By Hamid Shalizi
KABUL (Reuters) – Afghan President Ashraf Ghani launched his re-election campaign on Sunday, promising to start peace talks with the Taliban after decades of war and to transform his nation into a trade hub.
The 70-year-old, U.S.-trained former World Bank official came to power in 2014 after winning a bitterly disputed election marred by accusations of cheating.
He is widely expected to win again.
Having taken office as most foreign troops were leaving, with a much-reduced NATO alliance mission focused mainly on training local forces, his government has struggled to combat a growing Taliban insurgency.
Tens of thousands of soldiers, police and civilians have been killed in the last five years, leaving Afghans weary of endless violence and widespread corruption in public life.
Underlining the threat, a powerful blast hit Kabul on Sunday evening, killing one person and wounding a dozen more.
Ghani’s vice-presidential running mate Amrullah Saleh was injured.
Earlier, as campaigning began for the Sept. 28 vote, Ghani had told a crowd: “Peace is coming and talks will definitely begin. We want to end this bloodshed.
“Why I am running again is because I want to turn Afghanistan into a regional hub for trade and a centre of civilisation,” he added, pledging that Afghanistan would eventually shake off its dependence on foreign aid.
The election has become inextricably linked with the peace process, which has grabbed headlines for months but is yet to produce a major breakthrough.
With U.S. President Donald Trump making little secret of his desire to end America’s military involvement in Afghanistan entirely, U.S. officials have been talking with the Taliban about a timetable for withdrawal, in exchange for security guarantees.
But Ghani himself has remained sidelined by the insurgents’ refusal to talk to a government they consider a foreign-appointed “puppet” regime.
A Taliban spokesman in Doha, Sohail Shaheen, said an election would only deepen Afghanistan’s problems.
There are doubts too over the logistics for an election already repeatedly postponed, with major technical and organisational hurdles still to be overcome in just two months.
Last year’s chaotic parliamentary elections underlined how difficult it will be to organize the much more important presidential election, with violence intensifying in recent weeks in the capital Kabul as well as in the provinces.
Other candidates include Ghani’s partner in government, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, Soviet-trained former intelligence chief Hanif Atmar and onetime warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
Ghani’s electoral rivals accuse him of clinging to power past the normal end of his mandate in May and suspect he may try to stay in office until a peace deal with the Taliban is agreed.
Despite the security problems, many Afghans appreciate Ghani’s anti-corruption policies, opening of economic corridors with regional powers, and appointing of young and educated Afghans in top government positions.
(Additional reporting by Rupam Jain; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)