As the hometown of the current Afghan president, Kandahar should be wrapped up for Hamid Karzai. But look around, and you'll see campaign posters - lots of them - for Mr. Karzai's chief opponent, Yunis Qanooni.
That Mr. Qanooni, former education minister and ethnic Tajik northerner, would even venture into the ethnic Pashtun heartland of Kandahar is shocking enough, but to have southern Pashtuns supporting him by the thousands, that's the stuff of fantasy. It's as if Howard Dean had shown up at a NASCAR event and sung the national anthem - and the crowd went wild.
Qanooni's campaign draws its greatest support by courting the substantial number of Afghan veterans who fought against the Soviet occupation of the 1980s. In effect, he is creating Afghanistan's own "greatest generation," a powerful voting bloc that fears losing power and influence in the next government.
How serious is the Qanooni threat? Some senior UN election officials now predict that Karzai will not gather the 51 percent of votes required to win Saturday's first-ever Afghan presidential election outright.
The results of Saturday's vote will not be known for two to three weeks; a runoff would follow two weeks after.
"My gut tells me we'll have a second round of elections," says one UN election official. "In a way, that would be a good scenario for the country. It won't look so much like a fixed deal."
Karzai is still predicted to gain the most votes in the Oct. 9 election, but with 18 candidates no one may come out looking like a clear winner. Though most observers expect Karzai to emerge the eventual winner in a second round, this election has made Karzai look vulnerable, tarnished his image with charges of drug trafficking by his supporters and appointees, and challenged American assumptions of his long-term viability as a national leader.
To be sure, Qanooni's basic strategy is a risky one. Against Karzai's stated policy of disarming "warlords" and armed militias, Qanooni is reminding Afghans of the reasons why these fighters became mujahideen in the first place: to defeat the Soviet occupation of 1979 to 1989. Recasting lawless militias as warm and fuzzy heroes may seem counterintuitive, but it plays to the same feelings that many Americans, Britons, and French feel about the generation that fought in World War II.
Demographically speaking, it's brilliant. Nearly every Afghan family has at least one father, son, or cousin who was a mujahid.
"We shouldn't call mujahideen 'warlords,' we shouldn't call mujahideen 'illiterates,' and we shouldn't call mujahideen the people who have guns on their shoulders," said Qanooni, speaking from a large campaign rally at Kabul's football stadium on Tuesday. "The mujahideen are those that stood against the Soviet Union, against the terrorists, against the Taliban. And we want a country where the mujahideen have a role and the leader of that government will be Qanooni."
The problem with Qanooni's strategy is that many of these same mujahideen commanders overstayed their welcome, serving as de facto political chiefs and fighting one another for control of the biggest prize of them all, Kabul. The civil war among multiple mujahideen factions, following the 1992 toppling of the Soviet-backed government of Mohammad Najibullah, killed an estimated 100,000 Afghans.
A recent opinion survey, conducted by the relief organization CARE, found that 65 percent of Afghans said disarmament was the most important step toward stability, and 88 percent wanted the government to do more to reduce the powers of commanders in Afghanistan.
While Karzai has taken a strong stand against some warlords, removing Ismail Khan as governor of Herat last month, he has been reaching agreements with others. In the past month, he has accumulated endorsements from some of the leading commanders of the jihad, including the Islamist leader Abdul Rasool Sayyaf, former vice president Gen. Mohammad Fahim, current vice president and Hazara leader Kareem Khalili, and religious leader Pir Sayad Ahmed Gailani. On Monday, Karzai received endorsements from Northern Alliance leader and former president Burhanuddin Rabbani and a former Taliban commander and recently released Guantánamo inmate Naeem Kochi.
Muddying the waters even further, Khalid Farooqi, a breakaway leader from Hizb-i Islami also endorsed Karzai on Tuesday. (A separate, larger branch of this party is currently aligned with Al Qaeda.) "Afghanistan needs a strong leader and a stable government," Mr. Farooqi said. "All Afghans and especially the Hizb-i Islami party should vote for Hamid Karzai."
