Ghani launches bid for second term

Former Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (center) alongside his two vice presidential candidates Fazil Hadi Wazeen and Qazi Hafizulrahman Naqi, speaks to the media after arriving to register as a candidate for the presidential election at Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission (IEC) in Kabul. — Reuters

KABUL — Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani on Sunday entered the 2019 presidential race after forging an alliance with a staunch critic to challenge his former governing partners at a time when the Taliban has shut him out of talks to end more than 17 years of war.

Ghani, 69, is seeking a second term amid the war with the hardline Islamic militants and ongoing peace talks between the United States and the Taliban, in which his government complains it has been sidelined.

On Sunday Ghani registered as a presidential candidate for the July election, facing competition from his one-time officials who have formed new alliances.

Independent analysts said Afghanistan’s political landscape has been thrown into turmoil by the nominations and shifting loyalties.

A day earlier former warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar announced he was running for president, with the Afghanistan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who currently holds a power-sharing agreement with Ghani, formally entering the race on Sunday morning.

In a televised announcement, President Ghani, accompanied by his wife and political allies, listed his National Unity government’s achievements during the five-year term, including his consistent offer to hold unconditional peace talks with the Taliban.

“I started the peace initiative and our team will bring stable and long-lasting peace to the country,” he said, adding that if the Taliban consider themselves Afghans they “should come and talk to us”.

Ghani’s critics say the previous presidential election in 2014 was fraught with irregularities, but the American government backed the Western-educated leader to rule the country while Washington wound down the US military presence in favor of an advisory role to Afghan forces in the war.

Last year Washington appointed Afghan-born diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad to start direct peace talks with the Taliban.

Khalilzad has met Taliban leaders at least three times but disagreement over the agenda and the Taliban’s refusal to meet representatives from Ghani’s government has stalled the talks in recent weeks.

“Ghani could have made a dignified exit from politics and committed himself to the peace process, but instead he has formed an alliance with his main opponent to secure a second term,” said one Western diplomat in Kabul, asking to remain anonymous.

On Saturday Interior Minister Amrullah Saleh stepped down from his position to join the Ghani’s team as a vice presidential candidate. Ghani, an ethnic Pashtun, had appointed Saleh, once seen as a significant rival, in an effort to neutralize his political opponents and shore up support from Afghanistan’s ethnic Tajiks, among whom Saleh commands strong backing. — Reuters