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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News, I'm Linda Wertheimer.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep, Good morning.

You can judge how important the future of Afghanistan is to President Obama by how much time his special envoy is spending there right now. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke is on one of his frequent trips there, since being named envoy to Afghanistan as well as Pakistan. He has been there the last five days. What is keeping him busy is Afghanistan's upcoming presidential election.

Our own, Renee Montagne is there reporting on the campaign. Hi Renee.

RENEE MONTAGNE: Hi Steve. Steve, I sat down last night with Ambassador Holbrooke at the American embassy here in Kabul, and you'll hear our conversation in just a moment. It started when I put to him this question, what has he seen as he's traveled through the country these past days that would allow him to say that this election will be fair enough for most Afghans to accept it.

Ambassador RICHARD HOLBROOKE (Afghanistan and Pakistan): I'm not ready to judge the elections. All I can say is, they're really important. As President Obama has said, they are the most important event in Afghanistan this year, the first contested elections in Afghanistan's history. What I've seen is democracy at work.

A lot of the techniques Americans are most familiar with, campaign rallies, negative advertising, positive advertising. One of the candidates' supporters, all turned out in a special color of blue at the rallies. This is all politics, Western style. In a war time condition, it's just remarkable to watch. It's exciting.

MONTAGNE: Even a couple of weeks ago, the feeling was among those here in Afghanistan as well as outside observers, that this election was almost a done deal for the president - if, for no other reason than becauseā€¦

Ambassador HOLBROOKE: Yeah, I heard that in Iran too.

MONTAGNE: Well, is there a comparison - not in many ways, but in the sense of how things picked up late in the game?

Ambassador HOLBROOKE: I think late voter interest is almost certainly going to happen here. The rallies are quite large, 10,000, 15,000 people, that's huge. The candidates are touring the country, or most of them are. So I'm not concerned about the voter apathy. I am very pleased with what I've seen.

MONTAGNE: Do you think, in the time you've been here, and as much as you've been able to observe, do you think it's what you might call a horse race? Do you think that there's a - there's a real chance that these other candidates, especially the other major candidates can really pull ahead to the point where they win or force a runoff?

Ambassador HOLBROOKE: I don't know the answer to your question. But the United States is concerned about that. And this, I really want to stress. What the United States cares about is that the Afghan people choose their president in a level playing field, under conditions which create an election where the outcome is accepted as legitimate by the Afghan people and by the world.

We know that in a wartime election it's going to be difficult. For example, originally the government talked about 7,000 polling places. We know that isn't going to be possible, but that isn't going to mean the election is a failure. It means it has to take into account changing local circumstances. In the United States, there are polling places, which don't open or have to be moved or are closed. So, this doesn't concern me very much.

MONTAGNE: But talking about level playing field, you were just down in Helmand province where 4,000 Marines have poured in. They've been fighting to drive Taliban out of villages, and the theory that they're working under is they'll be able to protect these villages, make these people feel comfortable voting. From what you observed and from the people you talked to, could you say that that particular important province will be a level playing field in terms of this election?

Ambassador HOLBROOKE: The American and NATO allied commanders in Helmand are going to be participating in security on election day, and they believe that most of the polls will be open - but not all. There's nothing wrong with that. It happens. Do a few closed polling places invalidate an election? Under these circumstances - absolutely not.

MONTAGNE: What about the people, though, who can't vote, think maybe it wasn't fair if their voice can't be heard?

Ambassador HOLBROOKE: Does that invalidate the election? If that's true, the 2004 election in the United States should be questioned, because a lot of the voters in Ohio stood in lines and the polls closed and they were left out there not voting. And that was in the world's greatest and oldest democracy. Elections are rarely perfect. This election, in unprecedented and wartime conditions, is certainly not going to be without its rough spots. And it's the integrity of the voting process in the middle of a brutal war. How many countries would have had the courage to hold an election of these circumstances? But Afghanistan is and they should be given credit for it.

MONTAGNE: And Steve, that was Richard Holbrooke, the Obama administration's Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, and I was speaking him last night at the American Embassy here. And you know, those Western style political rallies that he mentioned earlier, I've been to a few, these last few days, and here's what we heard yesterday afternoon at a rally for one big name presidential candidate. He's a one-time foreign minister who was campaigning in a rural province a couple of hours north of Kabul, and he was speaking to what we would call his political base.

(Soundbite of cheering)

MONTAGNE: We'll hear more tomorrow from the man they were cheering for there, Abdullah Abdullah is her name. After the rally I sat down with him to ask him why he thinks he's getting such enthusiastic support.

Mr. ABDULLAH ABDULLAH (Afghan presidential candidate): The people don't see a prospect under the current circumstances. That's why when there is a window of opportunity during the upcoming elections the people are grasping it. They see a hope for change. Okay, if we are losing the people, we are losing the war.

INSKEEP: That's one of Afghan presidential candidates speaking with Renee Montagne.

Renee, good to hear from you and we'll hear more from Renee Montagne tomorrow.

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