KABUL, Afghanistan – 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.