KABUL — President Hamid Karzai and 40 other candidates begin their official campaigns for Afghanistan's top post Tuesday, an election that will decide who will lead the country through a spike in violence and a surge in U.S. troops to combat it.
Karzai has led Afghanistan since soon after U.S.-backed troops invaded in 2001 to oust the hardline Islamist Taliban regime that was sheltering Osama bin Laden. He is the clear front-runner to win a second term, though his standing with Afghans and the international community has weakened in recent years.
The campaign period officially begins Tuesday and will close Aug. 18, two days before the vote.
Chief among his challengers are former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah. There are 41 candidates running for the five-year term, but few are considered serious contenders.
Abdul Ghafoor Zuri, one of the dozens of unknown candidates, said he has no money for a "fancy campaign."
"The first words I want to tell the people are: security all over the country, social justice, rule of law, and education for the people of Afghanistan," said Zuri, a 60-year-old from the western city of Herat who has worked in the commerce and finance ministries.
The Taliban have urged the country's 30 million people not to vote and have launched minor and scattered attacks on voting registration centers. But Taliban leaders have not said whether they will attempt a large-scale disruption of the election.
The Afghan government, the U.N. and the U.S. and NATO militaries are working to provide enough security so Afghans from the snowcapped mountains in the north to the unending deserts in the south may cast votes. Thousands of new troops are pouring in to help protect the balloting.
Kai Eide, the top U.N. official in Afghanistan, said Monday that "intimidation, inflammatory language and violence of any sort" have no place in the campaign.
"I look forward to an election campaign where each candidate presents a vision for Afghanistan's future. More than ever, the Afghan people need a debate focused on the key political challenges facing the country and how to take Afghanistan forward," Eide said in a statement.
The vote will be Afghanistan's second democratic presidential election. It comes against a backdrop of rising violence blamed on militants who have gained in power in recent years and as public anger reverberates against U.S. troops for accidental civilian killings.
President Barack Obama has made the war in Afghanistan one of his top priorities, and has ordered 21,000 additional U.S. troops to join the fight. The first contingent began fanning out last month across Afghanistan's dangerous south.
In addition to accusations that it is corrupt and ineffective, Karzai's government has been blamed within the country for the war's rising civilian death toll and he has been condemned as little more than a puppet of Western powers.
But Karzai has consolidated support from all of Afghanistan's major ethnic groups in recent weeks. He even named as one of his two vice presidential nominees a former warlord accused of rights abuses _ Mohammad Qasim Fahim. A former commander in the Northern Alliance, Fahim is expected to help deliver ethnic Tajik votes from Afghanistan's north, but he has already drawn heavy criticism from rights groups and a top U.N. official.
Leaders in the ethnic Uzbek and Hazara communities have also publicly backed Karzai, an ethnic Pashtun.
Azizullah Lodin, the head of Afghanistan's election commission, announced the final list of candidates Saturday. He said he believed many of them were not qualified but that he had no power to remove them from the ballot.
A council of top Afghan tribal and political leaders appointed the U.S.-backed Karzai as Afghanistan's interim president in June 2002, months after the ouster of the Taliban regime. He then swept presidential elections in October 2004.
In that election, 18 candidates ran for president. Karzai won in the first round with 55 percent of the vote, while the second placed finisher, Yunus Qanooni, the current speaker of the lower house of parliament, took 16 percent. Qanooni is not running this year.