* Arsala is one of 41 candidates for Afghan presidency
* Vows government based on merit and talent
* Support limited, but voice respected
By Sayed Salahuddin
KABUL, June 24 (Reuters) - A second term for President Hamid Karzai would further destabilise Afghanistan because he has chosen a coalition of antagonistic former military leaders, a rival candidate in the Aug. 20 poll said on Wednesday.
Hedayat Amin Arsala, a former World Bank official who was once Karzai’s boss, is seen as one of few among a field of 41 candidates who can possibly challenge Karzai, who has ruled Afghanistan since the Taliban’s ouster in 2001.
Arsala is a former senior minister who served as one of Karzai’s deputies for two years until 2004. Like Karzai, he is a member of the majority Pashtun tribe, giving him a key edge over candidates from other minority ethnic groups.
Some factional leaders have pledged to support Karzai in return for government positions should he retain power.
Arsala said Karzai’s choice of coalition partners was a cause of great concern for Afghanistan, where militant violence has hit its highest level since 2001 despite the increasing numbers of U.S. and NATO-led troops, which stand at almost 90,000.
“All of us should be concerned. The international community also should be concerned, because let us face it, they want stability in this country and after stability they would like to leave, but do not want to leave unsuccessfully,” Arsala said.
“Have we agreed on where we are going? Where Afghanistan is going to, or is it just about distributing ministries without a cohesive sort of approach to solving Afghanistan’s problems?” he told Reuters in an interview.
Karzai, who won Afghanistan’s first direct poll in 2004, had been seen as weak and vulnerable earlier this year and also attracted criticism from Washington for his handling of the fight against the Taliban resurgence.
But he has consolidated his authority in recent weeks, persuading some leading opponents not to run and leaving the remaining opposition divided.
An opinion survey published by a U.S.-based group this month gave him a wide lead, with main rivals former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, ex-finance minister Ashraf Ghani and Arsala all trailing with single-digit support.
Arsala said if Karzai wins again, he will lead a weak government that will be bogged down in factional conflicts rather than serving Afghanistan.
He said he had advised Karzai not to stand again given his tendency to compromise, allegations of widespread corruption, rising insecurity and rampant production of illegal drugs.
Inept public officials and Karzai’s reliance on the military over the past eight years had also created a gap between the people and the government, Arsala said.
Arsala said Karzai’s unpopular decision to align with leaders of former armed groups who helped the United States topple the Taliban would likely dilute his support and split the vote among the other candidates, leading to a likely run-off vote.
That would create additional cost for donor countries who are already paying an estimated $230 million for the poll.
Arsala, who as foreign minister in the 1990s was Karzai’s boss, rejected the idea among some Western nations that there was no credible alternative to Karzai.
He said several candidates appeared to be receiving funding from outside Afghanistan.
“But I must say that it is not the problem of the president, but it is also some other candidates receiving money from different, external sources, which to me are of course illegitimate,” Arsala said.
“I think ... (this) endangers the future development of the political process in Afghanistan.”
Arsala refused to name any of the external sources or the candidates he said were being helped.
He vowed to form a government based on talent and merit rather than ethnicity. He urged the West to pay more attention to improving the lives of Afghans by providing jobs and focusing on reconstruction rather than increasing troop levels. (Editing by Golnar Motevalli and Paul Tait)