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Afghan Race Shaping Up as Battle of the Modern and Traditional

But familiarity does not necessarily translate into enthusiasm. Last weekend, a rally organized by Ahmad Wali Karzai for students at a park pavilion in Kandahar was a decidedly anemic affair, attended by about 200 young people who listened politely to a series of speeches but rarely bothered to applaud.

At a tiny market on the city outskirts, a baker said he would vote for Karzai because "when he came, war stopped." But a customer who works as a government clerk interrupted eagerly, saying, "I'm for Qanooni. We need a strong leader and a mujahid. Karzai has just been sitting home and doing nothing."


A baker in Kandahar works below posters of Yonus Qanooni, favored by some mujaheddin in Karzai's home area. (Pamela Constable -- The Washington Post)

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Indeed, while Qanooni, 43, whose home base is the Panjshir Valley in northern Afghanistan, has made campaign trips to Kandahar and the western city of Herat, Karzai remains a prisoner of his tight security bubble. Since the campaign began, he has taken more trips overseas than within Afghanistan, and he meets citizens only under the most restricted conditions.

The president's first campaign trip was aborted when a rocket was fired near his helicopter. A trip to northern Afghanistan, where he inaugurated a new highway, was a public relations disaster.

The visit was tightly controlled by the U.S. military and Karzai's U.S.-contracted bodyguards. When a crowd of invited guests surged forward, the guards shoved them back and slapped one, who turned out to be the minister of transportation.

On Tuesday, Karzai made a brief campaign visit to the town of Ghazni, about 75 miles south of Kabul, the capital. He arrived and departed by helicopter, and he was guarded on the ground by several hundred rifle-armed security men.

The president, who called on the crowd of several thousand to "vote for peace and stability," reportedly rebuked his guards for trying to push well-wishers away.

"Ideally, Mr. Karzai should be able to campaign in Bamiyan" in the north "and Mr. Qanooni should be able to campaign in Kandahar," said Fida Mahmad, Qanooni's campaign chief in Kandahar. "All candidates should be able to travel everywhere. We do not want the country to be divided again by tribalism and war. People are tired of dictatorships. We have a new thing called democracy, and within the framework of Islam, that is what we want."

In Sinzari, a dusty town 15 miles west of Kandahar, soldiers were busy putting up Qanooni posters for the rally last Friday, and convoys of four-wheel-drive vehicles disgorged hundreds of mujaheddin. They proudly recounted the history of that spot on the highway, where Afghan guerrillas blocked and destroyed hundreds of Soviet tanks in the 1980s, then chopped them up to be sold as scrap.

The local military commander, who goes by the single name Habibullah, was busy preparing the rally and ticking off lists of tribes that had sent representatives. He said he had a good official relationship with the central government, but his Pashtun heart was clearly with Qanooni, the Tajik mujahid from Panjshir.

"When I was a boy, I carried a Kalashnikov on my shoulder. I do not want my children to carry a gun," he said, adding that he supported militia disarmament. But he complained that Karzai and many of his aides had lived in exile during the country's most bitter years and still keep foreign passports. "I am a citizen and I have the right to one vote," he said, "and it will not be for Karzai."


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