Photo Gallery: The Candidates
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The Afghan Presidential Candidates
Candidate Shahnawaz Tanai is a man Afghans would know as a tough and powerful general in the communist government that ruled the country in the 1980s.
Candidate Shahnawaz Tanai is a man Afghans would know as a tough and powerful general in the communist government that ruled the country in the 1980s. David Gilkey/NPR
While three Afghan presidential candidates are getting most of the attention — incumbent Hamid Karzai and his top two challengers, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani — there will be dozens of other names on next month's ballot.
The stories of three of those candidates reflect the tale of the past 30 years of struggle in Afghanistan.
Candidate Shahnawaz Tanai is a man Afghans would know as a tough and powerful general in the communist government that ruled the country in the 1980s. Tanai is uncompromising in his views — so much so that he would eventually lead a failed coup because, he says, his government had lost touch with its ideals.
"When Tanai's name is raised, people know that I was a strong and brave commander who fought and worked for his country very honestly," he says. "I was a person who did not misuse government properties. The only income I had was my own salary."
Tanai's history with the Communists could both help him and hurt him. Afghanistan's communist government was brutal, killing thousands of Afghans who weren't ready to give up their religion, their land or their traditional ways.
But it was also a time when women had rights, poor people were educated and the government was viewed as incorruptible.
"People's memories of a government that was honest and decisive makes them support me for these elections," he says. "It's very different that a poor man like me is able to compete with rich men. When I go to the provinces, I usually go and sit with people under trees. ... People tell me that I don't have to give them food for lunch. They say they will bring their own bread, even collect 10 afghanis from each of them so that I'm able to continue the campaign."
Abdul Salam Rocketi
On the other side of Kabul is a candidate who was on the other side of the fight from the general. He was a commander with the Mujahedeen fighters, who distinguished himself with his uncanny talent for hitting the mark with rocket-propelled grenades.
Afghan presidential candidate Abdul Salam Rocketi was once a commander with the mujahedeen freedom fighters. He distinguished himself with his uncanny ability for firing rocket-propelled grenades.
Afghan presidential candidate Abdul Salam Rocketi was once a commander with the mujahedeen freedom fighters. He distinguished himself with his uncanny ability for firing rocket-propelled grenades. David Gilkey/NPR
That's why, though his given name is Abdul Salam, he's widely known as "Rocketi."
"You know, people get names based on their profession or the area they have expertise in, like doctors, engineers, teachers. I've got good expertise in rocket launching," Rocketi says. "It was jihad time when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, and I joined up to fight against them. It was my commander at the front who actually gave me this title — the title of Rocketi."
On this afternoon, Rocketi had just heard that one of his provincial campaign managers and another campaign worker had been killed.
"We're claiming we have democracy and freedom here. What kind of democracy is this? I've got the right to campaign," he says.
Rocketi himself knows how to play rough with the competition. Once, years ago, he was in an area bordering Pakistan, where the mujahedeen had set up a base. Some soldiers in the Pakistan army came across the border, and, as he tells it, stole his Stinger missiles.
He retaliated. "I attacked Pakistan, and I brought back many hostages with me," he says. "Among them were some police commissioners, some soldiers, some Chinese engineers and some local people. I brought them back to Afghanistan with me and kept them for some time."
Over the next 20 years, Rocketi rode along with the currents of Afghan history. The Soviets were driven out, and he joined the Taliban, becoming the governor of a province. Then, the Taliban were driven out, he was disarmed — and he made a successful run for Afghanistan's new parliament.
He sees all of this as his calling card with voters. "As an average Afghan who has served his country for 31 years, I consider myself a servant of the people," he says. "If I don't win, I'll not regret working to improve the situation in Afghanistan."
Rocketi says he sees a better future for his children than the life he has led. "They're going to have a civilian life; I had a military life. Hopefully, their life won't be as difficult as mine."
Though Afghanistan is still at war, a democracy is trying to be born. This new order has brought a new type of candidate: a woman who is taken seriously in politics.
Frozan Fana, whose husband, a Cabinet minister, was killed a few years ago, is one of two women running for president.
Frozan Fana, whose husband, a Cabinet minister, was killed a few years ago, is one of two women running for president. David Gilkey/NPR
Frozan Fana is one of two women running for president. Her late husband was a Cabinet minister who was killed in 2002 — by political rivals, she believes.
But it's the new Afghanistan that shines through one of her campaign posters. It features four identical images of her, each in a square of a different color like a Warhol silkscreen. It's reminiscent of a poster Americans might have seen in the last U.S. presidential election.
"One of my friends is responsible for the press campaign. He said, 'We'll print posters exactly the same as Barack Obama's posters in America,'" she says.
Fana says there are obstacles to her candidacy, but people are cooperating. "In fact, I met hundreds of tribal leaders and elders, and I held talks with them. They all treated me with respect."
Fana says even representatives of the Taliban have pledged support if she wins. She wants to negotiate with Afghans who are fighting with the insurgency, and she's proposing ways to tackle one of the country's most pressing problems.
"The number of Taliban fighters is increasing day by day, because President Karzai promised that he would provide work opportunities for them, but he never did. ... People in Helmand province, in Kandahar province, they need schools, they need jobs to feed their families. If I win this election, then the situation will change."