President Ashraf Ghani on Sunday formally registered as a candidate for Afghanistan’s delayed presidential election, setting up a rematch with Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah in the July ballot.
Ghani, who is seeking a second term, was elected in a fraud-tainted poll in 2014 that was only resolved in a US-brokered power-sharing deal with Abdullah.
De facto prime minister Abdullah - Ghani’s partner in the fragile unity government - is among at least 14 other candidates who have joined the race.
The president has replaced his current first vice president, Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, with Amrullah Saleh, an ethnic Tajik and a staunch opponent of the Taliban, for his 2019 ticket.
Ghani, an ethnic Pashtun, needs to expand his support beyond Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group and build alliances with other ethnicities.
“A strong government can solve the current crisis. The crisis this country has faced in the past 40 years has been because of lack of a strong government,” Ghani said.
But his presidency has been marred by growing militant violence, record civilian casualties, political infighting, deepening ethnic divisions and fading hopes for peace.
The election slated for July 20 comes after President Donald Trump signaled he would bring home half of the 14,000 US troops in Afghanistan as he grows impatient over America’s longest-ever war.
Washington is stepping up efforts for a peace deal that could pave the way for the Taliban’s participation in the next government, with the US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad visiting regional powers this month after meeting Taliban representatives last month in Abu Dhabi.
But many Afghans are worried a US pull-out could destabilize the Kabul government and ultimately spark another bloody civil war.
There are also concerns the presidential election, which will now be held in the middle of the Taliban’s traditional fighting season, could unleash a wave of deadly violence as militants seek to disrupt the vote.