Afghan Pres. Skips Country's 1st TV Debate

Like millions of Afghans, the Fazly family watched the country's first-ever major televised presidential debate on Friday.

Modeled on the style of U.S. presidential debates, the plan was to have the incumbent, President Hamid Karzai, take on his two main rivals.

But just 24 hours before airtime the Afghan leader pulled out, saying he didn't have enough time to prepare, reports CBS News correspondent Mandy Clark.

It's an excuse Khalid Fazly doesn't buy. "He would not be able to defend his activities and that is why he didn't appear for the debate."

Instead, Karzai's two closest rivals - former top World Bank official Ashraf Ghani and the president's own former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, soaked up two hours of prime-time television.

They both pointed to high civilian casualties as the primary reason for Afghan's opposition to foreign forces in the country - most of whom are Americans.

Despite the criticism, President Obama's special envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, said the American presence is important, pointing to the on-going operation in Helmand.

"This election will take place on schedule, and Helmand will be able to participate thanks to this offensive that General Nicholson and his colleagues are directing," said Holbrooke, referring to a surge of U.S. Marines into the southern province to go after Taliban militants.

Karzai has been accused of running a lackluster campaign, but is still widely expected to come out on top. His no-show at the debate may not have even hurt his chances significantly.

Relations between Karzai and the U.S. are at a low point, with members of the Obama administration openly referring to Karzai's government as inefficient and corrupt.

To boost his re-election chances, Karzai has made questionable deals with former warlords - even selecting one as his running mate. That comes on top of the president pardoning five influential drug smugglers.

On June 27, Karzai hit back at the criticism from Washington, complaining about the American ambassador's attendance at a press conference of his rival, Abdullah Abdullah. Karzai said it amounted to foreign interference in the electoral process.

American Ambassador Karl Eikenberry argued that he's met many of the 41 presidential candidates and said the U.S. government is not picking favorites - merely supporting the election process.

The Fazly family is split on who to vote for, with two backing Ghani and two in support of extending Karzai's tenure.

Whether the debate will have the same impact on the Afghanistan's voters as political debates can in America is unclear. Democracy is still very much an experiment in this country.
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