As Afghans prepare to vote in their landmark presidential election on Saturday, October 9, an air of suspense is cloaking the country. The formal campaigning ended on October 6, 48 hours before election day.
Interim President Hamid Karzai, backed by the United States and European Union, addressed some 3,000 supporters at Olympic Stadium in Kabul on October 6. “I want to see a united, independent, and honorable Afghanistan,” Karzai exhorted, while being surrounded by his American security detail.
But as Karzai was holding his final rally in Kabul, his running mate, vice presidential candidate Ahmad Zia Masood, was almost killed when a bomb exploded at his election rally in Faizabad, the capital of the northeastern province of Badakhshan, killing two people.
Karzai himself was the target of an assassination attempt on September 16, when a rocket missed his U.S. military helicopter when it attempted to land for an election rally in Gardez, the capital of the restive Pashtun province of Paktia. The rally was cancelled.
On September 20, a roadside bomb targeted a convoy carrying Afghan Vice President Naimatullah Shahrani and another cabinet minister as they campaigned for Karzai in northern Kunduz province (BBC News, AP, October 6).
Such incidents hardly confirm Karzai’s domestic popularity. Indeed, his chief rival, former education minister Yunus Qanooni, a Tajik, managed to campaign successfully not only in Kandahar, Karzai’s Pashtun stronghold (where Karzai narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in September 2002 and where he has been afraid to travel ever since), but also in Mazar-i-Sharif, the stronghold of Uzbek warlord General Rashid Dostum. In both places Qanooni seemed to be welcomed as a fellow mujahideen warlord opposed to the U.S.-backed “puppet,” Karzai, who has vowed to end warlordism in the country.
Therefore, Saturday’s election is being fought between warlords and a weak central government backed heavily by the United Sates and Western governments. Ethnic divisions seem to have only secondary importance for the present. According to John Sifton, a Human Rights Watch researcher in Afghanistan, the worry is not that the election will descend into violence, but that Karzai will enjoy “a hollow victory in which he is forced to appoint an unrepresentative cabinet, similar to the current one — a body stocked with warlords” (Asia Times, October 6).
In that connection, a prediction made by Yunus Qanooni in his speech at an October 4 election rally in Mazar-i-Sharif is notable. He said that 14 candidates (of the 18, including Karzai) will withdraw their nominations and back one candidate. Qanooni said he was “in complete agreement” with presidential candidates General Rashid Dostum, Abdul Satar Sirat, Mohammed Mohaqiq, and Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai on the consensus that “If not in the first round, we will definitely form a coalition in the second round.” Dismissing rumors that the international community, led by the United States, was supporting Karzai’s candidacy, Qanooni said that in his talks with U.S. Ambassador Zalmai Khalilzad and other Western envoys in Kabul, he has been assured of “their support for the decision of the Afghan people in the election.” Qanooni believes he can force a run-off if no other candidate wins more than half of the vote on October 9 (Hindukosh News Agency, October 5).
However, only two candidates have withdrawn so far, and they threw their support not to Qanooni, but to Karzai. On October 6, Syed Ishaq Gailani and Abdul Hasseb Aryan released separate announcements withdrawing their candidacies. Ishaq Gailani — a descendant of the revered Pir Gailani — is a former mujahideen leader popular among the Pashtun tribes in the south and east of the country, while Hasseb Aryan is a former policeman with a limited following.
In the meantime, “night letters” distributed by the Taliban are spreading fear in the south of the country by targeting Afghans working for Western aid organizations. In the southwestern province of Helmand — known for its opium poppy production — small groups of Taliban guerrillas armed with Kalashnikovs and rocket-propelled grenades are moving about on motorbikes and pickup trucks to intimidate prospective voters. By killing Afghans who work for Western aid agencies they hope to send a message of fear. Many of these thugs are believed to be teenagers “brainwashed” on Islamic fundamentalism. They are said to have traveled either from Pakistan or neighboring Uruzgan province, which is the home of former Taliban leader Mullah Omar and which continues to be a Taliban stronghold (New Zealand Herald, October 7).