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Abdullah Sees Surprise Win Making Him Afghanistan President

POSTED MONDAY MAR. 31, 2014 02:30PM EST

MAZAR-E-SHARIF, Afghanistan — Abdullah Abdullah, who finished second in Afghanistan's 2009 presidential election, is confident he can win enough ballots on April 5 to avoid a runoff and sign a deal "within a month" to keep U.S. troops in the country.

"God willing, we will have an election which will purely reflect the outcome of Afghans votes and it won't go to the second round," Abdullah, 53, said in an interview on March 28 during a campaign stop in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif when asked about his chances. "I'm not that much concerned about other candidates."

Abdullah is one of several leading contenders to succeed President Hamid Karzai, who has refused to sign an agreement to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond this year. The Taliban, which lost power after the U.S. invasion in 2001, has sought to disrupt the vote with attacks on police outposts, election offices and establishments frequented by foreigners.

A surprise first-round victory followed by the security agreement would pave the way for Asia's poorest country to receive billions of dollars to pay government salaries and fight militants. Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, the head of U.S.-led forces in the country, said this month that the elections are likely headed for a runoff, and a new president probably wouldn't take office until August.

Abdullah, who served as Karzai's foreign minister for four years, withdrew in 2009 from a runoff with his former boss, saying it wouldn't produce a clean vote. Abdullah said he has "hope" that this election will be cleaner than the 2009 election, even as Taliban attacks curtail monitoring activities.

Afghanistan needs the U.S. and international community to provide support, both financially and with security, Abdullah said. President Barack Obama said Feb. 25 that he had asked the Pentagon to prepare plans for withdrawal of all forces by December, while waiting to see if the next Afghan leader would sign the Bilateral Security Agreement.

The number of international troops in Afghanistan should be enough to "assert their presence and provide support," Abdullah said. "It's in the interest of Afghanistan."

At the same time, he called for closer relations with neighboring countries and said Afghanistan's foreign policy should balance the concerns of Russia, China and the United States. While cross-border attacks have hurt relations with Pakistan, it's still an important partner for Afghanistan, he said.

"Pakistan understands Pakistani Taliban are threatening their own security, and Afghan Taliban are also threatening their security and ours," Abdullah said.

Karzai blamed Pakistan for a March 20 attack on Kabul's Serena Hotel that killed nine people. In a phone call two days ago with Secretary of State John Kerry, Karzai questioned whether the U.S. has the ability or will to influence countries that "support terrorism," a reference to Pakistan.

The Taliban are boycotting the elections and have vowed to disrupt the polls. Abdul Jabar Haqbeen, governor of northern Sar-e Pol province, said the group Sunday night abducted a candidate who is running for a seat in the provincial council along with his seven associates. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed did not answer calls to his mobile phone.

The guerrilla group attacked the Election Commission headquarters in Kabul two days ago, adding to violence that killed or injured more than 8,000 civilians in 2013, a 14 percent increase from the previous year, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.

The people of Afghanistan "just desire peace," Abdullah said in the interview, adding that he'd continue talks with the Taliban to reach a settlement.

Abdullah is half Pashtun and half Tajik. Pashtuns account for 42 percent of Afghanistan's 31 million people, while Tajiks make up 27 percent, according to the CIA World Factbook. Uzbeks and Hazaras both account for 9 percent and other groups comprise the rest, it says.

Last week in Mazar-e-Sharif, an area where Pashtuns are a minority, tens of thousands of people came to hear Abdullah's speech. Some supporters celebrated the political rally by dancing in the crowd.

"Dr. Abdullah has grown up among people and he can better understand people's sorrow, said Jawid Khaliqi, 27, a book seller in the city, in an interview. ''Other candidates grew up in foreign countries and will never understand our needs.''

Abdullah was a close aide of Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Masood, a Tajik who is seen by many Afghans as a national hero. They fought together against Soviet occupiers in the 1980s and the Taliban in the 1990s. Suicide bombers killed Masood two days before the Sept. 11 attacks that led to the U.S. invasion.

Abdullah's top opponents are Pashtuns who have also had roles in Karzai cabinets: Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, a former finance minister who holds a doctorate degree in cultural anthropology from Columbia University in New York, and Zalmai Rassoul, an ex-foreign minister who received an endorsement from Karzai's brother.

Either Abdullah or Ghani will probably become Afghanistan's next president, according to Faizullah Jalal, a lecturer at Kabul University.

"It is hard to say which one of these two most popular politicians will win," he said. "But it's simple to say one of them will win unless there is fraud."

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In Afghanistan's presidential race, the top challenger to President Karzai is former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah

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