Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, is secretly planning to stay in power when his second and constitutionally final term ends in three years' time, according to a Western intelligence report seen by The Independent.
Mr Karzai, it is claimed, wants to emulate Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin who, similarly blocked from holding office for a third consecutive term, handed the Presidency to Dmitri Medvedev in 2008. Mr Putin is seeking a return to the Kremlin in March.
The supposed plans of Mr Karzai are set out in a document compiled by Germany's foreign intelligence service, the BND. It comes on the day an international summit in Bonn, chaired by the Afghan president, is seeking to chart the future of Afghanistan after Nato ends its combat mission in 2014.
The disclosure will raise questions in the international community, which is expected to donate up to $10bn (£6.4bn) in aid to Afghanistan for a decade after the withdrawal. Mr Karzai is due to leave office in 2014 and there had been hope among Western governments of a fresh start with a successor who would not be dogged by allegations of corruption and human rights abuses.
The BND report, produced two months ago and marked "top secret", is said to be based on information supplied by Afghan public figures, including allies of Mr Karzai. The Afghan President is believed to be considering holding a loya jirga, or grand council, to change the Afghan constitution and allow him to remain in power.
It is claimed that Mr Karzai had wanted special dispensation to run for a third term and guide the country through the period of uncertainty following Western military disengagement. However, he was told this would be unacceptable both within the country and internationally. Instead, he has decided to establish the post of prime minister, to which he will aim to be appointed.
Mr Karzai's first choice for a figurehead president was said to be Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former president of the country. But, following his assassination in September, with the alleged involvement of the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, the Afghan leader is said to have sounded out a number of other potential candidates.
Foremost among them are former commanders of the Northern Alliance. Negotiations have been held, it is claimed, with Younis Quanoni, the speaker of the lower house in the Kabul parliament; Marshal Mohammad Qasim Fahim, a former defence minister and vice-president, and Mohammed Atta Noor, the governor of Balkh province in the north of the country.
General Atta, who was sent to the north of the country by the Afghan government as a counterweight to the Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, is said to be disinclined to return to the internecine politics of Kabul. The German intelligence service also maintains that Mr Quanoni was at first suspicious of the Afghan president's overtures, believing it was "an attempt to drive a wedge through the Northern Alliance", but that he is now "having second thoughts about it". Marshal Fahim, it is claimed, has been discussing the offer with his officials.
All three men are Tajiks, while Mr Karzai is from the majority Pashtun community, and thus would provide an electoral ticket with an attractive ethnic mix for Afghanistan.
Western states, however, will have concerns about the potential running mates: Marshal Fahim had been accused of human rights abuses by US officials. Mr Quanoni and General Atta have been accused of corruption, charges they both deny.
Although President Karzai has faced frequent criticism from politicians in Western Europe and the US – especially following his election victory in 2009, which was mired in allegations of fraud – he has shown resilience by staying in power and has taken an increasingly combative stance against Nato, condemning air strikes which have resulted in deaths of civilians and demanding an end to "night raids" in which Taliban targets are captured or killed in their homes.
Western officials acknowledge privately that, despite concerns about Mr Karzai, there remains a lack of an alternative leader. Javed Ludin, the Afghan foreign minister, insisted yesterday in Bonn that Mr Karzai had no intention of seeking a third term. "I am convinced that he will go when the time comes, after all that is what he has always said." The Afghan president stated on the eve of the conference that he intended to retire in 2014 as "a pensioner and happy citizen".
The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, said at the summit yesterday: "President Karzai has said himself that he will be going in 2014, let us take him at his word." The US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, said she looked forward to "inclusive, fair and credible presidential elections and a peaceful and democratic transfer of power in 2014".
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies