'The whole country is armed with weapons. You have to keep everyone happy'
With less than two weeks to go until national elections, the Afghan President, Hamid Karzai, is trying to cut a secret deal with one of his rivals to knock out his leading contender and ensure a decisive victory, to avoid the chaos that a tight result might unleash.
Afghanistan's second democratic polls threaten to split the country along sectarian lines. That would risk undermining US and British-led peace efforts which are already under pressure from a resurgent Taliban.
Mr Karzai and his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, hail from different ethnic groups and different regions. If neither wins outright in round one on August 20, officials fear Afghanistan could be engulfed by violence reminiscent of the civil war of the 1990s.
"The whole country is armed. Everybody has weapons. You have to keep everyone happy," an Afghan analyst said.
Mr Abdullah's supporters, who are largely Tajik, have warned of Iranian-style protests, but "with Kalashnikovs", should the president win a second term. Although Mr Karzai, a Pashtun, is still the favourite, his supporters fear that a third candidate, Ashraf Ghani, could split the Pashtun vote, depriving the president of the 51pc share he needs to win, and opening the door to Mr Abdullah.
Yesterday, details emerged of how the president was trying to join forces with Mr Ghani to unite the Pashtun vote and knock Mr Abdullah out of the race. The president offered Mr Ghani a job as chief executive -- a new post described as similar to prime minister -- a campaign official said last night.
Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and Karl Eikenberry, the US ambassador, are understood to have discussed the proposal with Mr Ghani late last month.
"It makes sense," a policy analyst with close links to the US administration said. "Holbrooke likes Ghani, and he has come round to the fact that Karzai will probably win."
Mr Ghani has an impressive pedigree as a former university professor and finance minister. Two years ago, he was a contender to head the World Bank. What he lacks -- and what might make the deal attractive to him -- is the grassroots support that Mr Karzai and Mr Abdullah enjoy.
Sources close to the president's inner circle confirmed that they made an offer to Mr Ghani two weeks ago, and the president's brother, Qayum Karzai, had made the first approach. His argument was that Mr Ghani couldn't win "and even if he did, he couldn't hold on to power".
"For Karzai it's logical," said a businessman with friends in the president's team. "He doesn't want to divide the Pashtun vote, and if it goes to a second round he's going to lose."
US embassy officials have denied any involvement in back-room deals. Foreign diplomats are desperate to avoid being seen to be influencing the election, but the international community is equally keen to avoid bloodshed when the results are announced.
Last night, Mr Ghani's staff said he was campaigning as usual and had no plans to pull out of the race. They said the Mr Karzai's offer was proof of their own candidate's strength.
Violence, already at its worst since the Taliban were ousted after the September 11 attacks, has increased in the run-up to the poll. Yesterday brought news of a bomb attack on a family heading to a wedding in Garmsir, in Helmand province. Five people were reported killed. In a separate attack, in Naad Ali, five policemen died when a bomb exploded near their vehicle.
In western Afghanistan, a roadside bomb killed four US marines, bringing the death toll of Western troops in the first week of August to at least 15. (© Independent News Service)