KABUL  - Former defence minister Abdul Rahim Wardak withdrew from the Afghan presidential election on Sunday in the latest sign of deal-making in the race to lead the country as Nato troops prepare to exit.
Wardak, a veteran military and political operator, has been a senior advisor to President Hamid Karzai, but he failed to make any impact in the election campaign ahead of voting on April 5. Nine candidates now remain in the race to succeed Karzai, who has ruled Afghanistan since 2001 and is constitutionally banned from running again.
The three leading names are former foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul, Abdullah Abdullah, who came second in 2009, and former World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani. On Sunday Wardak declined to publicly endorse another candidate, though analysts say he could back Rassoul, who is increasingly seen as having the implicit support of the outgoing president. ‘Our campaign was not vigorous from the very beginning,’ Wardak, 68, told a press conference in Kabul. ‘Today I announce that, without joining any other teams, I withdraw from the presidential election candidacy. ‘Reaching power has never been my target and I will always remain at my nation's service.’ Wardak, from the Pashtun ethnic group like Karzai and Rassoul, was a guerrilla commander in the war against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
He served as defence minister from 2004 until 2012 when he was ousted over cross-border rocket attacks from Pakistan into Afghanistan.
US-led Nato combat troops are leaving after 13 years of fighting the Taliban insurgency that erupted when the Islamists were thrown out of power after the 9/11 attacks on the United States. The Taliban last week vowed to target the election, urging fighters to attack polling staff, voters and security forces. While all remaining 53,000 Nato combat troops will depart by December, a small US force may be deployed from 2015 on counter-terrorism and training operations if the next president signs a security deal with Washington.
Billions of dollars of aid money has been spent in Afghanistan, but the country remains crippled by poverty and violence, with weak government structures and a fragile economy dependent on cash from donor nations.