The leading challenger hoping to win the Afghan presidency away from Hamid Karzai is a man defined by his associations. One is with the incumbent: Abdullah Abdullah gained great visibility as an eye doctor-turned-foreign minister — the first appointed by Karzai. But it is another, earlier association that he's using to great effect in this presidential campaign.
Photo Gallery: The Afghan Presidential Candidates
Abdullah was for many years the closest friend and adviser to an Afghan national hero, Ahmad Shah Massoud — a famous freedom fighter who waged war against the Soviets and the Taliban and who was assassinated by al-Qaida two days before Sept. 11, 2001.
"He was a great human being. The most peaceful person being caught in a war ... and given no choice but to fight," Abdullah says.
It is the legendary Massoud who gazes down on candidate Abdullah in many of his posters — and, on a recent day, from the walls and storefronts of the bustling village of Charikar in a province neighboring Kabul.
This is Massoud country — a place where thousands of frantic supporters pour into a small stadium and, in the blistering midday sun, cheer on the candidate who once touched their greatest hero. Women in burqas press together, clutching children. Men in turbans, shoulder to shoulder, hang off walls.
A Changing Race
A couple of hours after the rally, in a quiet, graceful garden, Abdullah explains what has changed in a race many once considered an easy win for Karzai.
"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," Abdullah says. "So the leaders did join President Karzai and did support President Karzai, but the people didn't."
One of the issues important to Afghan voters is the country's rampant corruption. Abdullah says he plans to root out the problem among the highest levels of government using a zero-tolerance policy.
"When it is in the highest levels, you don't expect that you will get result elsewhere," he says. "It has to be stopped from that level."
To combat the Taliban, Abdullah says, the first step is for the elected government not to lose the support of the people as a whole.
"By losing 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," he says. "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 with the majority of the ranks and files, I think it will be quite possible."
Abdullah says the level of excitement surrounding the presidential campaign is "exceptional." His popular rallies give a sense of what's beginning to catch on all over the country.
Young students at an Abdullah rally are decked out in shirts and ribbons colored robin-egg blue — the shade the campaign has adopted as its own. On stage, they sing to rally the supporters — a good portion of whom are women — wearing blue veils in honor of the candidate.
In the midst of Abdullah's campaign speech, a gray-bearded village elder steps up to sing a song of praise — a touch of old Afghanistan.
The rally goes on for a couple of hours. Afterward, among the excited supporters streaming out is a teacher who brought along her 6-year-old son.
"I was one of the most active campaigners for President Karzai five years ago," she says. "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."