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Running Scared: Afghan Candidates Risk Their Lives

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Running Scared: Afghan Candidates Risk Their Lives


Running Scared: Afghan Candidates Risk Their Lives

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Any American politician will tell you that campaigning is vital to winning an election. In Afghanistan, candidates say campaigning is likely to get you killed. In recent weeks, at least three candidates for the Afghan parliament have been killed, along with more than a dozen campaign workers. Others have been wounded or kidnapped. Candidates in Taliban strongholds are especially at risk.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson traveled to a dangerous province south of Kabul to see how one candidate is coping.

(Soundbite of hammering)

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Daoud Sultanzoi carefully looks over the half-dozen billboards being hammered together here in Ghazni. They feature his photo and a slogan he's crafted. He translates for a visitor.

Mr. DAOUD SULTANZOI: From ancient Ghazni, formidable voice; a truthful representative and a tested representative, once again at the service of the people.

NELSON: The billboards of this former United Airlines pilot-turned-lawmaker are the closest his constituents will get to him before the September 18th elections.

(Soundbite of meeting)

NELSON: 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.

Mr. SULTANZOI: And the people have the right to see their representatives or the candidates.

NELSON: 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 air strike the military says targeted a militant leader with links to al-Qaida.

Even provinces that are normally pretty safe are proving lethal for campaigners, like Herat in the west, where five male volunteers working for incumbent Fauzia Gilani were kidnapped by the Taliban last month.

Ms. FAUZIA GILANI (Afghan Incumbent): (Speaking foreign language)

NELSON: Gilani, in a phone interview, describes 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. Jed Ober is chief of staff at the Kabul office of Democracy International, which is providing election monitors for the polls.

Mr. JED OBER (Chief of Staff, Democracy International, Kabul): It's a great opportunity for the government of Afghanistan to show that they can provide security for the people of Afghanistan. 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.

NELSON: 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.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Mr. SULTANZOI: (Speaking foreign language)

NELSON: Back in Ghazni, incumbent Sultanzoi does a lot of his 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, like he does on this day. The incumbent is shadowed by two armed guards. They were provided by a rival candidate who is also a friend and feared for Sultanzoi's safety. Sultanzoi says he's not crazy about having gunmen following him around, but that he has little choice.

Mr. SULTANZOI: They killed one of my cousins about a month ago, execution style. They pulled him out of his house, took him outside at 10:00 at night, and they executed him just because he was my cousin. Their house, about three weeks ago, was surrounded by the Taliban and they were demanding one of his brothers to come out and surrender himself to the Taliban. So it's an open war, but I'm not scared.

NELSON: Still, supporters like businessmen Ershad and Muneer, urged 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.

Mr. SULTANZOI: (Speaking foreign language)

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

Mr. PIR MOHAMMAD (Local Campaign Manager): Forget it, the old man says. Do another media interview instead.

NELSON: Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News.

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