KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Thursday that it might be better to hold presidential elections a year early to lessen the strain that could be caused by foreign combat troops leaving Afghanistan at the same time he ends more than a decade as leader of a nation at war.
Karzai, who assumed the helm of the country shortly after the U.S. invasion that ousted the Taliban rulers, has been the face of a yearslong international drive to transform the country and end the insurgency. Recently, however, his relations with the United States and other international partners have become heavily strained by his anti-Western verbal assaults and mercurial approach to policymaking.
The next presidential elections are scheduled for 2014 and the majority of NATO combat forces will leave Afghanistan by the end of that same year. At that time, Karzai will be at the end of his second five-year term and the constitution bars him from running for a third term.
The prospect of an early departure for the controversial leader would please Afghans and others who are ready for a fresh start because they don't think Karzai has not done enough to battle corruption or improve daily life in the impoverished country.
Electing a new leader in 2013 also would clear the slate as the international community looks for a smooth transfer of power before most of the foreign troops go home or move into support roles.
"I have been talking about this for a few months now," Karzai said during a press conference with visiting NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen. "With all the changes that are taking place — with the complete return of international forces to their homes from Afghanistan and the holding of the presidential election at the same time — whether that will be an agenda that we can handle at the same time."
Karzai said no final decision has been made about early elections and that such a decision would take a long time.
He said he had been thinking and consulting for some time about finding a way to avoid holding the election and the troop pullout simultaneously.
Karzai has said he wants Afghan forces to be in charge of protecting and defending the nation by the end of 2014, the same time the international military coalition has decided that it would end its combat mission and move to a support role.
Karzai already has said that he would be happy if the transition could be accomplished sooner, but either way is fine.
"Should we allow the transition process to complete itself in 2014 and bring the presidential elections one year earlier to 2013?" he asked, rhetorically.
"This is a question that I've had and I've raised it in my inner circle," Karzai said. "I've not had a final decision yet, but it will not be soon."
Karzai's term expires in May 2014 and the constitution says elections must be held 30 to 60 days before an incumbent leaves office.
An official with Afghanistan's election commission, which is in charge of conducting the poll, said preparations were still under way for the balloting in March 2014 and no one had approached the commission about organizing an earlier vote.
"My understanding is that early elections can happen if something happens to the president or if the president resigns," said Zekria Barakzai, deputy chief electoral officer. In such a case, the commission would have three months to organize elections, he added.
Wahid Muzhda, a Kabul-based political analyst, said holding elections while NATO troops are leaving would be difficult because of concerns that attacks would spike during the vote.
"We are not sure that the Afghan security forces are able to handle the security needed for an election," Muzhda said. "If we have it in 2013, at least we would have foreign troops to help."
Muzhda said he suspects the international community is pressuring Karzai to hold the election in 2013.
Karzai's spokesman Aimal Faizi, however, denied that, saying there had been no international pressure to set an earlier date for the elections andKarzai was simply considering it as an option to smooth the security handover to Afghan forces. "The year 2014 will be a very busy year," Faizi said.
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul declined to comment on Karzai's statements.
William Patey, the outgoing British ambassador to Afghanistan, told The Guardian last week that he had heard some people discussing the idea of early elections but that it had not been formally discussed by Western diplomats. "There are perfectly good arguments why 2013 would be a good time," he said. "But by holding it in 2013, you risk an argument that foreigners brought it forward so they can control it."
Fogh Rasmussen, who was in Kabul for talks on the transition of security responsibilities from the international coalition to Afghan security forces, said NATO it is on track to fully hand over responsibility by the end of 2014 as scheduled.
He also said Afghan troops would be ready to take the lead role around the country by mid-2013, allowing international combat forces to move into a support and training role.
"We will stick to the road map and we will gradually hand over by 2014," Fogh Rasmussen told Afghan special forces during his visit earlier Thursday to their main training base outside Kabul.
The security transition began last year, when NATO handed over responsibility for areas that are home to half the nation's population — with coalition forces in those regions now in a support role. The handover took place in two stages and a third tranche is expected before a NATO summit in Chicago in late May. Another three phases are planned over the coming year.
"Thanks to the courage and commitment of the Afghan forces we will reach our common goal of a secure Afghanistan," Fogh Rasmussen said. "What I have seen makes me confident that we will fulfill our goal of handing over responsibility to the Afghan national security forces."
Meanwhile, NATO said a roadside bomb killed a service member Thursday in southern Afghanistan. It provided no other details. The death brought to 13 the number of international troops killed this month and to 104 the total so far this year.
Associated Press writer Heidi Vogt contributed to this report from Kabul.