Afghans vote, ready or not
In a historic step for their war-weary nation, some 10 million Afghans are set to cast their first-ever ballots for president Saturday.
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In his speech, Karzai set a magnanimous tone, urging Afghans to vote their conscience, even if it meant voting against him. "If someone puts pressure on you to vote and support me, I don't want that vote," he said. "Your free vote is not only for the presidency of Afghanistan. Your free vote is for the freedom of Afghanistan, and for the next generation of Afghanistan."Skip to next paragraph
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Four hours later, the ethnic Uzbek warlord and former communist-turned-resistance fighter, Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, held a very different rally. Where Karzai's was warmly dignified, General Dostum's was chaotic, boisterous, and rather fun.
A well-known Uzbek singer, Sharif Sahel, warmed up the crowd with love songs in Dari, and patriotic tunes in Pashto, and even a pop song about an ancient tomb in Mazar-e Sharif. On the other side of the field, a group of young Afghan men participated in tae kwon do matches, which had nothing to do with the Dostum rally. The stadium had been double-booked.
When Dostum finally took the stage, his mainly Uzbek supporters cheered his every campaign promise, from bringing security, clean drinking water, and electricity to seeds for farmers and rights for women. "I'm not trying to boast, I'm just telling you the things that are within my capability," Dostum said, and the crowd cheered.
At the end, Dostum walked out to the stadium field, wearing a traditional green-striped cloak and silver turban, and mounted a handsome brown stallion with hundreds of supporters and news media crowding around him. It's a romantic image that plays well, and for a moment one could forget that Dostum has been blamed by human rights groups for deaths of thousands of fighters and civilians during the civil war of the mid-1990s.
Whether he rides off into the sunset, or stays on to trot around the halls of power, is a decision that only Afghan voters can make.
• Total candidates: 18
• Hamid Karzai: president, Pashtun
• Yunis Qanooni: Karzai's chief rival, Tajik
• Masooda Jalal: only female candidate
• Abdul Rashid Dostum: general, Uzbek
• Population: 28.7 million (est.)
• Life expectancy: approximately46 years
• Registered voters: 10.6 million (multiple registrations probable)
• Registered women: 41 percent of voters
• Registered refugees: 740,000 in Pakistan out of 4 million Afghan refugees worldwide
• Final results in 2 to 3 weeks
• If no one receives more than 51 percent, runoff will commence two weeks later
• 400 international observers, 4,000 independent Afghan monitors
• US forces: 18,000
• NATO troops: 9,000
• Afghan National Army: 15,500
• Police officers: 22,300
• Militiamen: 40,000 to 50,000 (est.)
• 957 people reported killed in political violence this year, including 30 US soldiers
SOURCES: US State Department, Radio Free Europe, US Defense Department, United Nations, AP, General Accounting Office