KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghans choose a new president today in a runoff election between two candidates who both promise to improve ties with the West, combat corruption and guide the nation with a steadier hand than outgoing leader Hamid Karzai.
The Taliban, who has intensified attacks ahead of the vote, issued a new warning to stay away from the polls. Afghan troops stepped up security sharply, erecting more checkpoints, searching cars and banning trucks from the streets of the capital, Kabul.
With the insurgency showing no signs of weakening as foreign combat troops prepare to withdraw at the end of the year, the winner will have the task of bolstering Afghanistan's security forces while weighing the possibility of a negotiated peace with the militants. And he will have to find a way to improve the nation's infrastructure at a time when international aid for Afghanistan is drying up.
Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, whose differences lie more in personality than in policy, each say they would sign a long-delayed security pact with the United States. That would allow nearly 10,000 American troops to remain in the country for two more years to conduct counterterrorism operations and continue training and advising the ill-prepared Afghan army and police.
Karzai, who has grown increasingly alienated from his onetime U.S. allies during his two terms in office, has declined to sign the pact. The issue has gained urgency as Afghans have watched Islamic extremists seize large sections of Iraq nearly three years after U.S. troops withdrew from that country. Iraq's Shiite-led government had discussed with the Americans the possibility of a residual U.S. force but the two sides were unable to reach an agreement.
The inconclusive first round on April 5 saw a massive turnout with voters excited about participating in the country's first peaceful transfer of authority and choosing from eight candidates, a crowded field that threw traditional alliances in flux. Analysts have predicted less enthusiasm and a tighter race in the second round.
Abdullah, a 53-year-old former foreign minister, emerged as the front-runner after he garnered 45 percent of votes in the initial balloting. Ahmadzai, 64, who once served as finance minister, was second with 31.6 percent.