Afghan President Karzai Rallies Support Afghans vote later this month in presidential elections. Incumbent Hamid Karzai has been campaigning to keep his job. Karzai recently held a rally in a remote village, where he struck a deal with an influential religious leader that virtually ensures Karzai will carry one large bloc of voters.

Afghan President Karzai Rallies Support

Afghan President Karzai Rallies Support

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Afghans vote later this month in presidential elections, and incumbent Hamid Karzai has been campaigning to keep his job.

Karzai recently held a rally in a remote village, where he struck a deal with an influential religious leader that virtually ensures the current Afghan president will carry one large bloc of voters.

Thousands gathered for the campaign event. Most walked for as much as a day to reach Dar-e-Kayan in Baghlan province. Some drove from as far away as Kabul, nine hours on dirt roads over mountains still cool with snow, to camp out in the hot valley.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai (left) and Mansoor Naderi, the spiritual leader of the Ismailis, greet supporters in Dar-e-Kayan, Afghanistan. David Gillkey/NPR hide caption

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David Gillkey/NPR

Afghan President Hamid Karzai (left) and Mansoor Naderi, the spiritual leader of the Ismailis, greet supporters in Dar-e-Kayan, Afghanistan.

David Gillkey/NPR

As Karzai told them, they traveled long distances to mark the dawn of Afghanistan's modern political history.

"This is a great day for me and for the democracy of this country, which we started seven years ago," he said to the crowd.

Just an hour before, the presidential helicopter landed in a nearby pasture, where a sacrificial bull was waiting for him, fresh blood flowing from a neck neatly sliced.

Sharpshooters from the Afghan National Army were on the surrounding mountains. And when candidate Karzai stepped out of the helicopter, he rushed by in a cloud of dust and security, arm in arm with the sponsor of this rally: Sayed Mansoor Naderi.

Courting The Leader's Vote

Naderi leads a small political party, but more important, he is revered as the leader of the Ismailis, a minority Shiite sect that has called the valley home for centuries.

When he arrived onstage, Karzai said he had come — in his words — to kiss the hand of Naderi.

"Power is in the hands of people today. If Karzai wants to become president, he needs to come to your leader. Your leader will order his people to vote for Karzai — and his people will vote for Karzai," the incumbent said.

This part of Karzai's speech suggests what his opponents have been charging: Even as he campaigns, the Afghan president is not really counting on direct appeals to voters but on making deals with those who can deliver votes.

It's clear his followers are devoted: As Naderi passed through the throngs — his hands raised in a kind of blessing — his followers reached a near-hysterical pitch, trying to touch him, kiss his ring or simply get close. Even women pressed forward aggressively. Most of them wore brightly colored veils and glittery dresses; the few in burqas had thrown them off their faces to get a better look.

Genuine Support For Karzai?

In a quiet moment, Naderi said that one reason he has thrown his support behind Karzai is that the president has managed to bring Afghanistan's warring ethnic groups and tribes together.

"Afghanistan has been facing a civil war for the past 27 years or so. And to overcome the fighting that [has] existed among the Afghans themselves, this was a huge task. And President Karzai was the only figure that could unite all the different tribes in Afghanistan," he said, through his son, who was translating.

This is not a small accomplishment to the Ismailis, who are a tiny sect of Shiite Muslims in a mostly Sunni country.

Then, without being asked, Naderi changed the subject and said he wanted to get something straight right away — no political deal was being made.

"The support and the backing that [I and my community] have given to President Karzai has not been due to deal-making or being bought out. What you saw [at] the gathering earlier, that kind of affection and love cannot be bought," Naderi said.

Mutually Beneficial Relationship

Political observers and Karzai's critics might see it very differently. One of them is Daoud Sultanzoi, a member of Parliament who has watched with dismay as Afghanistan's warlords continue to wield political influence in the country.

One of the most powerful, Muhammad Qasim Fahim, is now Karzai's running mate.

As well, one warlord who ruthlessly ruled the Kayan valley years ago is the son of Naderi.

That's part of the reason, Sultanzoi says, that Naderi lost influence in his valley and now needs Karzai.

"Naderi is putting his eggs in Karzai's basket, predicting that Karzai will win, and then he will probably regain his influence in his region. So he has made a calculated move," Sultanzoi says.

"Unfortunately we still live in a country where one person can bring his flock of sheep and tell them to vote for this guy. That will happen," Sultanzoi says, predicting that Naderi would probably bring about 100,000 votes for Karzai.

Lack Of Oversight, Alleged Abuse Of Powers

In the West, delivering votes is a time-honored political tradition. Those who really can do it wield great power. And historically, some power brokers have been quite unsavory.

But in Afghanistan, virtually no accountability exists, no oversight on where millions in campaign money is coming from or going. In the U.S., a big bundler of donations or votes may be rewarded with, say, an ambassadorship to the Bahamas. But in Afghanistan, a presidential candidate has much more to offer. That's because the president appoints nearly all of the most powerful positions.

Sultanzoi is among those charging that as president, Karzai has used the power of those appointments to maximum effect. He says that Karzai appointed administrators from the provincial level all the way down to the village level.

Sultanzoi says that he knows firsthand that one of the preconditions of these appointments is that the appointee must commit to working for Karzai's re-election.

"People say, 'Where is the evidence?' But when fraud is taking place, when corruption is taking place, nobody gives you a receipt to say, 'OK, here's what I did.' The evidence is what we see; the evidence is what has not been accomplished in this country," Sultanzoi says.

Campaign Promises

At the rally in the Kayan valley, the followers of Naderi did not come to talk deals. They were at the rally to support their leader's choice for the next president of Afghanistan.

Onstage, incumbent Karzai extolled the considerable progress Afghanistan has made during his years as president: hundreds of miles of new roads, tens of thousands of new university students, many of them women.

But he promised what they most want: clinics, electricity, prosperity and peace. He ended his list with a version of one of the most famous American campaign promises ever: a chicken in every pot.

"I wish that you all have good houses and paved roads, and wish your kids to be educated. This is the Afghanistan that I want, and your vote is going in the right direction," Karzai said.