Afghanistan will postpone its presidential election until August 20, some four months later than the constitution specifies, to give incoming US forces more time to stabilize the country's most violent regions, the national election commission said.
Opposition lawmakers decried the delay and said on Thursday that they won't recognize Hamid Karzai as president after May 22 _ his last day in office, according to the constitution. Parliament is set to debate the issue on Saturday in a potentially contentious session that could signal whether a constitutional crisis looms. "If Karzai is in office after May 22, that will be illegal," said Sayyid Agha Hussain Fazel Sancharaki, spokesman for the National Front, a group of opposition lawmakers. "Nobody is allowed to change the constitution."
The constitution says the election should be held 30 to 60 days before May 22. But Azizullah Lodin, head of the Independent Election Commission, said on Thursday the security situation is not good enough for a vote to occur so soon.
The country continues to be plagued by militant attacks and suicide bombers since a US-led invasion ousted the Taliban's hard-line Islamist regime from power in 2001. The Taliban insurgency has strengthened in recent years, gaining more control over southern regions, and last year was the deadliest for US troops since the invasion.
The August election date is meant to be a compromise between the president's office _ which wanted the vote delayed until fall _ and Parliament, which has said elections must occur in the spring, Lodin said.
Karzai has told The Associated Press he plans to run for a second five-year term. Several other Afghan politicians have said they will also run, but none of the candidates who have declared so far is expected to present Karzai with a strong challenge. Lodin said the commission agreed to wait for additional international forces expected to arrive in the coming months. US military leaders have said up to 30,000 new American forces could be sent to Afghanistan in 2009, augmenting the 32,000 now in the country. Thousands of the troops are being sent to the south, Afghanistan's most violent region.
In addition, some 2,500 Afghan army soldiers are being trained each month, meaning some 10,000 more soldiers would be available to help protect an August vote.
Lodin said the delay is allowed under an article in the election law that addresses a lack of security or logistical preparations for a peaceful vote.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said on Thursday that the US had no influence over the decision and it was up to the Afghan government to decide when to hold elections, but that the delay will mean more US forces in the country to help with security for the vote.
"We will be there to support them and ... try to assist the Afghan security forces in making sure the environment is as safe and secure as possible, Morrell said.
Lodin said that even if security were not an issue, there would be financial and technical barriers to holding the vote in the spring.
It would be nearly impossible to distribute ballots in Afghanistan's mountainous regions during winter and early spring because of the extreme weather, he said. In addition, the electoral commission is still far short of the $223 million required to hold the presidential and provincial council votes.
Karzai's spokesman, Humayun Hamidzada, said the August 20 election date would mean more people could vote.
But some lawmakers said the electoral commission needs to find a way to hold a vote within the timeline set out in the constitution and that security problems are not enough reason to hold back the vote.
John Dempsey, head of the US Institute for Peace in Afghanistan and a legal expert, said one solution might be for the speaker of Parliament's upper house to create a caretaker government, an option given in the constitution if the president does not serve out his term before elections.