KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Tackling topics ranging from the Taliban to the future of foreign troops in Afghanistan, candidates battling to replace President Hamid Karzai faced off Tuesday in the first televised debate of a crucial election campaign.
The presidential race is playing out in the run-up to the planned withdrawal of NATO combat troops, and the April 5 vote will be a crucial test of whether the country can ensure a stable transition after years of war and while facing a Taliban insurgency that has vowed it will attempt to disrupt the poll.
With Karzai ineligible to run for a third term, a successful election would mark Afghanistan's first real democratic transfer of power.
Hanging over the campaign is a question about a security deal between the U.S. and Afghanistan to allow a small number of American troops to stay in the country and continue training Afghan security forces after NATO's combat mission ends in December 2014.
Karzai has been refusing to sign the deal despite pressure from Washington, placing the issue front and center for the 11 candidates vying to succeed him.
On a snowy Tuesday night in Kabul, five of those candidates took their places behind podiums in front of a studio audience.
After each of the candidates — Abdullah Abdullah, runner-up in the 2009 election; former foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul, ex-finance minister Ashraf Ghani, ex-defense minister Abdul Rahim Wardak and Karzai's brother, Qayyum Karzai — gave a brief opening statement, the questions began.
The U.S. security deal took center stage right off the bat, with Qayyum Karzai, Ghani and Rassoul all expressing their support for its signing. The remaining two candidates were not asked the question.
"The security forces and the people of Afghanistan will not have the ability to function on their own," Qayyum Karzai said.
Abdullah echoed his sentiments, adding that "support from the international community to our security forces will help our security."
On peace talks with the Taliban, the candidates mostly shared the same views — all five support a negotiated settlement with insurgents willing to lay down arms and cut ties with terrorist groups like al Qaida. But they were more reticent when asked by the moderator if the Taliban are the enemy of Afghanistan — perhaps with an eye to future negotiations.
While Ghani condemned the killing of innocents and suicide attacks, he said some Taliban are "forced because of corruption and injustice to take up arms."
Asked if the Taliban are the enemy of Afghan people, Rassoul answered indirectly, saying that "those who burn our schools, who kill our children, who kill innocent people and kill our soldiers — they are the enemies."
Abdullah, meanwhile, called for a "clear peace process" with the Taliban, but said "we should make it clear that if there are people who don't want peace, there is no other way than to face them."
Other topics on the agenda included the economy and how to eradicate corruption.
"There is no doubt that corruption is like a cancer in Afghanistan," Ghani said, but argued that "if you place someone who is clean at the head of government, it's very hard for others to be corrupt."
He and Qayyum Karzai pledged to hold their governments accountable, while Wardak specifically called for streamlining bureaucracy and more financial auditing.
With no clear front-runner in the race, Tuesday's debate was one of the first opportunities to hear from the candidates since the launch of official campaign season earlier this week.
Associated Press writer Cassandra Vinograd in Kabul contributed to this report.