Zalmay Khalilzad, the American envoy to the United Nations and an influential figure in the Bush administration, may run against Hamid Karzai for the Afghan presidency after resigning from his post.
Mr Khalilzad, who is Afghan-born, fuelled recurring reports of his political ambitions by appearing on television in Kabul to announce that he is to leave his job and wants to be "at the service of the Afghan people".
Although Mr Khalilzad, who holds US citizenship, added: "I have said earlier that I am not a candidate for any position in Afghanistan," his decision to step down from the prestigious UN job has been widely regarded as clearing the way for a run at the Afghan leadership, with President Karzai facing serious and mounting internal and international criticism.
But Mr Khalilzad has his own share of baggage. He had once lobbied for the Taliban and worked for an American oil company, Unocal, which sought concessions for pipelines in the country. In 1997, he urged the Clinton administration to take a softer line against Afghanistan's Islamist rulers and wrote in The Washington Post: "The Taliban do not practise the anti-US style of fundamentalism practised by Iran. We should... be willing to offer recognition and humanitarian assistance and to promote economic reconstruction."
Mr Khalilzad, 56, became US ambassador to Kabul in January 2002 then was sent to Baghdad by the White House when the "war on terror" moved on to Iraq. He has visited Afghanistan several times, adding to the speculation that he saw himself as a political player in the land of his birth.
For months, Mr Khalil-zad's supporters are said to have been holding talks with Pashtun groups in the south as well as the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras of the Northern Alliance, which now calls itself the National Unity Front, to offer him as a candidate who can bring the increasingly divided country together.
Mr Khalilzad is Pashtun but he was born in Mazar-i-Sharif in the north, and was schooled in Kabul. His followers say this background gives him the ideal qualifications to be a bridge-builder between the north and the south where the Pashtun population bitterly complain of being disenfranchised. The region has suffered most of the recent upsurge in fighting and has benefited little from reconstruction. Mr Khalilzad played a major role in Mr Karzai becoming President after the fall of the Taliban. But the Afghan ruler's popularity has slipped and he has been increasingly at odds with his Western backers, criticising British policy in Helmand and blocking the appointment of Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon as the UN envoy to Kabul. But Mr Khalilzad has himself been accused of undermining Lord Ashdown by failing to support him adequately at the UN for the Afghan job.
Critics say this was part of a long-term strategy to ensure he does not have another heavyweight international figure as a possible rival, controlling a vast budget, if and when he becomes president.
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