"The long-term stay of any force, in any country, will create a
problem. The international community will not stay in Afghanistan
forever — they should not stay forever," former Foreign Minister
Zalmay Rassoul said in an interview this week.
"The Afghan people want a friendship with the United States, but at
the same time we need to make sure that Afghanistan will be a
long-term, sovereign friend of the United States. So I have no worry
about the future relation of Afghanistan and the United States, in
the framework of respect for our sovereignty," he said.
Rassoul, who stepped down from his post as Afghanistan's top
diplomat to run in the April 5 polls, is widely seen as the favored
candidate of President Hamid Karzai, who U.S. officials blame for
fueling tension with the West. Karzai has served two terms and
cannot run again.
The diplomat, a former top aide to Karzai who also served as
Karzai's national security adviser, led Afghan dealings with the
Obama administration as the two countries negotiated a partnership
agreement governing U.S.-Afghan ties as U.S. and foreign troops
steadily withdraw ahead of a year-end deadline.
Rassoul's role as chief interlocutor with the West suggests that he
might seek to smooth over ties with Washington, where lawmakers and
officials have grown increasingly frustrated as what they see as
erratic and provocative action by Karzai, who Western nations backed
as Afghanistan's first leader after the ouster of the Taliban
government in 2001.
In the latest of a long series of disagreements, U.S. military
officials were incensed by the Karzai government's recent decision
to release 65 detainees who the United States insisted were
dangerous Taliban militants.
Karzai bluntly rejected the criticism, saying judicial officials'
decision was of "no concern" to the United States.
Rassoul declined comment on whether his former boss should sign the
U.S.-Afghan bilateral security agreement (BSA), a counterpart to
that first partnership deal, which would authorize a modest U.S.
force to stay beyond 2014 to train Afghan troops and go after al
Qaeda. The Obama administration had expected Karzai to finalize the
BSA following its endorsement by tribal elders late last year.
"President Karzai is the elected president of Afghanistan ... so the
decision is up to him," Rassoul said.
Karzai has insisted that the United States must first jump-start
peace talks with the Taliban and end all raids and strikes on Afghan
homes before he signs the deal.
The uncertainty about the BSA has fueled anxiety about the future,
added to strains on the economy, and raised fears of renewed civil
[to top of second column]
"GOOD FOR AFGHANISTAN"
Rassoul said that if he were elected president he would sign the
deal, with the goal of securing advice, funding and military gear
for Afghan forces.
"What I can say is that the BSA, the way it was prepared, is good
for Afghanistan," he said.
While foreign and Afghan troops have pushed the Taliban out of many
areas of their southern heartland, concerns are growing about
whether Afghan forces can keep the still-potent insurgency at bay as
the West goes home.
A relative of former Afghan King Amanullah Khan, Rassoul grew up in
Afghanistan but lived in Europe for much of his adult life. He
studied medicine in France, specializing in kidney transplants, and
helped organize Afghan expatriates against the 1980s Soviet
occupation and the Taliban government of the 1990s.
Rassoul will face off against a number of formidable competitors in
the polls, including Karzai's older brother Qayum, another former
foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, and a former finance minister,
The elections are widely expected to go to a second round. While the
electoral commission says it has taken steps to avoid the widespread
allegations of fraud in the last presidential polls in 2009,
skepticism remains about whether the board remains truly independent
of the current leadership and whether the polls will be as credible
Despite potentially pivotal support from Karzai, Rassoul may
struggle to win the support of ordinary Afghans, especially among
the Pashtun community, the biggest ethnic group, despite the fact
that his family hails from the Pashtun south.
In an incident that may symbolize that challenge, he answered
questions asked in the Pashto language during a recent presidential
debate in Dari, a language spoken in northern Afghanistan and in
In a move he hoped would break "a taboo" in conservative
Afghanistan, Rassoul chose a female former governor as one of his
running mates. His other running mate is the brother of the late
mujahideen leader, the famed Ahmad Shah Massoud.
(Editing by Robert Birsel)
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