By Hamid Shalizi and Missy Ryan
KABUL (Reuters) - Severe strains in Afghan ties with the United States, the chief backer of the international military mission in Afghanistan, are likely to subside as U.S. and NATO forces depart, a contender in a presidential election in April said.
"The long-term stay of any force, in any country, will create a problem. The international community will not stay in Afghanistan forever - they should not stay forever," former Foreign Minister Zalmay Rassoul said in an interview this week.
"The Afghan people want a friendship with the United States, but at the same time we need to make sure that Afghanistan will be a long-term, sovereign friend of the United States. So I have no worry about the future relation of Afghanistan and the United States, in the framework of respect for our sovereignty," he said.
Rassoul, who stepped down from his post as Afghanistan's top diplomat to run in the April 5 polls, is widely seen as the favored candidate of President Hamid Karzai, who U.S. officials blame for fueling tension with the West. Karzai has served two terms and cannot run again.
The diplomat, a former top aide to Karzai who also served as Karzai's national security adviser, led Afghan dealings with the Obama administration as the two countries negotiated a partnership agreement governing U.S.-Afghan ties as U.S. and foreign troops steadily withdraw ahead of a year-end deadline.
Rassoul's role as chief interlocutor with the West suggests that he might seek to smooth over ties with Washington, where lawmakers and officials have grown increasingly frustrated as what they see as erratic and provocative action by Karzai, who Western nations backed as Afghanistan's first leader after the ouster of the Taliban government in 2001.
In the latest of a long series of disagreements, U.S. military officials were incensed by the Karzai government's recent decision to release 65 detainees who the United States insisted were dangerous Taliban militants.
Karzai bluntly rejected the criticism, saying judicial officials' decision was of "no concern" to the United States.
Rassoul declined comment on whether his former boss should sign the U.S.-Afghan bilateral security agreement (BSA), a counterpart to that first partnership deal, which would authorize a modest U.S. force to stay beyond 2014 to train Afghan troops and go after al Qaeda. The Obama administration had expected Karzai to finalize the BSA following its endorsement by tribal elders late last year.
"President Karzai is the elected president of Afghanistan ... so the decision is up to him," Rassoul said.
Karzai has insisted that the United States must first jump-start peace talks with the Taliban and end all raids and strikes on Afghan homes before he signs the deal.
The uncertainty about the BSA has fueled anxiety about the future, added to strains on the economy, and raised fears of renewed civil war.
"GOOD FOR AFGHANISTAN"
Rassoul said that if he were elected president he would sign the deal, with the goal of securing advice, funding and military gear for Afghan forces.
"What I can say is that the BSA, the way it was prepared, is good for Afghanistan," he said.
While foreign and Afghan troops have pushed the Taliban out of many areas of their southern heartland, concerns are growing about whether Afghan forces can keep the still-potent insurgency at bay as the West goes home.
A relative of former Afghan King Amanullah Khan, Rassoul grew up in Afghanistan but lived in Europe for much of his adult life. He studied medicine in France, specializing in kidney transplants, and helped organize Afghan expatriates against the 1980s Soviet occupation and the Taliban government of the 1990s.
Rassoul will face off against a number of formidable competitors in the polls, including Karzai's older brother Qayum, another former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, and a former finance minister, Ashraf Ghani.
The elections are widely expected to go to a second round. While the electoral commission says it has taken steps to avoid the widespread allegations of fraud in the last presidential polls in 2009, skepticism remains about whether the board remains truly independent of the current leadership and whether the polls will be as credible as desired.
Despite potentially pivotal support from Karzai, Rassoul may struggle to win the support of ordinary Afghans, especially among the Pashtun community, the biggest ethnic group, despite the fact that his family hails from the Pashtun south.
In an incident that may symbolize that challenge, he answered questions asked in the Pashto language during a recent presidential debate in Dari, a language spoken in northern Afghanistan and in Kabul.
In a move he hoped would break "a taboo" in conservative Afghanistan, Rassoul chose a female former governor as one of his running mates. His other running mate is the brother of the late mujahideen leader, the famed Ahmad Shah Massoud.
(Editing by Robert Birsel)