Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that a poll found that about a quarter of Pashtun voters supported Abdullah. In fact, about a quarter of Pashtun voters indicated before the election that they supported Abdullah, according to the poll. The story has been corrected.

Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah, center, waves to supporters during a campaign rally in the northwestern city of Herat on April 1. (AFP/Getty Images)

To some of his harshest critics, he was known as the “Messenger of Death.” During Afghanistan’s brutal civil war of the 1990s, Abdullah Abdullah was the government official who periodically announced how many rebels had been slain.

The casualties were often Pashtuns, members of Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group. The government was dominated by Tajiks, a smaller ethnic group.

Two decades later, Abdullah is the front-runner in Afghanistan’s presidential race, arguing that he can unite a country that has a history of ethnic strife.

His first-place showing in the initial round of voting April 5 is being viewed as a potential sign of hope for Afghanistan amid a looming year-end pullout of international forces.

But as Abdullah faces former finance minister Ashraf Ghani in a runoff election next month, the former Tajik warrior still must contend with the bitter memories of older Pashtuns. Some Afghans fear that his election could unsettle Pashtuns and even serve as a recruiting tool for the Taliban, which is largely made up of Pashtuns.

Among those who still vividly remember Abdullah’s role in the 1990s is Abdul Qayyum Arif, a Pashtun and former governor of the Afghanistan National Bank. He recalled how he and some other Pashtuns used to call Abdullah the “Messenger of Death.”

“He transferred the message: We have killed this much, we have killed this much, and we have killed this much,” said Arif, now an economics professor. “I never, never will believe that he has changed.”

An increased openness

Pashtuns have historically lived on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, and they make up about 40 percent of the Afghan population. Only twice in the past 250 years has a non-Pashtun ruled Afghanistan, once in 1929 and again in the early 1990s.

Technically, Abdullah is of mixed heritage; his father was Pashtun. But for much of his political career, Abdullah has been more associated with his mother’s Tajik heritage.

In the first round of the election, Abdullah won 45 percent of the vote. He swept predominantly Tajik provinces but also got support from some Pashtuns. Ghani, who is Pashtun, finished second with 31.6 percent of the vote. While there is no breakdown of how ethnic groups voted, a national poll conducted by ACSOR Surveys before the election indicated that about a quarter of Pashtun voters would cast ballots for him.

Abdullah’s strong showing in the election may have reflected his choice of a Pashtun, Mohammad Khan, as a vice-presidential candidate. But it also appeared to underline broad changes in Afghan society, analysts say, as memories of the civil war fade.

The increased openness is particularly evident among younger people, who make up a majority of the population (68 percent of Afghans are younger than 25).

Instead of worrying about
decades-old battles, many Pashtuns say, they are looking for a candidate who can combat terrorism and crime and create jobs amid growing concern that Afghanistan’s economy could weaken dramatically as international aid declines.

At a taxi stand in Kabul, where Pashtun drivers wait for passengers heading to distant villages, few even wanted to talk about
the candidates’ ethnic heritage. Those who did stressed that it wouldn’t be a factor in their vote.

“Historically, the Pashtun people have ruled this country,” said Wakil, 28, who, like many people in Afghanistan, goes by one name. “But in spite of this, I don’t care who wins the election. Just put an end to the violence.”

Wakil, who lives in Wardak province, pointed to a bullet hole in the side of his Toyota Corolla.

“Every month I have to change my front windshield because I am stuck in the middle of the firefight,” said Wakil, his voice rising in anger. “That is what I care about.”

Wadir Safi, a law professor at Kabul University and a Pashtun, said the importance of ethnicity had declined as neighborhoods in major cities such as Kabul became more ethnically diverse.

When he started teaching at the university a dozen years ago, Safi said, students from different ethnic groups were “still sitting with guns and knives in the class” and getting into fights over girlfriends and political opinions. Now, he said, “their maturity is growing” — in large part because of access to the Internet and social media.

