By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, July 6, 2009
JALALABAD, Afghanistan -- As U.S. Marines launched a major offensive against Taliban insurgents in southern Helmand province, the presidential campaign unfolding in more peaceful parts of northern and eastern Afghanistan last week seemed to be taking place on another planet.
Whether addressing rallies, chatting with voters in the streets or receiving delegations of tribal leaders, candidates barely mentioned the violent insurgency that international experts fear could sabotage the Aug. 20 polling.
Instead, the presidential hopefuls stuck to themes they knew would resonate with Afghan audiences. They denounced civilian casualties by foreign forces and called for a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. They railed against corruption in government, evoked past military triumphs and hyped their personal ties to late national leaders.
"I decided to launch my campaign here because this is where the holy war began," said Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, addressing a large outdoor rally Wednesday in this muggy eastern city. "I want to stand and struggle for the honor and dignity of the holy warriors. I want to build an Afghanistan that can defend itself without foreign troops."
Dressing for the occasion, the dapper professional wore a traditional Afghan tunic and baggy trousers. He also strove for ethnic balance by donning a rolled wool cap worn by Afghan Tajiks, then exchanging it for a striped turban favored by Pashtuns.
His audience, mostly men rounded up by a local legislator and former anti-Soviet militia leader, listened politely in the steamy tent. Later, after Abdullah had departed in a government helicopter for Kabul, the capital, some said they had not decided whom to support for president, but many said they were fed up with the incumbent, Hamid Karzai.
"We gave Karzai a chance, but he did not serve the people. He is weak, and his administration is corrupt," said Ghulam Sahi, 48, a tribal elder. A man named Zaman ul-Haq complained that Karzai's government had "taken away our weapons but not given us jobs. Today only the mafia people get jobs. After three decades of war, we need a strong and honest leader."
Public opinion surveys show that Karzai, who has led Afghanistan since soon after the overthrow of Islamist Taliban rule in late 2001, is still likely to emerge the winner. To shore up his flagging popularity, he has made preelection deals with powerful tribal, business and militia figures -- including some with unsavory reputations -- who command large numbers of votes.
Within the field of 41 candidates, only Abdullah and former finance minister Ashraf Ghani are considered remotely in the running; most others are expected to pull out or support one of the big three. Karzai can hold endless televised news conferences in his secure palace, while the threat of insurgent attacks makes it dangerous for other candidates to venture into the countryside to enhance their name recognition.
As a result, with just over six weeks until the election, only a handful of the country's 10 million to 12 million voters have met any of the candidates in person. Most campaign events have been highly guarded and orchestrated, such as Abdullah's visit here, which included closed-door meetings with local officials but not a single handshake with audience members.
"There is very little public enthusiasm for this election," said Haroun Mir, director of the Afghan Center for Research and Policy Studies. "The old political actors are still running things, and the attempt to form an opposition coalition failed. No matter who wins the presidency, the government will be dysfunctional -- with little hope of reform."
International concern has focused on whether the Taliban will follow through on threats to attack the polling places, especially in the south, where low turnout could raise the prospect of ethnic imbalance in the national count. The United States and NATO are sending extra troops to protect the vote, but officials said it would be impossible to guarantee the safety of all 28,000 polling stations.
Election advisers and opposition candidates said they are also worried about pro-government rigging on election day. They warned that this could trigger a violent confrontation similar to what has recently occurred in Iran -- only worse because Afghanistan is awash with weapons.
"The stakes are very high, so if the race gets tight, all the stops may be pulled out to deliver the vote," said one international election observer in Kabul. An election complaint office has been established, but its cumbersome procedures might be unable to forestall a wave of public anger.
Karzai has pledged not to use his government status and powers to influence the election. He has also complained that U.S. officials, while maintaining a formally neutral position, recently held high-profile meetings with several key opponents. Relations between the Afghan president and Washington have gone steadily downhill in the past year.
Yet only a few of Karzai's challengers have journeyed into the provinces on their own or mingled with crowds in Kabul. One is Ramazan Bashardost, a former planning minister and eccentric crusader whose office consists of a tent pitched outside the parliament. Another is Shala Attah, a psychologist and legislator who spent 20 years as a war exile in Alexandria, Va., and returned home in 2007.
"I'm not afraid of people, and I'm not afraid to speak the truth," said Attah, 41, who left her husband and five children behind in Virginia and said she misses them terribly. "There is too much corruption in this country. There are women in villages living in caves. There are boys killing for the Taliban. Someone has to talk about the real problems."
One evening last week, Attah drove through the capital and stopped in a busy market, draped in an elegant black cloak, to greet astonished shoppers. Because she has near-zero name recognition, her campaign posters feature images of the late Mohammed Daud Khan, a former president.
"Daud Khan was a good man, and this lady says she will follow in his footsteps," said Ghulam Haider, 51, a cook who was bicycling home and stopped to take one of Attah's fliers. "What we really need from our next leader is to negotiate with the Taliban. They are our brothers, and the foreigners have destroyed our country. We have to end this war."
Several other candidates, including Ghani and former anti-drug official Mirwais Yasini, have developed substantive policy platforms but tend to campaign in the traditional Afghan way, through private meetings and elaborate receptions for visiting provincial elders.
Like Abdullah, both men are former senior aides to Karzai who broke with him and are now highly critical of his performance. Ghani has accused Karzai of wasting billions in foreign aid and allowing corruption to poison the state.
Yasini tends to sound the same alarm, saying Karzai is running the government like a crony enterprise and cozying up to ethnic strongmen. Yasini is the only candidate who has dared to speak strongly in favor of keeping Western troops in the country, but he scoffs at opinion polls predicting that he and other challengers have little chance.
"Unless the election is rigged, Karzai is not unbeatable," Yasini said in an interview. "He thought he could use the warlords, but they won't help him because the people are fed up with these dragons. This boat is sinking, and if Karzai stays or the wrong man takes his place, the country will drown."