Reporting On Afghanistan's Presidential Election
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
STEVE INSKEEP, host:
And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.
One of the reasons that thousands of U.S. troops went to Afghanistan this summer was to protect the country during an election. Now the campaign is underway. President Hamid Karzai faces dozens of challengers. And our own Renee Montagne is in Kabul to see it.
RENEE MONTAGNE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: Good to hear your voice. She'll be reporting from Afghanistan in the coming weeks. And what's the campaign look like?
MONTAGNE: Well, one of the big moments in the campaign actually came last night. It was a nationally televised presidential debate. This is the second presidential election in Afghanistan.
And I was here for the first election five years, which was mostly dedicated to telling and teaching people how to vote. And I mean that quite literally, the political posters you saw for the most part they were how to fill out a ballot.
This time we're seeing an event that I think Americans would recognize. You see on buildings, on walls, every spare space, plastered with posters for these many, many candidates. And last night that debate I just mentioned it was billed as a conversation between the three major candidates.
INSKEEP: The three major candidates being President Hamid Karzai, the guy that the Americans installed after the Taliban fell in 2001. And who are the other two?
MONTAGNE: The other two are former cabinet ministers of President Karzai, former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani, educated in the West, one-time World Bank official - something of an academic; and a very different candidate, the former Foreign Minister, Abdullah Abdullah, whose history is with the Northern Alliance. And that was, of course, the group that led the fight against the Taliban.
But the really big news was that just a day before this debate President Karzai dropped out of the debate.
MONTAGNE: Well, his campaign says he wasn't given enough advance notice. It also says there were too few candidates involved. But the independent television network that was broadcasting the debate insists that his campaign was involved for weeks in the planning, knew all about it. And rather pointedly, the TV network left onstage an empty lectern, the one President Karzai would've stood behind.
And here's how the debate opened.
Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)
MONTAGNE: You know, if you're hearing a little bit of noise around that clip from the TV debate last night, I recorded it at a wedding. And here at this wedding people were so excited about the debate - again, first ever in Afghanistan's history - that an entire room was filled with people who'd left the wedding to watch on the TV that was there in the wedding hall. And a few of the younger men took the debate outside into the parking lot. And take a listen to this passionate Karzai supporter.
Unidentified Man #2: Every say Karzai is not good. Why he is not?
Unidentified Man #3: Ok. Then (unintelligible).
Unidentified Man #2: No, just to (unintelligible). Do not (unintelligible) just tell one of them.
Unidentified Man #3: Ok. Let me give you a simple fact about narcotics. Since 2001, we are the biggest exporter of opium…
Unidentified Man #2: No, let me.
Unidentified Man #3: …in the world.
Unidentified Man #2: I understand what you want to say (unintelligible).
Unidentified Man #3: (Unintelligible) Taliban wasn't in Afghanistan right now. All the Taliban was ousted.
Unidentified Man #2: The Taliban has not come here to fight Karzai personally, but they have come here to fight you as they have come to coalition forces.
MONTAGNE: Steve, those parking lot debaters were Shafiq Danesh(ph), Sayed Zarclun Abed(ph). And eventually they went back into the wedding hall because dinner was being served. But I managed to get in one last question here.
You're in a wedding where a good friend of yours is the groom, at this moment why was everyone sitting around the television watching the debate?
Unidentified Man #3: It's the hot thing of the day. Like, maybe we could see our friend later. And…
(Soundbite of laughter)
Unidentified Man #2: Yeah.
MONTAGNE: It's a long wedding.
INSKEEP: Renee, it's amazing to hear those voices at a wedding arguing, debating among themselves about an election, because the image we get is of a country that is rather brutally at war. But we have people having dialogue, having discussions here.
MONTAGNE: That is indeed the image. I think you're right there. But, in fact, Kabul itself is pretty reasonably safe these days. And certainly candidates do go along with armed guards. You're checked as you go into any of the rallies that I've been going to, even for the minor candidates.
The two major candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah have been flying around to provinces here, even where there's conflict. But not so, President Karzai. He held his very first rally ever in this campaign this morning and he held it here in Kabul.
INSKEEP: Ok, Renee. Thanks very much.
MONTAGNE: You're welcome, Steve. And we'll be talking to you next week.
INSKEEP: And I'm looking forward to that. I believe we're going to have profiles from Renee of those three main presidential candidates. Each of whom tells you something about how Afghanistan is changing.
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