Afghanistan's president raised the prospect Thursday of holding presidential elections a year early to avoid a potentially deadly concurrence of a transition of power and a major drawdown of international forces in 2014.
The suggestion could mean that President Hamid Karzai is looking for a graceful exit ahead of what many Afghans predict is looming civil war, but it also could provide some hope for a peaceful democratic transition to a nation worried about falling apart as NATO troops leave.
Karzai _ who has led Afghanistan for more than a decade _ is constitutionally barred from running for a third term in the election currently scheduled for March 2014.
Karzai's rule has been tarnished by a lack of clout outside the capital and allegations of fraud surrounding his re-election in the last vote, but he also has managed to hold together rival ethnic groups and political factions through a combination of patronage and compromise deals _ and a lot of help from international allies.
Karzai said he had discussed the possibility of holding elections in 2013 with his inner circle of advisers in a bid to reduce security risks and lessen the strain that could be caused by foreign combat troops leaving Afghanistan at the same time as the elections. But he stressed no final decision has been made and it was not likely to happen quickly.
"I have been talking about this for a few months now," Karzai said in response to a question at a joint news conference with visiting NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
"With all the changes that are taking place _ with the complete return of international forces to their homes from Afghanistan and the holding of the presidential election at the same time _ whether that will be an agenda that we can handle at the same time," he added.
Both the 2009 presidential election and last year's parliamentary poll were marred by violence and drawn-out disputes over fraudulent ballots despite the presence of foreign troops, and many fear attacks will spike as Afghan security forces try to protect the country without combat assistance.
"We are not sure that the Afghan security forces are able to handle the security needed for an election," said Wahid Muzhda, a Kabul-based political analyst. "If we have it in 2013, at least we would have foreign troops to help."
Underscoring the dangers, a suicide bomber targeting police struck a bazaar Thursday evening in the northern city of Kunduz, killing five people, including two officers and three civilians, police spokesman Lal Mohammad Ahmadzai said.
A roadside bomb also killed a NATO service member Thursday in southern Afghanistan, the alliance said, raising to 104 the number of NATO troops killed so far this year.
Some of Karzai's close associates have said that he is weary of his place at the helm of a country at war, but many in his inner circle are loathe to give up power.
The prospect of an early departure for the controversial leader would please those are ready for a fresh start because they don't think Karzai has not done enough to battle corruption or improve daily life in the impoverished country.
Electing a new leader in 2013 also would clear the slate as the international community looks for a smooth transfer of power before most of the foreign troops go home or move into support roles.
And it could give the country its best shot yet at an undisputed election after recent votes took serious intervention from international allies to force the hands of incumbents. In 2009, Karzai didn't agree to stand for a run-off election without heavy U.S. pressure.
Jandad Spinghar, executive director of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, the country's top independent election monitoring group, said Karzai's voluntary early departure would burnish his legacy.
"The people will take it very positively because in Afghanistan, in our history, we have the experience that when someone becomes president or king he has never agreed to leave," he said.
Karzai's term expires in May 2014 and the constitution says elections must be held 30 to 60 days before an incumbent leaves office.
An official with Afghanistan's election commission, which is in charge of conducting the poll, said preparations were still under way for the balloting in March 2014 and no one had approached the commission about organizing an earlier vote.
"My understanding is that early elections can happen if something happens to the president or if the president resigns," said Zekria Barakzai, deputy chief electoral officer. In such a case, the commission would have three months to organize elections, he added.
Karzai's spokesman and Western diplomats denied that there had been international pressure to set an earlier date for the election. His spokesman Aimal Faizi said Karzai was simply considering it as an option to smooth the security handover to Afghan forces. "The year 2014 will be a very busy year," Faizi said.
NATO began the transition last year, handing over responsibility for areas that are home to half the nation's population _ with coalition forces in those regions now in a support role. The handover took place in two stages and a third tranche is expected before a NATO summit in Chicago in late May. Another three phases are planned over the coming year.
Fogh Rasmussen said NATO it is on track to fully hand over responsibility by the end of 2014 as scheduled. He also said Afghan troops would be ready to take the lead role around the country by mid-2013.
"We will stick to the road map and we will gradually hand over by 2014," Fogh Rasmussen told Afghan special forces during his visit earlier Thursday to their main training base outside Kabul.
Associated Press writers Patrick Quinn and Deb Riechmann contributed to this report.