“The young Tajiks, the young Uzbeks, the young Pashtuns, they are all friends,” Safi said. “The ethnic card doesn’t work anymore.”

The Acsor Surveys poll, conducted in March, found that ethnic and regional divisions were still important factors in voting. But at least seven in 10 Afghans surveyed said they would accept either of the two expected runoff candidates as the country’s next leader.

In recent days, Abdullah has also been endorsed by another prominent Pashtun, Zalmay Rassoul, who finished third in the April 5 vote and was thought to be the favored candidate of outgoing President Hamid Karzai, also a Pashtun.

Lingering unease

Still, some Pashtuns remain uneasy because of Abdullah’s past.

“We could still see a lot of problems between Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns, and it could be a big disaster,” said Waheed Mozhdah, a Kabul-based analyst and historian.

Abdullah was born in Kabul, where he attended medical school and later became an eye doctor. After the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, he fled to Pakistan and joined the mujahideen.

He became a close associate of Ahmed Shah Massoud, an ethnic Tajik who was a key commander in the Afghan resistance.

After the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, Abdullah was spokesman for the Defense Ministry under President Burhanuddin Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik. ­During that time, Afghanistan slipped into civil war, with ethnic Tajiks fighting Pashtuns and Hazaras, another group.

The battles wrecked parts of Kabul, creating a backlash among Pashtuns that translated into support for the newly formed Taliban. When the Taliban seized control of Kabul in 1996, Abdullah and others fled and formed the Northern Alliance. Its forces were accused of ransacking Pashtun homes and carrying out kidnappings in Kabul.

Now, Arif said, Pashtuns worry that some of those leaders will gain positions of authority if Abdullah is elected.

“He will not be able to control those same commanders, and the same trends of kidnapping, robbery, will increase,” Arif said.

In an interview, Abdullah refused to talk about his history, but he said Arif’s comments were “extremely poisonous” and represented “distorted ideas of the past.”

“The people of Afghanistan didn’t vote for a ‘Messenger of Death,’ ” Abdullah said.

If he wins, however, even some of his supporters say he will face huge challenges in governing.

After more than a decade of war, many Pashtuns say they are frustrated by raids by the Afghan and U.S. militaries they say unfairly target their communities.

Abdullah has campaigned on rebuilding ties with the United States that he says have been damaged under Karzai. He vows to quickly sign a long-term security agreement that would permit a residual force of American troops to remain in Afghanistan after this year.

Abdullah also is skeptical about reaching a negotiated settlement with the Taliban before the “rule of law” has been established in Afghanistan.

“There should be negotiations from the position of strength,” he said.

Such views worry some Pashtuns in remote southern and eastern Afghanistan, where support for the Taliban is greatest and security is poor.

“The Taliban will never come under one umbrella with the Northern Alliance,” said Shah Wali, a Pashtun tribal elder from Helmand province.

Haji Nangyalai Wardak, a tribal elder in the restive Wardak province, said an Abdullah
presidency would fuel Taliban recruitment. Taliban commanders would cite Abdullah’s past to convince Pashtuns they are not safe, he said.

Haji Amir Jan, a Pashtun tribal elder from southern Uruzgan province, was less alarmist. Abdullah had changed since his Northern Alliance days, the elder argued, adding: “I think we are ready for another Tajik ruler.”

But he said Abdullah will have to treat Pashtuns differently from the way Karzai had.

“If he continues the same policies as Karzai, to crush Pashtuns, I will guarantee you all Pashtuns will stand up against him,” he said. “And he will not finish his term as leader.”

Clarification: This story has been updated to provide more specificity about those who used to describe Abdullah as a  “Messenger of Death.’’ The use of the term was limited to Abdullah’s harshest critics, inclduing Abdul Qayyum Arif, a Pashtun and former governor of the Afghanistan National Bank.

Sharif Mohammad and Sayed Salahuddin contributed to this report.