Yet out in the provinces, where most of the Afghan population lives, Qanooni has some clear advantages, especially in his mobility. While security threats have kept President Karzai in his palace, particularly after the Sept. 16 rocket attack on Karzai's helicopter near the city of Gardez, Qanooni has been able to attend large campaign rallies in Herat, Ghazni, and Kandahar in the past week alone. Even rallies organized by his proxies bring in mujahideen supporters by the thousands.
Veteran: 'We sacrificed a lot'
Typical is Asadullah, a middle-aged landowner in the Sanzeri district west of Kandahar, who is among nearly a thousand mujahideen veterans awaiting a Qanooni rally in the Idgah mosque in Sanzeri.
"We sacrificed a lot during the jihad, and we want to support a real mujahid who will take care of the country," says Asadullah, who like many Afghans has one name. "We are happy with the DDR," he says, referring to the controversial disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration program of the UN, "but they should give us mujahideen the right to participate in the government. We want a stake in Afghanistan, and we want to elect our own leader."
Not all veterans support the disarmament process, particularly those still operating illegal militias. While Qanooni backs the DDR process, some of his supporters see his defense of the mujahideen as an indication that he would be less inclined than Karzai to take their guns away.
In the city of Kandahar itself, the Karzai and Qanooni camps have been busy trading charges with each other. Karzai's brother and campaign manager, Ahmed Wali Karzai, accuses Qanooni's chief supporters of war crimes. And Qanooni's supporters return equally serious charges, accusing Ahmed Wali Karzai himself of influence peddling, corruption, and drug trafficking.
Kandahar Police Chief Khan Mohammad, recently demoted by President Karzai from the more powerful position of military chief, has become an avid supporter of Qanooni. Yet in his new job, he says he has learned unsettling things about Ahmed Wali Karzai's involvement in drugs.
About two months ago, Mr. Mohammad says, he received a call from a police chief in a district outside of Kandahar, who reported that he had captured a large shipment of heroin hidden in a truck under bags of cement. Then, said Mohammad, he received another call, and another, and another, from Ahmed Wali Karzai.
"He was saying, 'This heroin belongs to me, you should release it,'" says Mohammad, sitting in his office in Kandahar, under a large portrait of President Karzai. "I said, 'No, this is my duty, and I handed it over to the Ministry of Interior.'"
"There is no doubt they are involved in drugs," Mohammad says. "But we don't have hard evidence, we have just confirmed it with other people."
The police officer who made the arrest in this case says, "This is not the first time we have captured trucks full of drugs. So many times, we get calls from Ahmed Wali Khan to 'release the drugs, otherwise, we will tell the American forces that you are Al Qaeda.'" He pauses. "We are not powerful. We have just five men. And he's the president's brother."
For his part, Ahmed Wali Karzai calls these charges of drug-trafficking unfounded "propaganda."
"This is character assassination," says Mr. Karzai, in his large lush campaign office, where dozens of tribal leaders await outside his door for a meeting. "What else can they say? Is there any proof? I am ready for any kind of investigation. I'm willing to take a polygraph test. What else can they say?"
"They can't accuse that I am a military man, that I am taking bribes, that I am taking government land or selling government land, so then they are doing this," he says. "I am a big problem for these people, because they can't survive" if Karzai succeeds.
Faced with a choice of warlords on one hand, and accused drug lords on the other, many Afghan voters may decide not to vote at all, election observers say, especially if Taliban attacks and militia intimidation continue at the current pace.
But Juma Gul, a stonemason taking a rest near a construction project in Kandahar, says he will cast his vote no matter what, and he will vote for Karzai.
"Inshallah [God willing], nothing will happen, and if there is an attack, we will still go to vote," says the grizzled mason, relaxing with co-workers in the shade of a nearby house. "I will support Karzai. He's a nice man. He's from Kandahar. He's an honest person and he hasn't created any problem for any person. Nobody has any bad thing to say about him."