Although constitutionally barred from seeking a third term, Afghan President Hamid Karzai has made no secret of the fact that he intends to remain a central force in Afghan politics even after his successor is elected this spring.
And observers say the horse-trading intended to make that happen has begun in earnest, just a month ahead of the April 5 ballot.
A public rift between Karzai and one of the candidates, his own older brother Qayum, has raised some eyebrows. But observers say appearances may not be what they seem.
Sarah Chayes, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, spent almost a decade working in southern Kandahar Province, where for the first few years she ran Qayum Karzai's NGO. She says the apparent falling-out between the Karzai brothers is actually part of the Afghan president's election strategy.
"I don't think he [Qayum Karzai] is a real candidate. This whole alleged dispute is smoke and mirrors. I think Qayum is in fact serving as a placeholder -- to withdraw and throw his support to an agreed candidate at the last minute," Chayes says. "This scene of Hamid Karzai telling Qayum Karzai not to run is pure theater. These two men are pretending to be opposed to each other when in fact they're joined at the hip. I have seen this dynamic for years."
All The President's Men
Chayes says at least three of the 11 presidential hopefuls -- Zalmai Rasul, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, and Qayum Karzai -- are actually surrogates for Hamid Karzai. She believes that at some point, all but one of them will withdraw from the race and the other two will throw their support behind the chosen candidate.
Regardless who is chosen, Chayes says the objective is for Karzai and his clan to maintain a dominant political position in Afghanistan.
Omar Samad, a senior Central Asia fellow at the New America Foundation and a former Afghan ambassador to France and Canada, says Qayum Karzai has played an important role as a senior adviser and behind-the-scenes operator for his brother's administration. But that role, according to Samad, has gradually diminished, perhaps due to personal or political differences.
As a presidential candidate, Qayum Karzai has also suffered from his perceived lack of charisma. He is a poor orator and his grasp of the Dari language has been questioned. These may be why the president has appeared to look to Rasul, a trusted adviser and former foreign minister. "Zalmai Rasul is more acceptable to a larger constituency that Qayum Karzai," Samad adds. "Zalmai Rasul is less of a threat, he is less controversial, he has fewer enemies, and he is more manageable."
Some observers believe that Rasul may be a willing partner for the sort of arrangement reached by Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev in Russia. When Putin was constitutionally barred from seeking a third term as president in 2008, he became prime minister and eased Medvedev into the presidency. Four years later, the two swapped roles.
If Rasul is overlooked, Sayyaf would be another option. But observers say that is unlikely considering the significant baggage he carries.
The Egyptian-trained cleric is one of the most controversial and conservative of the candidates. Sayyaf, a former Islamist warlord, is credited with bringing leading Al-Qaeda figures -- including former leader Osama bin Laden -- to Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.
What he brings to the table is strong religious credentials. The 68-year-old also has respect among some former mujahedin leaders, many of whom serve as governors and ministers in the government.
But Samad says his disadvantages outweigh his advantages. "Hamid Karzai is looking for someone who would give him face to strategize future decisions. Sayyaf is not that person," he explains. "What Sayyaf represents is the traditional mujahedin/conservative wing of society. It's an important [constituency] but it's also divided."
Whatever the outcome of the election, one certainty is that Hamid Karzai is going nowhere after the election. Literally. Karzai is preparing to move into a purpose-built compound just a couple of hundred meters away from the presidential palace.