Running Scared: Afghan Candidates Risk Their Lives

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Campaign posters for Daoud Sultanzoi in Afghanistan

Afghan metal workers put together billboards for Ghazni candidate Daoud Sultanzoi. The incumbent is seeking re-election to his seat in parliament. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR

Any American politician will tell you that campaigning is vital to winning an election. But in Afghanistan, candidates say campaigning is likely to get you killed.

At least three Afghan candidates running in the upcoming parliamentary polls have been killed in recent weeks, along with more than a dozen campaign workers. Others have been wounded or kidnapped in attacks that show no signs of abating.

Not surprisingly, candidates like Daoud Sultanzoi in Taliban strongholds like Ghazni, a dangerous province south of Kabul, are especially at risk.

Sultanzoi carefully looks over the half-dozen billboards being hammered together in Ghazni that feature his photo and a slogan he's crafted, which he translates for a visitor: "From ancient Ghazni a formidable voice; a truthful representative and a tested representative, once again in the service of the people."

Candidate Daoud Sultanzoi speaks with a worker about where to place a sign

Incumbent Daoud Sultanzoi talks with a worker about where to place a campaign billboard. But being outside like this in Ghazni carries high risks. In recent weeks, two other parliamentary candidates were killed, one kidnapped and one injured. Other campaign billboards are in the background. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson/NPR

The billboards of this former United Airlines pilot turned lawmaker are the closest most of his constituents will get to him before the Sept. 18 elections. It's not that Sultanzoi doesn't want to press the flesh or schmooze with supporters — even as an incumbent whose name many Afghans know, he doesn't assume he's a shoe-in for one of the 11 parliamentary seats in the province.

But Sultanzoi, like so many of the more than 2,500 candidates, is finding it hard to run a meaningful campaign this time around because of the very real chance he and his volunteers will be killed.

The Taliban has claimed responsibility for many such attacks, although local strongmen and even some of the rival candidates are also accused of involvement. NATO is accused of mistakenly killing 10 campaign workers last week in an airstrike the military says targeted a militant leader with links to al-Qaida.

Even provinces that are normally pretty safe are proving lethal for campaigners. Five male volunteers working for incumbent Fauzia Gilani were kidnapped by the Taliban last month in the western Afghanistan city of Herat.

In a phone interview, Gilani described how the kidnappers told her to drop out and arrange for the release of five jailed militants. She told them she didn't have the authority. So the kidnappers cuffed her volunteers' hands, lined them up and shot them dead.

Such attacks have prompted loud calls by Western and Afghan officials for Karzai's government to provide better security for the candidates.

"It is a great opportunity for the government of Afghanistan to show that they can provide security for the people of Afghanistan," says Jed Ober, chief of staff for the Kabul office of Democracy International, which is providing election monitors for the polls. "And there may be no more important group of people than those who are attempting to represent their people in a democratic system — candidates, campaign volunteers as well, and of course voters on election day."

But Ober and others concede that with so many people involved in campaigning, providing police protection for everyone is difficult. So it has been up to the candidates to find safe ways of getting their message out.

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For Sultanzoi in Ghazni, that means doing a lot of campaigning by phone. He also gives interviews to local reporters and meets with a steady stream of elders in his office. Occasionally, he'll ride around in his car and jump out for a quick exchange of pleasantries with passersby.

But the incumbent is shadowed by two armed guards who were provided by a friend and rival candidate who feared for Sultanzoi's safety. Sultanzoi says he's not crazy about having gunmen following him around, but he has little choice.

"They killed one of my cousins about a month ago — execution style," Sultanzoi says. "They pulled him out of his house, took him outside at 10 o'clock at night just because he is my cousin. Their house, about three weeks ago, was surrounded by the Taliban who demanded one of his brothers to come out and surrender himself to the Taliban. It's an open war, but I'm not scared."

Still, supporters like businessmen Ershad and Muneer, both of whom use only one name, urge the candidate to get together with larger groups of people, at least in the provincial capital. They suggest the grave of a famous poet and a popular mosque as locales.

Sultanzoi says he'll consider it, but his local campaign manager, Pir Mohammad, chimes in.

"Forget it," the old man says. "Do another media interview instead."



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