KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghans will elect a new president in the spring of 2014 in a ballot considered crucial for their country's stability and security after more than 11 years of war.
Afghan politicians and the country's foreign backers hailed Wednesday's announcement as a step toward a peaceful transition of power. The Taliban, who could make or break the poll, denounced it as meaningless and vowed to keep on fighting.
The government-appointed Independent Electoral Commission set polling day as April 5, 2014, the same year that most troops in the U.S.-led NATO coalition will have left in a withdrawal that has already begun.
The date is in line with the Afghan constitution adopted after the coalition ousted the Taliban in 2001. But the Taliban claimed the vote was an American ploy.
"These are not elections, they are selections," said spokesman Qari Youssof Ahmadi. "The U.S. wants to select those people it wants and who will work for the purpose of the enemy. The Afghans know the country is occupied by the enemy, so what do elections mean?"
The Taliban are the country's main opposition group, and President Hamid Karzai has in the past asked the insurgents to lay down their weapons and join the political process. But they have vowed to keep fighting.
Still, despite their rhetoric, it remains unclear what the insurgents will do ahead of the elections.
Prospects appear bleak. Peace talks are stalled and the Taliban show no signs of relenting in their fight. During Karzai's decade in office they have never recognized him as president and consider him an American puppet.
The 2009 poll that gave Karzai a second term were marred by allegations of massive fraud and vote-rigging, while violence and intimidation in the Taliban-dominated east and south helped limit overall turnout to 33 percent, and more than one million of the 5.5 million votes cast were ruled invalid.
The constitution limits Karzai to two terms, and he has said he will not try for a third. But Afghans generally consider his government to be corrupt and to have favored his political allies and members of his family, and although many of the allegations have not been proven, there are concerns he might seek a way to remain in power or appoint a family member to run as a proxy in the 2014 election.
Although no one has openly declared a candidacy, possible contenders mentioned so far are mostly members of the former Northern Alliance, which ousted the Taliban after the American invasion in late 2001. They include former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, who lost to Karzai in 2009, and Quayum Karzai, one of the president's brothers.
The International Crisis Group, an independent think tank, warned this month of a "precipitous slide toward state collapse" unless steps are taken soon to prevent a repeat of the "chaos and chicanery" of the 2009 election.
"Plagued by factionalism and corruption, Afghanistan is far from ready to assume responsibility for security when U.S. and NATO forces withdraw in 2014," the Brussels-based group said.
U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham said the election date represented "more than a day on a calendar. It is symbolic of the aspiration of Afghans for elections which will be crucial for Afghanistan's future stability. This will be an Afghan process, with the U.S. and the international community prepared to provide support and encouragement to millions of Afghans who, on April 5, 2014, will make their mark on history with a peaceful transition of political authority."
In Brussels, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen called it a "historic opportunity."
Free and fair elections are also a key condition for delivering more than $16 billion in aid that was pledged at an international donor conference last May.
Provincial elections will be held on the same day as the presidential poll, and parliamentary elections will follow in 2015, said Fazel Ahmad Manawai, the election commission's chief.
Associated Press writers Amir Shah and Rahim Faiez contributed to this report from Kabul.
"I think it is significant that they announced the 5th of April, 2014 as the date for the presidential elections in accordance with the constitution," European Union ambassador Vygaudas Usackas said. "It is a demonstration that the Afghan authorities are taking seriously their commitment with regard to their own people and the international community."
With $13 million in funds pledged this year to help the Afghans prepare for the elections, the EU is the largest contributor in the effort to organize the polls. Fair and free elections are also a key condition for the delivery of more than $16 billion in aid pledged during an international donor conference held in Tokyo last May.
The presidential vote also coincides with the withdrawal of tens of thousands of foreign combat troops, most of whom will be gone by the end of 2014.
Independent Election Commission chief Fazel Ahmad Manawi said that the country's provincial elections, originally to be held in mid-2013, will also held on the same date. Parliamentary elections are to be held in 2015.
The decision to hold the two elections simultaneously was taken for cost reasons and was not political, Manawi said. He added that holding the two elections together will cost an estimated $350 million, far less than it would cost to hold them separately. The costs will be covered mostly by foreign donors, he said.
"The IEC believes that the announcement of the 2013 and 2014 election calendar well in advance will pave the way for extensive and widespread participation of both the candidates and voters," Manawi said.
The last presidential elections were marred by allegations of massive fraud and vote rigging. More than one million of the 5.5 million votes cast were ruled invalid, while only 33 percent of the country's voters turned out for the poll.
Many observers – both Western and Afghan _were worried Karzai wants to remain in power or appoint a proxy from his family circle to be a candidate in the elections. His family is thought to have profited from his position as president although allegations against them have never been proven.
Opposition politicians said they were happy that an election date was set, but had hoped it would be later in the month – which they said the constitution allows. They said they were worried that Afghanistan's long winter, often marked by heavy snowfalls, could hamper some voters and the campaign.
"The decision which has been made by the IEC is according to the constitution but there is one problem. The campaign period is two months before the elections and it will be winter, so there will not be access to many parts of the country during that period," said Fazel Sangcharaki, a spokesman for the opposition National Front. Its leader, Abdullah Abdullah, was Karzai's main rival in the last elections.
Another uncertainty will be the state of the war against the Taliban and other insurgent groups. Conflict prevented a turnout in many parts of Afghanistan during the last elections.
Insurgents have been battling NATO and Afghan troops for 11 years and still control parts of the country's east and south. That violence has not abated.
Seventeen Afghan civilians were killed on Wednesday – 11 of them in two separate incidents involving roadside bombs in the Musa Qala district of southern Afghanistan's Helmand province, the provincial governor's office said in a statement.
Another roadside bomb in the Mariof district of Kandahar province killed six people traveling in a car, said local government spokesman Javeed Faisal.
Patrick Quinn contributed to this report from Kabul.