LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News, I'm Linda Wertheimer.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep.
We're in Washington. Renee Montagne is in Kabul again today, where she is tracking Afghanistan's upcoming presidential election. The candidates in that election tell you a lot about how Afghanistan is changing. So over the next few days Renee is going to introduce us to some of them. Hi, Renee.
RENEE MONTAGNE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: And who do we start with?
MONTAGNE: We're starting today with the strongest challenger to President Hamid Karzai. His name is Abdullah Abdullah, and some Americans might remember him as the very visible foreign minister of Afghanistan after 2001. And Steve, to give some perspective: just as American candidates are often defined by their biographies - think John McCain's years in a North Vietnamese prison or Barack Obama born to a mother from Kansas and a father from Kenya - so too at the heart of Abdullah Abdullah's biography is one famous relationship here. As a young doctor in the 1980s, Abdullah became the closest friend and advisor to a legendary leader of the Mujahideen. That man, Ahmad Shah Massoud, fought the Soviets and then the Taliban until he was assassinated by al-Qaida two days before September 11th.
Dr. ABDULLAH ABDULLAH (Presidential Candidate, Afghanistan): He was a great human being, the most peaceful person being caught in the war. Yes, and given no choice but to fight.
MONTAGNE: Now Abdullah Abdullah has chosen to run on that association, with many campaign posters showing Massoud gazing down on the candidate.
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MONTAGNE: On this day those posters are plastered on the walls and storefronts of the bustling village of Charikar in a province neighboring Kabul. It's Massoud country - a place where thousands of frantic supporters poured into a small stadium and in the blistering midday sun cheered on the candidate who once touched their greatest hero.
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MONTAGNE: Women in burqas press together clutch children. Men in turbans crowd up to the very rim of the stadium. It's a new experience, a Western-style political rally.
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Unidentified Group: (Speaking in foreign language)
MONTAGNE: A couple of hours after this rally in a graceful garden near a pale green lake, I sat down with Dr. Abdullah Abdullah and asked him about his candidacy.
Just a couple of weeks ago there were those who would have said, and reasonably, that President Karzai was a shoe-in, that the incumbent could not be beat. What's changed?
Dr. ABDULLAH: I think that was a very superficial reading of the situation. The reason for that sort of a judgment was that President Karzai was very vigorous in making alliances with different political leaders. But what he had not calculated, that was the feeling of the people, the sense of the people, which was for change. So the leaders did join President Karzai and did support President Karzai, but the people didn't.
MONTAGNE: Let me ask you about a couple of other things that are important to Afghan voters and about what you would be promising. Corruption is high on everyone's list. It is very prevalent here at the moment at the highest levels and in the most common…
Dr. ABDULLAH: When it is in the highest levels, you don't expect that you will get result elsewhere. Yes, it has to be stopped from that level.
MONTAGNE: What would you do?
Dr. ABDULLAH: First, zero tolerance as far as the top level people are concerned. Corruption has become a law rather than an exception.
MONTAGNE: Although here it's complicated and made far worse by the drug trade -that is to say, there is so much money flowing and can be used to corrupt people from the policeman to a cabinet minister.
Dr. ABDULLAH: That also has been tolerated. And you know who are the people who are accused of dealing with drugs - these are people related to the highest level in our government.
MONTAGNE: Like whom?
Dr. ABDULLAH: I think these are not secrets. A few days ago, the drug dealers were freed from the prison in exchange for political favor during the campaign season by President Karzai, but the people will not be supportive.
MONTAGNE: Let's talk about the Taliban. You can't campaign for president, you can't have any chance of running this country without dealing with the Taliban. What would be your strategy? Would you talk to the Taliban or would you try and include the Taliban into the government? And if so, how?
Dr. ABDULLAH: The first step would be for the elected government to create circumstances that people are not - you're not losing the support from the people as a whole. By using support the insurgency is strengthened. 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, they see a hope for change, okay? If we are losing the people, we are losing the war, yes? And then, of course, when it comes to the leadership of the Taliban, I think it might take much longer than we had anticipated, but the majority of the ranks and files, I think it will be quite possible.
MONTAGNE: The election is less than a month off. It'll have its problems. Logistically, it's a difficult thing to do, but do you think this will be fair enough of an election that the Afghan people will accept it?
Dr. ABDULLAH: I hope, I hope.
MONTAGNE: And just one last thing - have you been surprised in these last days at the level of support that you're getting, but not just you, other candidates, the level of excitement?
Dr. ABDULLAH: This level of excitement, to be honest, it is very exceptional. The one who is most surprised is the incumbent because he had thought being locked in the walls of the palace, that by making deals, making back deals, he will get it done. But now he realizes that it wasn't that simple. It wasn't that easy, and it wasn't that crazy.
MONTAGNE: Dr. Abdullah, thank you very much.
Dr. ABDULLAH: You're welcome.
MONTAGNE: That's Abdullah Abdullah, the man considered to be the most powerful challenger to President Karzai in next month's election. His emotional rallies give you a sense of what's beginning to catch on all over the country.
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MONTAGNE: These young students we're hearing are decked out in shirts and ribbons the color that the Abdullah campaign has adopted as its own - robin's egg blue. They are among the performers and speakers on stage rallying this big crowd of a couple thousand, hundreds of which are women, some wearing blue veils threaded in silver to show their support.
Dr. ABDULLAH: (Foreign language spoken)
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MONTAGNE: Here Abdullah's campaign speech is interrupted by a touch of old Afghanistan. A gray-bearded village elder stepped up to sing a song of praise.
Unidentified Man: (Singing in foreign language)
MONTAGNE: This rally went on for a couple of hours, and as excited supporters streamed out, I spoke to one, a teacher holding the hand of her six-year-old son.
Unidentified Woman: (Through translator) I was one of the most active campaigners for the President Karzai five years ago, but he never kept the promises he gave to the people. That's why I want to work this time around for Dr. Abdullah.
My son's name is Abdullah, and I want him to become a presidential candidate one day like Dr. Abdullah.
INSKEEP: One of the supporters of an Afghan presidential candidate speaking with NPR's Renee Montagne, who's in Kabul. And Renee, I suppose it's to be expected that at a campaign rally for a presidential challenger you'd hear some criticism of Afghanistan's president, but do you sense a wide-spread hunger for change when you're moving around?
MONTAGNE: Yes, you do get that feeling and people say that they want - literally they want change. All these candidates are running in one way or another on change. We'll hear from a very different candidate tomorrow. While Abdullah Abdullah, who we just heard, spent decades fighting the Soviets and the Taliban, this candidate spent his time outside the country and he absorbed ideas of governance from the West, and that's what he's going to be putting forth as a way to change the country.
INSKEEP: Okay, Renee, we'll be listening. Talk with you tomorrow.
MONTAGNE: Looking forward to it, Steve.
INSKEEP: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.