Mohammed Mohaqiq says he was getting ready to make his run for the Afghan presidency when U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad dropped by his campaign office and proposed a deal.
"He told me to drop out of the elections, but not in a way to put pressure," Mohaqiq said. "It was like a request."
After the hourlong meeting last month, the ethnic Hazara warlord said in an interview Tuesday, he wasn't satisfied with the rewards offered for quitting, which he did not detail. Mohaqiq was still determined to run for president -- though, he said, the U.S. ambassador wouldn't give up trying to elbow him out of the race.
"He left, and then called my most loyal men, and the most educated people in my party or campaign, to the presidential palace and told them to make me -- or request me -- to resign the nomination. And he told my men to ask me what I need in return."
Mohaqiq, who is running in the Oct. 9 election, is one of several candidates who maintain that the U.S. ambassador and his aides are pushing behind the scenes to ensure a convincing victory by the pro-American incumbent, President Hamid Karzai. The Americans deny doing so.
"It is not only me," Mohaqiq said. "They have been doing the same thing with all candidates. That is why all people think that not only Khalilzad is like this, but the whole U.S. government is the same. They all want Karzai -- and this election is just a show."
The charges were repeated by several other candidates and their senior campaign staff in interviews here. They reflected anger over what many Afghans see as foreign interference that could undermine the shaky foundations of a democracy the U.S. promised to build.
"This doesn't suit the representative of a nation that has helped us in the past," said Sayed Mustafa Sadat Ophyani, campaign manager for Younis Qanooni, Karzai's leading rival. "You have seen Afghanistan suffering for 25 years, from the Russians, then the Taliban. Why is the U.S. government now looking to make people of Afghanistan accept whatever the U.S. government says?"
Qanooni said he and 13 other presidential candidates planned to meet today in Kabul, the capital, to air complaints about Khalilzad's interference.
In a statement released this week, Khalilzad denied the allegations that he and his staff were meddling in the election.
"U.S. Embassy officials regularly keep in touch with all presidential candidates, and we listen to their ideas and proposals," he said in an e-mailed response from New York, where he was attending the opening of the U.N. General Assembly.
"Officials from the U.S. mission support the elections process, not individuals," the statement added. "No U.S. official can or will endorse or campaign on behalf of any individual presidential candidate."
Khalilzad also said he "has never asked a candidate to withdraw -- this is a decision for each candidate to make for him or herself."
Since coming to power after the American-led invasion that overthrew the Taliban in 2001, the interim Afghan government largely has been beholden to the United States for its survival. The U.S. has deployed about 18,000 troops and is spending about $1 billion a year on reconstruction in the Central Asian nation. Karzai depends on the Americans for his safety: DynCorp, a Virginia-based firm, has provided his bodyguards since November 2002 under a contract with the State Department.
Khalilzad has been nicknamed "the Viceroy" because the influence he wields over the Afghan government reminds some Afghans of the excesses of British colonialism. Some of Karzai's rivals think that the ambassador has taken on a new role: presidential campaign manager.
This is not the first time Khalilzad has been accused of meddling in Afghan politics. Delegates to gatherings that named Karzai interim president in 2002 and ratified Afghanistan's new Constitution last December also accused the ambassador of interfering, even of paying delegates for their support. Khalilzad denies the claims.
The latest allegations are perhaps more serious because the Bush administration is portraying Afghanistan's presidential election as a democratic victory for the country's people, who suffered under more than two decades of strife. President Bush has touted bringing Afghan democracy as a foreign policy success in his election campaign.
There are 18 candidates in the Afghan election. Such a divided field is expected to favor Karzai, whom Afghans hear and see frequently on state-controlled radio and television.
The president, who is usually holed up in his heavily fortified palace because of threats to his life, has made only one campaign trip outside Kabul since the election campaign began Sept. 7. That trip last Thursday was aborted when a rocket missed the U.S. military helicopter in which he was traveling.
Mohaqiq commands strong loyalty among Hazaras and, if he chooses to step aside and endorse Karzai, probably could deliver a large bloc of votes. Mohaqiq said Tuesday that he might still do so -- for the right deal.
Mohaqiq said his senior aides met the U.S. ambassador at the presidential palace, without Karzai. The aides agreed try again to persuade their candidate to drop out of the race and throw his support behind the incumbent, Mohaqiq said.
The pressure was so intense that he agreed to quit under certain conditions, he added.
Mohaqiq said his demands, in the event of Karzai's victory, would be four Cabinet posts for his party, four governorships in the mainly Hazara provinces of central Afghanistan and a new road from Kabul into the region, informally known as Hazarajat.
Mohaqiq said Khalilzad told him that the new road would not be a problem, but that his party would have to settle for two ministerial posts, two deputy spots in other ministries and one governorship.
"I was very interested in taking part in the elections, but since many of my men were asking me to accept Khalilzad's ideas -- and he was also telling me to do so -- I didn't have much choice, and I was ready to agree," Mohaqiq said.
"But a good thing happened, and Karzai didn't agree with those terms," he added. "I don't know why."
Several leaders of the Northern Alliance, whose troops ousted the Taliban regime in late 2001 with the help of U.S. air power, met in Kabul on Friday to discuss what they said was Khalilzad's electoral arm-twisting, said Mohammed Qasem Mohseni, one of presidential candidate Abdul Latif Pedram's two running mates.
Mohseni said the summit participants included Foreign Minister Abdullah, who goes by one name; former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who like Abdullah is a member of the Tajik minority; and Ustad Abdul Rasul Sayyaf who, like Karzai, is a Pushtun, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group.
"In this meeting, Ustad Sayyaf said that we have been under pressure for 25 days by the U.S. government, by Khalilzad, to make Younis Qanooni resign from the post of candidate for the presidency," Mohseni said.
Qanooni is not expected to win the race. However, he could prevent Karzai from gaining more than 50% of the votes, forcing a runoff and prolonging a campaign that already has drawn violent attacks by Taliban and other insurgents.
Qanooni's campaign aides said Khalilzad was trying to persuade the candidate to accept defeat before any ballots were counted and to agree to join Karzai in a coalition government after the vote.
"Our hearts have been broken because we thought we could have beaten Mr. Karzai if this had been a true election," Ophyani said. "But it is not. Mr. Khalilzad is putting a lot of pressure on us and does not allow us to fight a good election campaign."
Some say Khalilzad is working to draw Rabbani, the former president, to Karzai's side, which would deepen the split in Qanooni's Northern Alliance.
Qanooni supporters say that Rabbani, whose son-in-law is one of Karzai's running mates, visited Badakhshan province last month with Khalilzad and urged local militia commanders to back the incumbent. The former president insists that the discussions in his home province dealt only with reconstruction.
"I told Mr. Khalilzad, 'The people of Badakhshan are waiting for you, and they are always asking, what is the U.S. government doing?' " Rabbani said. "I told him to go there and see the people, and he promised to construct a road and a dam for them."
There is nothing wrong with the U.S. ambassador working closely with Afghanistan's president as long as he only offers advice and doesn't make decisions, Rabbani added.
"I believe that Mr. Karzai and Khalilzad are linked very closely with each other now and they were in the past too," Rabbani said. "And when they have links, they probably have political links or any other kind of links."