round to the fact that Karzai will
probably win."

The idea of a chief executive
was hatched in Washington as a way of handing the responsibility of
running the government to a skilled technocrat. Mr Ghani has an
impressive pedigree as a former university professor and finance
minister. Two years ago, he was a contender to head the World Bank.
What he lacks - and what might make the deal attractive to him - is the
grassroots support that Mr Karzai and Mr Abdullah enjoy.

close to the President's inner circle confirmed that they had made an
offer to Mr Ghani two weeks ago and the President's brother, Qayum
Karzai, had made the first approach. His argument was that Mr Ghani
couldn't win "and even if he did, he couldn't hold on to power".

Karzai it's logical," said a businessman with friends in the
President's team. "He doesn't want to divide the Pashtun vote, and if
it goes to a second round he's going to lose."

embassy officials have denied any involvement in back-room deals.
Foreign diplomats are desperate to avoid being seen to be influencing
the election but the international community is equally keen to avoid
bloodshed when the results are announced.

night, Mr Ghani's staff said he was campaigning as usual and had no
plans to pull out of the race. They said the Mr Karzai's offer was
proof of their own candidate's strength.

President, who has been in power since US-led troops overthrew the
Taliban regime in 2001, has been criticised for his lack of control
outside of the capital, the slow pace of development and endemic
government corruption, but many people admire him for weaving friends
and enemies together. "He has always played a game with the Northern
Alliance, the Hazaras and the warlords," said the Afghan analyst.
"Giving people positions and promises, he was very clever keeping
everyone together."

During this election
campaign, Mr Karzai has made deals with tribal leaders and local
strongmen, promising them positions and patronage in exchange for the
votes they control. International officials believe as many as 20
cabinet positions have already been pledged. It is unclear what would
happen to these deals if Mr Ghani came on board. However, some
observers believe the deal could signal the emergence of a unity
government. "Everyone realises that winner takes all won't work," said

Violence, already at its worst since the
Taliban were ousted after the September 11 attacks, has increased in
the run-up to the poll. Yesterday brought news of a bomb attack on a
family heading to a wedding in Garmsir, in Helmand province. Five
people were reported killed. In a separate attack, in Naad Ali, five
policemen died when a bomb exploded near their vehicle.

western Afghanistan, a roadside bomb killed four US Marines, bringing
the death toll of Western troops for the first week of August to at
least 15.

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