KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghan President Hamid Karzai hinted Sunday that he plans to run for a second term, saying he has goals left to accomplish.
The comments were his first public indication that he will stand for re-election in 2009 despite discontent over his government, which is widely seen as weak.
Karzai, who was elected in 2004 to a five-year term in Afghanistan's first post-Taliban vote, told a news conference that "every human" wants to complete the work he has started.
"I pray to God that the people of Afghanistan are happy with me ... and will allow me to complete the work that I started — if they vote for me," Karzai said on the grounds of the presidential palace.
But Karzai added, "If you ask my heart, God is a witness that I am not happy to run again."
In diplomatic circles, Karzai is sometimes referred to as the "Mayor of Kabul," a reference to his control of the capital but weak authority in remote areas of the country.
Earlier this year, Michael McConnell, the U.S. National Intelligence Director, said Afghanistan's central government controls just 30 percent of the country. The Taliban controls about 10 percent and local tribes control the rest, he said.
Afghanistan's Defense Ministry denied the assertion.
But last year was Afghanistan's bloodiest since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, and analysts have warned that the Taliban's resurgence is threatening to turn the international effort here into a failure.
Marvin Weinbaum, a former State Department analyst on Afghanistan and now a resident scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, said the U.S. would continue to back Karzai despite shortcomings that include a willingness to tolerate corruption within the Afghan government.
"It's like with (Pakistani President Pervez) Musharraf, this administration finds it very difficult to get ahead of the curve, to see the need to transition," Weinbaum said. "They are afraid of any kind of change, that the alternative may be worse. It's just not been their thing to see beyond the person they're working with.'
Weinbaum added that the U.S. probably views Karzai as "the best of the lot, just as he was to begin with."
Although the vote is scheduled to be held in about 18 months, no other prominent Afghan leaders have announced their intention to run for president. The Afghan-born U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, is often mentioned as a possible candidate, but he has said he will not run.
Others seen as potential candidates include Ali Jalali, a former interior minister under Karzai who has been teaching at the National Defense University in Washington, and Yunus Qanooni, the speaker of Afghanistan's lower house of parliament.
It's not yet clear exactly when and how Afghanistan will hold its next round of elections. The presidential vote is slated for the fall of 2009, with parliamentary elections scheduled a year later.
But each election is estimated to cost at least $100 million, and international donors do not want to pay for two elections. It is not clear if the Afghan government can afford the cost of both.
Karzai said Sunday he does not want his term extended for another year to allow the merger of the two elections in 2010. "I do not want to spend one day longer than the time the Afghan people (have) given me," he said.
Meanwhile, Karzai said talks that some Afghan leaders were holding with Taliban fighters were good for the country.
Speaking shortly after his return from the NATO summit in Romania, Karzai said members of the Taliban were part of Afghanistan, and he wanted them to live peacefully in the country.
Talks have been held between the Taliban and leaders of the opposition National Front for the last several months. Karzai has repeatedly called for talks with the Taliban, but critics in the National Front say he hasn't followed up those words with any action.
Karzai has said insurgents must lay down their weapons and accept the country's constitution before they would be welcomed into society. However, he ruled out reconciliation with any Al Qaeda or hard-line Taliban militants.