With a Rival's Withdrawal, Karzai's Path to Re-Election Eased

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Alixandra Fazzina for TIME

Gul Agha Sherzai, pictured at the governor's palace in Jalalabad

It seemed ludicrous at first, the idea of Gul Agha Sherzai running for President of Afghanistan. The journalists who knew him, first as governor of Kandahar, then of Nangahar province, nicknamed him Jabba the Hutt, after the villainous behemoth of the Star Wars movies. It wasn't just his size (he readily admits he is considerably overweight), or his deep, throaty chuckle, that evoked such a comparison. It was more his reputation for ruthlessness as a warlord during the country's civil war in the 1990s. Sherzai's ability to get things done, however, has earned him another nickname from the American military commanders who work with him: the Bulldozer. Under his leadership, Nangahar, once a Taliban haven awash with opium poppies, has become one the most successful provinces in Afghanistan in terms of development and drug eradication.

Now Sherzai has made headlines by suddenly pulling out from the presidential race — a move that says as much about the parlous state of Afghanistan's young democracy as it does about its cynical politics. (See a multimedia look at the war in Afghanistan.)

As a presidential candidate, Sherzai ticked all the boxes. He is Pashtun, the country's biggest ethnic group; as a tribal chieftain he has the necessary respect to deal with leaders of the Taliban insurgency devastating the south; and he possesses a national reputation garnered from his successful governorship. (Read "Why the Taliban Is Winning the Propaganda War.")

Sherzai also got to meet Barack Obama before President Hamid Karzai did. When the then Senator Obama visited Afghanistan last July as part of a congressional delegation, his first stop was the provincial capital of Jalalabad, Sherzai's seat. The visit, arranged by the U.S. State Department, did not appear to have been chosen for any other reason than convenience: Jalalabad is just a half-hour flight from Kabul, and Sherzai's successes in the province were considered emblematic of potential solutions elsewhere in the country. "The Obama visit is what started it all," says Nasir Ahmad, one of Sherzai's advisers and a childhood friend. "Early in his presidential campaign Obama said that the Karzai administration was weak. Then he came to Jalalabad, and discussed with Gul Agha the smooth running of the province and his many successes, so [Sherzai] thought maybe he could do the same for the whole country, not just his province."

However many eyebrows and hackles a Sherzai campaign for the Aug. 20 polls would have raised, his abrupt withdrawal invokes the specter of a lackluster election season destined to demoralize Afghans already wary of the unfulfilled promises of democracy. Sherzai was widely considered the only candidate who could mount a robust challenge against Karzai — whose popularity has plummeted after seven years of ineffective rule and allegations of corruption and nepotism. On May 2, however, Sherzai met privately with the President for four hours. After he emerged Sherzai announced that he had changed his mind and would no longer run.

If Sherzai had continued with his campaign he would have had to step down from his presidential-appointed post as governor — a prestigious and influential position he would be unlikely to regain if he lost to Karzai. A spokesman for Sherzai said his boss "decided Karzai would be a better leader for Afghanistan." Sherzai's campaign manager was stunned. "This is an absolute betrayal of everything we worked on," spluttered Khalid Pashtoon.

Competiton or no, Karzai would probably win the election anyway. He has the benefit of incumbency in a country accustomed to a monarchy, and the opposition parties are fractured. But while Sherzai is no white knight, his candidacy would have lent the election greater legitimacy. It would have given Afghans a chance to get fully involved in the election process, to discuss policies and platforms. Now Afghans are deprived of at least the perception of choice, and of having a say in their future.

The last time I saw Sherzai, who is an accomplished lyricist, he was belting out a newly written ode in Pashto to the Taliban in the domed atrium of his Baroque governor's palace. A turbaned Pavarotti with a deep voice burnished by years of cigarettes, he put one hand on his heart and, with the other raised in a beseeching manner, chastised his enemies. "Once, we stood side by side fighting for our country/ Leave me some pride in those memories/ Your worth is more than in killing yourself/ You slaughter your brother while calling out God's name/ Come rebuild Afghanistan with me instead." Sherzai chuckled when I asked if this was his campaign slogan. "Do you think it will work?" he asked. Maybe it wouldn't have. But at least it would have got Afghans thinking about what could have been.

See pictures of rebuilding Afghanistan.