KABUL - President Hamid Karzai said Wednesday he will not take part in Afghanistan's first major televised presidential debate, leaving his top two challengers to talk between themselves - if they show up.

A debate was scheduled to take place Thursday on the most-watched TV network among Karzai, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani.

But after Karzai pulled out with barely 24 hours to go, an aide to Abdullah said the former foreign minister might not participate either.

Ghani, a former top World Bank official, has repeatedly needled Karzai to debate him. Karzai has pledged to take part in debates.

"It is the Afghan public that will suffer another broken promise, not any presidential candidate, if the future plans of each candidate is not made clear standing side-by-side his/her rival," Ghani said on his Web site this week.

Karzai's campaign said the president wouldn't take part because more of the country's 41 presidential candidates weren't invited. The campaign also said it had received an official invitation only one day before the debate.

Jahid Mohseni, the chief executive of Moby Group, which owns Tolo TV, said the station hoped to hold a series of three debates, and that Karzai was welcome to join the remaining two.

Mohseni said negotiations over Thursday's debate began more than three weeks ago. He noted that Thursday is exactly four weeks before the Aug. 20 election, and there hadn't yet been any debates.

"Afghanistan's obviously a new democracy and we've got a lot of limitations in terms of communication and road structure," Mohseni said. "We saw a TV debate as useful because it crosses barriers in terms of literacy, and candidates can talk to voters in their own homes."

Without Karzai present, Abdullah was also considering pulling out of the debate, said aide Ali Farhad Howaida. But Ghani still planned to take part, said Ajmal Habidy, a Ghani aide.

"If President Karzai is not participating in the debates, it shows his weakness," Habidy said.

Though Karzai's popularity has slipped in recent years, none of his challengers is expected to be able to defeat him unless they combine their campaigns and back a single candidate.

Latest From ...