KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — One of the top three contenders in Afghanistan's presidential race said Thursday that he won't challenge the results even if he loses and suspects fraud, and he urged his opponents to do the same.
"I will accept the results for the sake of Afghanistan even if I have a fear of fraud," Zalmai Rassoul said in an interview with The Associated Press.
A soft-spoken Rassoul warned that anything but a "clean and clear" election on April 5, when Afghans will pick a successor to President Hamid Karzai, will undermine the country's nascent democracy.
Rassoul's opponents have raised suspicions that his close association with Karzai could lead the government to intervene to aid him.
Rassoul responded that all three front-runners have friends in the government and that his main rivals — Abdullah Abdullah, who was Karzai's leading opponent in the fraud-tainted 2009 elections, and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, an academic and former World Bank employee — have worked in Karzai's administration.
Still, he warned that Afghanistan's stability is at risk if there is a repeat of the massive vote-tampering seen during the election five years ago that returned Karzai to power.
"The important thing for me is the institutions of the government should not be used to support a candidate," he said.
The 71-year-old Rassoul is a former foreign minister and long-time loyalist of Afghanistan's King Zahir Shah, who was toppled in a 1973 coup and died in 2007.
The monarch's 40-year rule has been described as the last time Afghanistan enjoyed a protracted period of peace and relative stability. In later years, the Soviet Union would invade the country, sparking a bloody insurgency. Warlords then took over parts of the country until the rise of the Taliban in 1996.
Graeme Smith, senior analyst for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, said no campaign is likely to escape accusations of fraud and other dirty dealings.
"I think it is a bit disingenuous to single out Rassoul," he said. "The process as a whole is deeply flawed. ... I hope that whoever wins will carve out some legitimacy on the basis of his actions, because it won't be on the basis of winning a clean election."
Critics have warned of vote-buying as well as an overwhelming surplus of voter registration cards in circulation. More than 21 million cards have been issued since Afghanistan's first election in 2004, and all are considered valid, yet there are only 12 million eligible voters.
Meanwhile, Smith said Rassoul's campaign has gained momentum as other presidential candidates have dropped out and thrown their support behind Rassoul.
Earlier this week, minor candidate Mohammed Nadir Naim, the grandson of Afghanistan's last king, withdrew and backed Rassoul. Earlier, Karzai's elder brother, Qayyum, also dropped out and supported Rassoul, saying he would appeal to Afghanistan's moderate majority.
Rassoul said Afghans are worried about security, corruption and poor governance. He said they also want better relations with Afghanistan's allies over the past 12 years of war with Taliban insurgents.
Karzai's relations with Western nations, particularly the United States, have become increasingly acrimonious, reaching a low point last year when the Afghan president refused to sign a security agreement with Washington that would allow about 10,000 to 12,000 troops to remain behind in the country after U.S. and NATO combat troops withdraw at the end of 2014.
While every candidate has said he will sign, Rassoul, who was involved in the negotiations, said he would sign it as is, without additional negotiations. The agreement is a good one, he said, that protects Afghanistan's sovereignty and addresses U.S. concerns.
Rassoul also endorsed peace talks with the Taliban, saying "peace is the only solution." However, he said past attempts have been flawed.
Afghan authorities need a better means of identifying and embracing those Taliban who want to talk peace, he said.
Also, Afghanistan needs to figure out "how we can convince Pakistan that a peaceful Afghanistan, a stable Afghanistan, is not only good for Afghanistan, it is also good for Pakistan," he said.
Kathy Gannon is special regional correspondent for Afghanistan and Pakistan