KABUL - President Hamid Karzai chose a powerful warlord accused of rights abuses as one of his vice-presidential running mates on Monday, hours before leaving for meetings in Washington with President Barack Obama and Pakistan's president.
The selection of Mohammad Qasim Fahim, a top commander in the militant group Jamiat-e-Islami during Afghanistan's 1990s civil war, drew immediate criticism from human rights groups.
A 2005 Human Rights Watch report, "Blood-Stained Hands," found "credible and consistent evidence of widespread and systematic human rights abuses and violations of international humanitarian law" were committed by Jamiat commanders, including Fahim.
Karzai was "insulting the country" with the choice, the New York-based group said Monday.
Fahim served as Karzai's first vice-president during the country's interim government put in place after the ouster of the Taliban in the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. During the 2004 election, Karzai dropped Fahim from his ticket in favour of Ahmad Zia Massood - the brother of resistance hero Ahmad Shah Massood, who was assassinated by al-Qaida two days before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Under Afghan law, the president has two vice presidents.
"To see Fahim back in the heart of government would be a terrible step backwards for Afghanistan," said Brad Adams, the group's Asia director. "He is widely believed by many Afghans to be still involved in many illegal activities, including running armed militias, as well as giving cover to criminal gangs and drug traffickers."
The U.S. Embassy would not comment, saying it wasn't helpful for the United States to comment on individual candidates. However, a U.S. statement said, "We believe the election is an opportunity for Afghanistan to move forward with leaders who will strengthen national unity."
Karzai's popularity has waned in recent years, as civilian casualties caused by international military forces have increased and charges of government corruption persist. But so far no candidates who could challenge Karzai's hold on power have registered for the Aug. 20 vote. Candidates have until Friday to register.
The Afghan president formally registered as a candidate on Monday, then immediately left for the United States, where he, Obama and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari are expected to discuss the increasingly perilous security situation in both countries.
The United States is increasingly focusing on Afghanistan as it shifts its resources away from Iraq. Obama is sending 21,000 additional forces to bolster the record 38,000 U.S. troops already in Afghanistan in hopes of stemming an increasingly powerful Taliban insurgency.
The choice of Fahim could be an issue for western countries invested in Afghanistan's success, said Mohammad Qassim Akhgar, a political columnist and the editor-in-chief of the independent Afghan newspaper 8 a.m.
"Perhaps if Karzai wins the election western countries are going to use this point as an excuse and limit their assistance to Afghanistan," he said. "This is also a matter of concern for all human rights organizations who are working in Afghanistan and working for transitional justice."
Karzai entered the registration room flanked by the two men running as his vice-presidents, Fahim and ethnic Hazara leader Karim Khalili, Karzai's current second vice-president.
Wearing his trademark green and purple cloak, Karzai told reporters at the election commission headquarters that he wanted to run again "to be at the service of the Afghan people," though he acknowledged there have been "some mistakes" during his five-year term as president.
Massood publicly criticized Karzai in recent months for staying on as president after May 21, the date the Afghan constitution says Karzai's term ends. The Supreme Court has ruled Karzai can stay in office until the Aug. 20 vote, which was pushed back from spring because of lingering winter weather, ballot distribution logistics and security concerns.
In a reminder of the country's perilous security, a suicide bombing, a roadside bomb and a militant attack killed 24 people Monday.
The suicide bomber attacked the mayor of Mehterlam, capital of eastern Laghman province, killing six people, including the mayor and his nephew, the deputy governor said. In Zabul province, a roadside bomb exploded against a family riding on a tractor, killing 12 people, while militants attacked a convoy and killed six security guards, officials said.
Aziz Rafiee, the executive director of the Afghan Civil Society Forum, said Karzai's latest change of heart begged a question.
"If (Fahim) was a good choice, why did (Karzai) remove him" in 2004? Rafiee asked. "And if he was a bad choice, why did he select him again? The people of Afghanistan will answer this question while voting."