Top opponent suspends campaign to unseat Afghan President

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An Afghan politician once seen as a top contender to stop President Ashraf Ghani winning a second term suspended his campaign on Thursday amid worsening violence and problems on his team.

Hanif Atmar, the former national security advisor to Ghani, had hoped to beat his former boss in elections set for September 28.

Official campaign season started on July 28 but was immediately beset by deadly violence, when Ghani’s running mate Amrullah Saleh was targeted in an attack in Kabul that killed at least 20 people.

Atmar highlighted the violence in his decision to suspend his campaign, and also attacked Ghani for using his presidential bully pulpit to an unfair and “illegal” advantage.

“Threats against the election process have increased with each passing day,” Atmar said.

“This is not only threatening the election teams and their campaigns, but also endangers the lives of millions of Afghans who participle in the election.”

Atmar’s campaign was also beset by rumors of an internal rift with one of his running mates.

With Atmar’s at least temporary departure, only Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah remains as a serious opponent.

The election race is off to a lackluster start and many observers think the poll will be postponed again -- it has already been pushed back twice this year -- to create space for a peace deal to be finalized between the US and the Taliban.

Of the 18 candidates running, many have not bothered launching their campaigns and at least one has already abandoned the race completely.

Atmar cited the need to focus on peace as another reason he paused his campaign.

A possible deal between the US and the Taliban is widely viewed as entering its final phase, but questions remain about what happens next and when a ceasefire might kick in.

In a message on Thursday ahead of next week’s Eid al-Adha festival, top Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhundzada avoided any mention of a ceasefire and taunted American and foreign troops.

“We believe the time of demise and humiliation of these tyrants has come near, Allah willing,” Akhundzada said.

His message also criticized the Afghan and US militaries for killing Afghans, even though the Taliban continue to strike urban areas packed with civilians.

On Wednesday, a Taliban bomb killed at least 14 people and wounded 145 more in an attack on a Kabul police station. Most of the dead and wounded were civilians, authorities said.

Even if an election goes ahead, Afghans are pessimistic about whether it will be fair or safe, after violence and widespread fraud allegations tainted previous polls.

A survey released on Thursday by the Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan found that 57 percent of Afghans have no intention of voting.

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