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Polished politicians are standing alongside notorious ex-jihadist warlords in Afghanistan's first democratic transfer of power on Saturday.
After a campaign marred by violence and marked by some firsts – from a wave of attacks to American-style TV debates – Afghans are voting Saturday to replace President Hamid Karzai. Candidates must win at least 50 percent of the vote and if that isn’t achieved the top two candidates enter a run-off, which is likely. This process could drag on for months, compounded by potential violent disruptions, fraud allegations and Afghanistan’s difficult terrain (more than 2,000 donkeys will carry ballots and voting boxes to the country’s most inaccessible areas). Read on for NBC News’ rundown of the top candidates vying to succeed Karzai, who has led the country since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.
Hardline Islamist Abdul Rassoul Sayyaf, above, is an influential religious scholar and ex-jihadi warlord. Although he has consistently voiced strong opposition to the Taliban, this ethnic Pashtun has been strongly linked to several notorious terrorists. He is widely reported to have invited Osama Bin Laden into Afghanistan, and according to the 9/11 commission he served as “a mentor” to the architect of the attacks, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, as well as convicted 1993 World Trade Center bomber Ramzi Yousef.
He holds a master’s degree from the esteemed Al-Azhar University in Cairo, the world’s chief center of Islamic and Arabic studies. Perhaps the most reclusive of the candidates, he is the only major contender who did not participate in the first staged debate.
General Rashid Dostum is a legendary and widely feared ex-warlord running for vice president alongside presidential candidate Dr. Ashraf Ghani (more on him later). Revered by fellow ethnic Uzbeks, he has been credited with having tremendous influence in Afghanistan’s previous elections. A fierce battlefield commander, Dostum is said to have been instrumental in helping the U.S. Special Forces topple the Taliban regime following the 9/11 attacks. He has strongly denied accusations of human rights abuses and other war-related atrocities throughout decades of strife across Afghanistan.
After joining the 2014 campaign, he posted a message on Facebook expressing a wish to heal the pain caused by Afghanistan’s bitter wars of the past, apologizing to “all who have suffered on both sides of the wars,” and called upon other candidates to follow suit.
Gul Agha Sherzai is a former provincial governor and ex-jihadi warlord. Nicknamed "The Bulldozer" by the last (and late) king of Afghanistan Mohammed Zahir Shah, this former minister of public works has been credited with hard-charging, transformative reconstruction work in recent years. During Afghanistan’s mujahedeen government Sherzai was appointed as the governor of his native province, Kandahar, and was suspected of being involved in opium trafficking and corruption – claims which he vehemently denies. He has survived several assassination attempts, some quite narrowly.
Sherzai has been an important ally to Karzai, first serving as a special adviser and most recently as governor of Nangahar Province. In 2008 he met then-presidential candidate Barack Obama in Jalalabad (above).
Dr. Ashraf Ghani (center) is a well-respected ethnic Pashtun with influential family roots. He has a degree in anthropology from the American University in Beirut and a PhD from Columbia University. He worked for the World Bank in the 1990s, as an adviser on the human dimensions of economic policy. After the fall of the Taliban he returned to Afghanistan and served as a special adviser to the U.N. secretary general’s envoy, and then became a finance minister in the Karzai administration.
Ghani has defended his decision to select controversial ex-warlord Gen. Dostum (seated left) as his vice presidential running-mate as a pragmatic choice, arguing that "the ticket is a realistic balance between forces that have been produced in the last 30 years and have a base in this society."
Dr. Abdullah Abdullah is a highly regarded former ophthalmologist who faced off against incumbent President Karzai in 2009’s election runoff. Citing election fraud, he dropped out of the race but has since remained an influential voice of political opposition. An ethnic Tajik, he served as a high-level adviser to the late jihadist Ahmad Shah Masood, revered for fiercely fighting invading Soviet forces in the 1980s.
After the collapse of the Taliban regime, Abdullah spent four years as Afghanistan’s minister of foreign affairs. On the eve of the 2014 election campaign, two of Abdullah’s campaign staff were shot dead outside their office in Herat.
Dr. Zalmai Rassoul is a former foreign minister and a very close confidant of President Karzai. Before serving as foreign minister Rassoul also spent seven years as a national security adviser to the president.
An ethnic Pashtun born in Kabul, Rassoul was the valedictorian of his class at the illustrious Franco-American school in Kabul, Lycee Istiqal. He has an MD from the Paris Medical School in France.
(Karzai's brother Abdul Qayum Karzai was also in the race for president but he dropped out in March, saying he would support Rassoul. Two other candidates also withdrew but the ballots had been printed before they did so. This means only eight of the 11 candidates on the ballot will be valid.)