KABUL – A Democratic Party strategist who helped Bill Clinton get into the White House is now assisting a former Afghan finance minister in his campaign to unseat President Hamid Karzai in upcoming elections.
James Carville said he joined the team of Ashraf Ghani, also a former World Bank official, so Afghans had a viable choice in the Aug. 20 poll.
"This is probably the most important election held in the world in a long time," Carville told The Associated Press in a telephone interview late Tuesday. "This is probably the most interesting project I have ever worked in my life."
President Barack Obama has positioned Afghanistan as the main front in the war against Muslim extremists and the political component of the conflict is moving to center stage.
The Obama administration has repeatedly said it does not support any of the 41 presidential candidates, and Carville said he is working as a private citizen.
Nevertheless, the involvement of a strategist with such close ties with the Democratic Party — and in particular Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan — is likely to raise questions about Washington's stance.
Karzai is the frontrunner in the presidential race, even though many Afghans and international officials have slammed his performance. U.S. officials have been sharply critical of Karzai's government although they have toned down their rhetoric as the election has approached.
Carville called Karzai "increasingly unpopular," despite opinion polls showing him with a commanding, albeit declining, lead.
"There is very little confidence in Afghanistan in Karzai as a leader," Carville said. "Our job is to let the people of Afghanistan know that there is an alternative."
Humayun Hamidzada, the spokesman for Karzai, suggested that an outsider's help in Afghan elections could be detrimental to a candidate.
"Let's leave the decision to the Afghan people if it is better to have the advice of Afghans without the interference from the foreigners or to have foreigners advising us?" Hamidzada told a news conference on Tuesday.
Ghani, who had to renounce his American citizenship to compete in the election, served as Karzai's finance minister. He has a Ph.D. in anthropology from Columbia University and joined the World Bank in 1991 as an anthropologist. He left the government after the elections of 2004 and became chancellor of Kabul University.
"When you have an opportunity to work with a man like this you just don't turn it down," Carville said. "To be around a man of this ability, trying to help him, in a country like Afghanistan, with such a history and such opportunities, it is amazing."
A poll conducted in May by the International Republican Institute, a non-governmental organization that receives funding from USAID, found that Ghani would likely come in third with only 4 percent support.
The same poll found that 31 percent of 3,200 Afghans surveyed said they would vote for Karzai — a steep decline from the 55 percent who voted for him in 2004.
Only 7 percent of respondents said they would vote for Karzai's closet competitor, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.
The poll, based on face-to-face interviews, had a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.
Despite the poll data and the fact that he has joined the campaign just over a month before the election, Carville still thinks Ghani has a chance.
"There is an expression that the best time to plant an oak tree is 25 years ago, the second best time to plant an oak tree is right now. We are moving fast. We are working seriously here. We are excited and let's see what happens" he said.