March 16, 2014

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghanistan’s former defense minister became the second presidential hopeful to withdraw from the race on Sunday, leaving a field of nine candidates three weeks before the vote to replace Hamid Karzai.

Karzai is constitutionally banned from seeking a third term in office, and the vote will mark the first democratic transfer of power since the Taliban were ousted by the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. The balloting also will be a key test of the ability of government forces to provide their own security as the international community prepares to end its combat mission by the end of the year.

Abdul Rahim Wardak, a longtime defense minister until he was removed by parliament in a vote of no confidence in 2012, gave no reason for his withdrawal and said he was not throwing his support behind any remaining candidates. The U.S.-educated Wardak, a Pashtun, was one of the top Afghan officials most trusted by Washington and was not considered a front-runner. He earlier served as a senior commander fighting against the Soviet occupation.

Karzai’s brother Qayyum also dropped out of the race earlier this month and backed former foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul, considered one of three leading candidates. The other two are Abdullah Abdullah, who was runner-up in the disputed 2009 election, and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, who chairs a commission overseeing the transition of security responsibilities from NATO to Afghan forces.

With the field still crowded, most Afghans and observers anticipate that no candidate will win an outright majority on April 5 and a runoff vote will have to be held. The Taliban have threatened to “use all force” to disrupt the election and warned voters to stay away from the polls.

Human Rights Watch called the threat “as despicable as it is unlawful.” “That threat highlights the responsibility of the Afghan government and its security forces to take all necessary measures to protect campaign activities and voters,” HRW’s Asia director Brad Adams said in a statement.