July 6 (Bloomberg) — Democratic strategist James Carville, who ran Bill Clinton’s presidential bid in 1992, is helping another challenger: a U.S.-educated rival of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
Carville, who has close ties to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said his advisory role to former Afghan Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani shouldn’t be interpreted as tacit backing by the U.S. for a change of leadership in Afghanistan.
In an interview before leaving for Kabul, Carville said he hadn’t discussed his trip with Clinton, and was going for an exploratory visit as a private consultant.
“I don’t think anybody would veto me doing this,” said Carville, 64, who said he has worked on campaigns in 18 countries. “I’ve worked in Israel when Bill Clinton was president. It’s what I do.”
Ghani, 60, who has a Ph.D in anthropology from Columbia University in New York and worked at the Washington-based World Bank, is one of 41 Karzai opponents competing in the Aug. 20 elections. Ghani, who became finance minister in 2002, said in an interview with the New York Times in January that he stepped down from that post in 2004 because Afghanistan had been taken over by drug traffickers.
Karzai, 51, came to power with U.S. backing following the ouster of the Taliban in 2001 and has amassed a power base largely through patronage. His government is under increasing criticism at home and abroad for inefficiency and corruption.
In a poll released(PDF) last month by the Washington-based International Republican Institute, 31 percent of Afghans said they plan to vote for Karzai, who won with 54 percent in the 2004 election. Former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah was in second place with 7 percent; Ghani came in third with 2 percent in the May 3-16 poll of 3,200 Afghans.
If no candidate wins 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be held in the fall. The Obama administration has called for free and competitive elections, and hasn’t officially backed any candidate. The administration has said the elections need to be seen as fair by the Afghan people, regardless of the outcome.
Still, many Afghans would interpret the involvement of an American political strategist with close ties to the Democratic establishment “as a deliberate decision by the Obama administration to assist Ghani,” said Kenneth Katzman, an Afghanistan specialist at the Congressional Research Service in Washington.
Asked if Carville had discussed his work for Ghani with U.S. officials, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said, “Mr. Carville is a private citizen and does not have to vet his travel with the State Department.”
Over the years, Carville has helped numerous foreign candidates, including former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, former Bolivian President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada, and former Brazilian President Fernando Enrique Cardoso.
Karzai’s image has suffered in recent years in Washington, where members of Congress and administration officials have questioned his management skills, his dealings with warlords, and alleged criminal links and graft among members of his family. In his first prime-time news conference, on Feb. 9, President Barack Obama said the Karzai government “seems very detached from what’s going on.”
The Obama administration hosted Karzai in May for a summit that brought together officials from Afghanistan, Pakistan and the U.S. The visit was billed as an opportunity to build trust among the three countries, aimed at coordinating the fight against the Taliban.
Karzai came under fire from senators who said he had failed to address their concerns about corruption and poor governance. Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, said Karzai’s presentation to senators was “harmful.”
Obama has promised an additional 21,000 troops for Afghanistan this year to ramp up the fight against Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters. The U.S. plans to have at least 60,000 troops on the ground by Election Day, in addition to about 37,000 NATO- led troops.
On a recent trip to Kabul, National Security Adviser James Jones met Karzai and three rivals, including Ghani, saying the U.S. “neither supports nor opposes any legitimate candidate.”
U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry has also met several candidates. The gesture has been interpreted as evidence the U.S. isn’t backing a particular hopeful, said Lisa Curtis, a South Asia specialist at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
“The U.S. wants to demonstrate that the elections should be competitive,” Curtis said. “There are allegations that the Karzai administration is using the tools of government machinery to impact the elections.”
If Afghans believe the election isn’t fair, anti-U.S. militias will have an opening for recruitment, Curtis said.
Ghani, who returned from two decades in the U.S. after the fall of the Taliban, initially worked pro bono as an adviser to Karzai. As finance minister, he won praise for establishing a new currency, overhauling budgeting and customs, and promoting rural development through World Bank grants.
He later became a Karzai critic, returning to Washington to establish the Institute of State Effectiveness, a policy institute.
Ghani has praised Obama’s strategy for Afghanistan. He advocates persuading low-level Taliban fighters to give up their arms — a position shared by the Obama administration.
“My prime objective is to oust this corrupt administration through voting and provide shelter and job opportunities for 1 million people,” Ghani told supporters in Kabul last month.
The Taliban have called for an election boycott and have attacked some voter registration centers.