KABUL — Abdullah Abdullah, a longtime opponent of President Hamid Karzai and an ardent supporter of the United States, emerged Saturday as the clear front-runner in Afghanistan’s presidential election and could become the first non-Pashtun to lead the country in more than three centuries.
In preliminary results released Saturday, Abdullah, an ethnic Tajik from the north, won 45 percent of the vote, not enough to avoid a runoff with the leading Pashtun candidate, Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank economist and Karzai adviser, who won 32 percent.
But Afghan government officials say Abdullah is on the verge of forging alliances with at least two of the Pashtun runners-up to gain their support, and possibly the presidency, in the next round.
Either of the top two candidates would represent a significant break with the years of deteriorating relations the United States has had with Afghanistan under Karzai, and a shift toward greater bilateral cooperation.
Each candidate has said, for instance, that he would sign a security accord allowing US forces to remain in the country past 2014, which Karzai negotiated but refused to sign.
But the apparent advantage for Abdullah, with his long record of advocating closer relations with the United States and a tougher stance against the Taliban, was likely to be encouraging news for the United States and its NATO allies.
The election, the third for president since the NATO-led invasion of 2001, also appears to have been the country’s most democratic yet. The turnout was nearly double that of the last election, the deeply tainted race that Abdullah lost to Karzai in 2009, and early indications suggested that it was far cleaner.
Such numbers, along with the expected Pashtun support, could give Abdullah a powerful mandate.
In a recent interview, Abdullah said he would set a different tone with the United States, ending the often acrimonious criticism from the Afghan president over prisoner releases, civilian casualties, and night raids. “This rhetoric has not helped Afghanistan,” he said.
The two Pashtun candidates expected to throw their support to Abdullah are Zalmay Rassoul, believed to have been Karzai’s favorite, and Gul Agha Sherzai, a former warlord favored by the CIA and popular in the Taliban’s southern heartland, Kandahar, according to two senior Afghan government officials.
Karzai, who is stepping down after 12 years in power, has been studiously neutral throughout the campaign and has maintained silence on the issue since the April 5 election.
Meanwhile, a commission appointed by Karzai to investigate detention facilities run by US and British forces in southern Afghanistan claimed Saturday to have uncovered secret prisons on two coalition bases, an allegation that could not be immediately confirmed but that was likely to further complicate relations between the Afghan government and its allies.
“We have conducted a thorough investigation and search of Kandahar Airfield and Camp Bastion and found several illegal and unlawful detention facilities run and operated by foreign military forces,” said Abdul Shakur Dadras, the panel’s chairman.
Whether these sites are secret and unlawful remains a question. Dadras offered no evidence to support his assertion, though he promised to release more details after presenting his report to Karzai.
The International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF, as the coalition is known, issued a brief statement Saturday saying that it was cooperating with the investigation.
Also Saturday, a British helicopter crashed in southern Afghanistan, killing five NATO troops in the single deadliest day this year for foreign forces as they prepare to withdraw from the country, officials said.
The cause of the crash was not immediately known. Kandahar provincial police said the aircraft went down in the province’s Takhta Pul district in the southeast, about 31 miles from the Pakistani border.
A Taliban spokesman claimed in a text message to journalists Saturday that the insurgents shot down the helicopter.