Afghan Presidential Frontrunner Aims to Repair U.S. Ties

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KABUL, Afghanistan — The man tipped to become Afghanistan’s next leader said he would break with outgoing President Hamid Karzai and try to repair ties with the United States and the rest of the West.

“President Karzai followed the line in the past few years especially which [was] very much anti-American and anti-international community,” Karzai’s former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, 53, told NBC News. “That should not be the case anymore … it will be very different.”

Abdullah, who faces ex-finance minister Ashraf Ghani in runoff elections Saturday, also reiterated that he would sign a key security agreement setting the terms for the United States’ military involvement in the country “sooner rather than later.”

“The situation is different in Afghanistan in comparison to Iraq ... Hopefully that scenario will not be applicable in Afghanistan.”

Signing the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) — which Karzai refused to do thus worsening already strained ties with the United States — would allow a “framework” for the two countries to work together for ten years and more, he said. Thousands of troops from the United States and other NATO countries have been based in Afghanistan since the hard line Taliban was toppled at the end of 2001.

Abdullah, a medical doctor and close confidant of the slain anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, will face-off with Ghani, an who spent decades studying and working in the United States. Ghani, and economist, won 31 percent of the vote in the first round of the vote, while Abdullah garnered 45 percent.

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A supporter of Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah holds a portrait of him during a gathering on the last day of campaigning in Kabul on June 11.SHAH MARAI / AFP - Getty Images

Ghani, a member of the Pashtun majority, has built formidable alliances with Uzbek and Hazara minorities, although isn’t thought to have made strong inroads among the Tajiks, the second-largest ethnic group in the country.

Abdullah, meanwhile, is the product of a mixed Tajik-Pashtun marriage but is seen to identify with the Tajik population. He has secured the backing of several important Pashtun politicians, however, which is expected to give him a needed boost.

But whoever wins will take over a deeply troubled country. Afghanistan, one of the world’s poorest nations where one woman in 11 will die while giving birth or in pregnancy, is wracked by violence and corruption, and deeply dependent on foreign civilian and military aid.

When asked whether he was worried that Afghanistan would suffer the same fate as Iraq, where al Qaeda- linked militants have taken control of swathes of the country and are threatening to overrun the capital Bagdhad, after an American troop withdrawal, Abdullah answered: “Hopefully not.”

“The situation is different in Afghanistan in comparison to Iraq,” said Abdullah, who has survived attempts on his life, including a twin suicide car bomb attack on. “Hopefully that scenario will not be applicable in Afghanistan.”

President Barack Obama announced a plant to maintain 9,800 military personnel in Afghanistan after the American combat mission ends there this year, pledging that he will bring the war there to "a responsible end."

That 9,800 figure would be cut in half by the end of 2015, and the American contingent would be reduced to “a normal Embassy presence in Kabul” by the end of 2016.

Obama also said that the United States will focus on two narrow missions after 2014 — training Afghan forces and supporting operations against al Qaeda.

Abdullah also said he was willing to hold talks with the Taliban without preconditions, adding, however, that they had to renounce violence and accept the country’s constitution.

“So other than that, the door is open, things and issues can be discussed,” he said.

- F. Brinley Bruton reported from London.