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Challenger gains ground as Afghan vote nears

Afghan Karzais Challenger
Presidential candidate and former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah speaks during an election campaign rally in Aybak, the provincial capital of Samangan in northern Afghanistan. "The dark days are ending, the light is waiting for you. Change and hope are waiting for you," Abdullah told a crowd in the northern Afghan province of Samangan this week. Jason Straziuso / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The energetic crowd roared and chanted his name as a beaming Abdullah Abdullah blamed the incumbent for Afghanistan's woes.

The former foreign minister has emerged as President Hamid Karzai's top challenger in this month's presidential election, appearing to close at least part of the gap in a race once considered to be a walkover for Karzai.

Few outside Abdullah's camp are willing to predict that the former ophthalmologist will beat Karzai in the Aug. 20 contest, though he will likely qualify for a top-two runoff if Karzai fails to win a majority of the votes. The last poll released in Afghanistan was conducted in May and showed Abdullah with only 7 percent support — a figure most observers consider outdated.

Some of Abdullah's rallies outside Kabul have attracted thousands, including one in the capital of Samangan province Wednesday during which he was repeatedly mobbed by supporters. Throngs of fans greeted him in a farmer's field where his Afghan Air Corps Mi-17 helicopter landed, along the streets of Aynak and at the site of his speech.

Bearded local leaders placed a bright purple-and-green striped chapan on his shoulders — the same robe Karzai wears — in a scene that could almost pass for a coronation.

"It has been overwhelming, the support from the people, despite the fact I entered the race very late," Abdullah told The Associated Press. "But the message has reached the people, and I'm very hopeful."

Karzai aims to win over Pashtuns
With two weeks left in the race, most observers still think Karzai is likely to win, although Abdullah is mounting a strong challenge in an unstable political climate where predictions are risky. The president hopes to win over his fellow ethnic Pashtuns, who make up 40 percent of the country and the overwhelming majority of the Taliban.

Abdullah's father was also Pashtun. But his mother was Tajik, the dominant ethnic group in the north that makes up 25 percent of the population, and Abdullah is seen as the northern candidate.

If Abdullah is to win, he will have to persuade more Pashtuns like Shah Mohammad — a 47-year-old who attended a recent Abdullah rally in Kabul — to vote for him.

"Without any doubt I can tell you that he can be president because the people want change. It doesn't matter if he is Tajik or Pashtun," said Mohammad.

For his part, Abdullah says he can attract Pashtuns to the polls. "The old formulas have changed," he said, because of the endemic violence in the country's Pashtun areas. "The Pashtun areas are the ones which are in the need for change more than any other parts of the country. With the continuation of the situation, they don't see that change coming."

Abdullah said he is also counting on the votes of the country's youth, former foot soldiers from the Afghan civil war and women, a quiet constituency that could be attracted to Abdullah's more moderate Tajik background.

Abdullah campaigns for women
Thousands of women — most of whom were covered in blue burqa robes — attended a women's rally for Abdullah in Kabul this week. He promised to bring justice to abusers of women's rights and to provide more health facilities to combat the country's high maternal mortality rate. More women would hold high government positions, he said.

"When I'm saying change and hope, this would be change for women's lives," he said.

Abdullah has promised other measures of change, including having provincial governors directly elected instead of appointed by the president. He would also like to see the government changed to a parliamentary system.

The campaign of Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister and the third major candidate, criticizes Abdullah for his political proposals, saying the country can't afford to spend time redividing power.

As for the almost eight-year war against the Taliban, Abdullah said the process of national reconciliation can start once the population supports the government, which he says will come when an Abdullah-led government instills anti-corruption measures and increases development.

"Unfortunately, the war will continue, but the aim should be to isolate those who want to fight for fighting('s sake), who want to destroy the country," he told AP. "The current trend that we need more troops after eight years, that should change. I think that's desirable for the people of the United States. That's desirable for the people of Afghanistan."

Challenger's ties to U.S.
Abdullah has traveled to the U.S. almost every year since 1995, and he's met with Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, three times in recent weeks. He describes their conversations as "friendly and serious."

Perhaps because of those U.S. trips, Abdullah is seen as non-threatening and in some circles "an appealing character from Washington's point of view," said Daniel Markey, a South Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"But since most people continue to believe that Karzai has the election locked up, U.S. government support for Abdullah is equivalent to support for a free/fair process, or at least a process that is fair enough to confer legitimacy on the victor," Markey said.