Afghan Leader, in a Surprise, Picks a New Running Mate
KABUL, Afghanistan, July 26 - President Hamid Karzai surprised many here on Monday by entering the October presidential race with the brother of a martyred hero as his choice for vice president, rather than his powerful defense minister.
Mr. Karzai's decision to drop the defense minister, Marshal Muhammad Qasim Fahim, showed the growing divide within the government over the persistence of armed private militias, which the president has called the greatest threat to the country's nascent democracy.
Marshal Fahim has the support of many of the powerful warlords and regional commanders in the north who have felt increasingly unhappy with efforts to disarm them and to reduce their power in the central government.
Mr. Karzai's action was hailed by diplomats as a bold move and a message to all of the warlords to disarm and work for the elections. But it also showed his political vulnerabilities.
Mr. Karzai's new vice-presidential nominee, Ahmed Zia Massoud, is a younger brother of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the commander of the Northern Alliance who was killed by Al Qaeda suicide bombers on Sept. 9, 2001. Dressed in a dark suit and tie, he stood beside Mr. Karzai at a news conference at the presidential palace. He has been serving for the past few years as Afghan ambassador to Russia.
The decision came after intense negotiations and heightened tension in the capital in recent days as Marshal Fahim, the defense minister, pressed hard to retain his other position as first vice president.
Immediately after Mr. Karzai's announcement, the education minister, Yunus Qanooni, announced his candidacy for president and said he was resigning from the government. He said he had the support of Marshal Fahim; the foreign minister, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah; and Mr. Massoud's younger brother, Ahmed Wali Massoud, who represent the core of the Panjshiri group, which has until now played a dominant role in Mr. Karzai's transitional administration.
Mr. Qanooni, who last month expressed his support for Mr. Karzai for president, is likely to represent the most serious challenge to Mr. Karzai in the Oct. 9 election.
Mr. Karzai did not suggest any role for Marshal Fahim in a future government. "I wish him happiness and good, but unfortunately he is not among us in this team," Mr. Karzai said. The president was to visit Pakistan this week but on Sunday suddenly postponed the visit when the crisis over Marshal Fahim arose.
One foreign official said Mr. Karzai had several meetings on Sunday in which everyone, including foreign diplomats, United Nations officials and Afghan leaders, told him to drop Marshal Fahim.
Although Marshal Fahim has been seen as the major block to progress on disarmament, he also has been seen by his own ethnic Tajiks, and in particular the resistance fighters, or mujahedeen, as a leader who has given away much of their hard-earned dominance.
Mr. Karzai's choice of Mr. Massoud was not immediately welcomed by the ethnic Tajiks, or Panjshiris, who represent the second largest ethnic group in the country. Most appeared unhappy that he had suddenly dispensed with Marshal Fahim, whom they still see as the strongest protector of their interests.
"The past two days have been very easy, just negotiating and talking," Mr. Karzai said, making light of the intense politicking of the past 48 hours, as he postponed the state visit to Pakistan and delayed selecting his running mates until the deadline for nominations on Monday.
Mr. Karzai chose one of his current vice presidents, the Shiite leader Abdul Karim Khalili, to be his second vice-presidential running mate.
His American and Afghan bodyguards were on special alert on Monday, warning journalists not to move as the president, flanked by ministers, walked out to make his announcement on the grounds of the palace, where no small number of Afghanistan's presidents and kings have met untimely deaths in the past.
The American ambassador in Kabul, Zalmay Khalilzad, promised Mr. Karzai that the United States would support whatever choice he made, one American official said. Mr. Khalilzad also met with Marshal Fahim over the weekend. The defense minister was attempting to negotiate for a position until the last minute, but then seemed resigned to being replaced, the official said. Fears that he would resort to violence or order tanks onto the streets did not materialize. "Fahim did not look like someone ready to go to war," the official said.
Mr. Qanooni was not happy with the way Marshal Fahim had been dropped, saying it "damages the stability of Afghanistan and the national unity of Afghanistan." Yet he made it clear at a news conference on Monday evening that he wanted to take the battle for power away from guns and war, and wage it instead through the ballot box.
"We are proud that we have brought our honored country, Afghanistan, to a level that military competitions are replaced by political competition," he said. "If we win, it will be a success, and if we don't win, it will still be a success. We believe in political pluralism. We believe in parliamentary challenges."