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American military involvement in Afghanistan has entered its 13th year. The war has cost the United States the lives of more than 2,000 troops, as well as three-quarters of a trillion dollars, yet the political and security situation remains precarious at best. The country is hoping to reach a milestone next spring: the first democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan's history.

As NPR's Sean Carberry reports, there is no shortage of candidates vying to succeed President Hamid Karzai.

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: They might as well have put a red carpet outside the office of the Independent Election Commission in Kabul. For the last few days, a veritable who's who of politicians, technocrats and former warlords have been pulling up to the office in seemingly endless caravans of armored SUVs. They're all hoping to be Afghanistan's next president and vice presidents. Afghanistan has a first and second VP.

So many candidates came out of the woodwork at the last minute, the election office had to stay open until midnight on Sunday to accommodate them all. Backroom talks have been going on for weeks, as various power brokers tried to assemble winning coalitions.

NADER NADERY: Some of those who have joined last minute indicates that the political horse trading may have not worked.

CARBERRY: Nader Nadery is the head of the Free and Fair Election Foundation. He says he's not surprised that the political opposition failed to unite behind a single ticket.

NADERY: It is a much more self-centric political bargaining.

CARBERRY: He says, at the end of the day, everyone is really in it for himself, which is why 27 different tickets were registered.

ABDUL RASOUL SAYYAF: (Foreign language spoken)

CARBERRY: The short list of serious contenders includes Abdul Rasoul Sayyaf, the Islamist warlord who's credited with bringing al-Qaida to Afghanistan.

DR. ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: (Foreign language spoken)

CARBERRY: Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, a Western-educated former foreign minister who came in second in the 2009 election.

There's President Karzai's brother Qayoum, and also Gul Agha Shirzai, a former provincial governor accused of drug trafficking and pedophilia.

ZALMAI RASOUL: (Foreign language spoken)

CARBERRY: Former foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul is viewed by many as an early frontrunner. Rassoul's running mate for second vice president is Habiba Sarabi, who was Afghanistan's first female provincial governor.

There's one relatively unknown woman running for president, and a total of eight female vice presidential candidates.

NADERY: It's a very fragmented number of candidates.

CARBERRY: Nader Nadery says that, in part, reflects the fragmented nature of Afghan politics. There's no real party structure or primary system. Many of the dozens of political parties and coalitions are based on religion or ethnicity. Almost all of the presidential candidates are Pashtun, the majority ethnic group in the country.

Despite their ethnic, religious, and tribal differences, there's one issue all the candidates seem to agree on: Afghanistan needs to sign a long-term security pact with the U.S. Almost every candidate has mentioned the issue in recent speeches.

PRESIDENT HAMID KARZAI: (Foreign language spoken)

CARBERRY: But at a news conference on Monday, Karzai said that he still has objections over provisions of the security deal, and he might not sign it, leaving it to the next president to resolve.

Sean Carberry, NPR News, Kabul.

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