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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.

Linda's here with us in Washington this week, and our colleague Renee Montagne is reporting from Afghanistan.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

RENEE MONTAGNE: This is a sound we hear more and more here in Afghanistan. It's a political rally. We're taking time this week to talk about Afghanistan's upcoming election with its more than three dozen presidential hopefuls. This is a rally for a minor candidate who's pitched his tent in a parking lot and, typical of traditional tents here, it's big enough to hold a crowd of 100 or so men. They're perched on green, plastic folding chairs, listening to a long list of campaign promises.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

MONTAGNE: Campaign workers weave in and out of the crowd, passing out juice and Afghan-style ice cream sandwiches.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

MONTAGNE: Now, we've heard this week from the two top challengers to President Hamid Karzai. Today, three less prominent candidates but woven together, their stories create a tapestry of the last 30 years of struggle here in Afghanistan.

Mr. SHAHNAWAZ TANAI (Presidential Candidate, Afghanistan): (Through Translator) Thank you for coming. I welcome you to my house. We can start.

MONTAGNE: We begin with Shahnawaz Tanai, whose campaign office is a nearly bare room in his home. He's a man who Afghans would know as a tough and powerful general in the communist government that ruled this country in the 1980s. General Tanai is a man uncompromising in his views, so much so that he would eventually lead a failed coup because he says his own government had lost touch with its ideals.

Mr. TANAI:(Through Translator) 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. I was a person who did not misuse government properties. The only income I had was my own salary.

MONTAGNE: General 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.

Mr. TANAI:(Through Translator) People's memories of a government that was honest and decisive makes them support me for these elections. 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'll bring their own bread, even collect 10 Afghanis from each of them so that I'm able to continue the campaign.

MONTAGNE: On the other side of Kabul, we find a candidate who is on the other side of the fight from the general. He was a commander with the mujahedeen freedom fighters, and he distinguished himself with his uncanny talent for hitting the mark with rocket-propelled grenades - which is why, though his given name is Abdul Salam, he's widely known as Rocketi.

Mr. ABDUL SALAM (Presidential Candidate, Afghanistan): (Through Translator) 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. 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.

MONTAGNE: On this afternoon, we joined Rocketi in his own, large meeting tent. When we walk in, the candidate has a fierce look on his face. Turns out, one of his provincial campaign managers and a campaign worker have been killed.

Do you think you know who the gunmen were?

Mr. SALAM: (Through Translator) I don't know. I just heard it a half-hour ago. We are claiming we have democracy and freedom here. What kind of democracy is this?

MONTAGNE: Rocketi himself knows how to play rough with the competition. And he becomes expansive, even begins to smile as he tells the tale of how years ago, his mujahedeen had set up a base along the border with Pakistan. One night, some Pakistani soldiers crossed the border and stole his Stinger missiles. He retaliated with a pretty bold move.

Mr. SALAM: (Through Translator) I attacked Pakistan, and I brought back many hostages with me. 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.

MONTAGNE: Over the next 20 years, Rocketi would ride the currents of Afghan history. The Soviets were driven out; he joined the Taliban, becoming the governor of a province. The Taliban were driven out; he was disarmed and made a successful run for Afghanistan's new parliament. Rocketi sees all of this as his calling card with voters.

Mr. SALAM: (Through Translator) As an average Afghan who has served his country for 31 years, I consider myself a servant of the people. If I don't win, I'll not regret working to improve the situation in Afghanistan.

MONTAGNE: You have lived in an Afghanistan, for most of your adult life, that was at war. And you were successful in managing to succeed, if you will. We met your son just a little while ago. What kind of Afghanistan would you be hoping to create for him? Would you want him to live your life?

Mr. SALAM: (Through Translator) Well, I - a better future for my kids when I compare their life with my life. They're going to have a civilian life. I had a military life. Hopefully, their life won't be as difficult as mine.

(Soundbite of helicopter engine)

MONTAGNE: That helicopter we're hearing overhead is a sharp reminder that Afghanistan is still at war, even as democracy tries to get born. Our next candidate is straight out of this new order, a woman who is taken seriously in politics. Frozan Fana is one of two women running for president, and her connection to politics goes back to a husband who was a cabinet minister -killed in 2002, she believes, by political rivals.

But it's the new Afghanistan that shines through in one of her campaign posters. Four identical portraits of Fana, each set in a square of a different color, exactly like iconic Warhol silkscreens or one vivid campaign poster Americans might have seen in our last election.

Ms. FROZAN FANA (Presidential Candidate, Afghanistan): (Through Translator) 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.

MONTAGNE: What are the obstacles to running - there are obstacles to running, and then there are obstacles to running as a woman. What are the particular obstacles to you as a woman, if any?

Ms. FANA: (Through Translator) There are many obstacles, of course, 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.

MONTAGNE: Frozan 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 this country's most pressing problems.

Ms. FANA: (Through Translator) 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 and Kandahar province, they need schools, they need jobs to feed their families. If I win this election, then the situation will change.

MONTAGNE: That's Frozan Fana, who's running for president here in Afghanistan, along with General Shahnawaz Tanai and Abdul Salam Rocketi. These three candidates have played dramatically different parts on Afghanistan's political stage. Yet they have in common with virtually all the other candidates in this presidential election, a basic platform reflecting what most people here yearn for: security, clean government and jobs.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Renee's reporting this week from Kabul. She'll be there a couple weeks more. And you can go to the new npr.org to find more coverage of Afghanistan.

This is NPR News.

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