On the ground in Kandahar

By Alex Strick van Linschoten, Kandahar, Afghanistan With only four days to go before the elections, I thought it might be useful to comment on how the opposition candidates’ rallies went this past week.  Myself and my colleague were graced with the presence of a good half dozen members of the international press corps this ...

By Alex Strick van Linschoten, Kandahar, Afghanistan

With only four days to go before the elections, I thought it might be useful to comment on how the opposition candidates' rallies went this past week.  Myself and my colleague were graced with the presence of a good half dozen members of the international press corps this week, and in all likeliness you'll read several pieces from Kandahar in the next few days.  I've just seen Jon Boone did one for the Observer which isn't that bad.  Give it a read.

Wednesday the 12th was Abdullah's day in town.  The old Communist governor of Kandahar, Noor ul-Haq Ulumi, who was responsible for buying off the mujahedeen in greater Kandahar at the end of the anti-Soviet war had come down a few days earlier to meet elders and prepare for the rally.  He chose an empty patch of land next to his house as the site for the rally, and people began to arrive there early in the morning.

By Alex Strick van Linschoten, Kandahar, Afghanistan

With only four days to go before the elections, I thought it might be useful to comment on how the opposition candidates’ rallies went this past week.  Myself and my colleague were graced with the presence of a good half dozen members of the international press corps this week, and in all likeliness you’ll read several pieces from Kandahar in the next few days.  I’ve just seen Jon Boone did one for the Observer which isn’t that bad.  Give it a read.

Wednesday the 12th was Abdullah’s day in town.  The old Communist governor of Kandahar, Noor ul-Haq Ulumi, who was responsible for buying off the mujahedeen in greater Kandahar at the end of the anti-Soviet war had come down a few days earlier to meet elders and prepare for the rally.  He chose an empty patch of land next to his house as the site for the rally, and people began to arrive there early in the morning.

All over the city that morning, Abdullah’s posters and billboards had been restrung and reposted as if to pretend that they all hadn’t been defaced and dirtied by his opponents.  There were surprisingly few security checks at the rally, something I’ve heard from many others about previous rallies he did elsewhere, and an attempt on his life seemed a very real possibility.

In the hours before Abdullah himself showed up, there was the traditional atan dancing, and a small group chosen out of the hundreds of women gathered there practiced their "Abdullah Abdullah" chants.  The presence of women/girls was interesting, and much noted by the largely uneducated crowd that had come (read: been summoned) to the rally.  It was not a common feature at political rallies down south, for obvious reasons, and the only reason people could come up with was that Ulumi "was a Communist and the Communists used to do this all the time."

People also speculated (Abdullah was several hours late; there was plenty of time for chit-chat) as to where the girls had come from.  In all likelihood they were Farsi-speaking girls, born in Iran but returned in the past few years to Kandahar where their families had moved back.  Most of this small but influential community of young girls — Farsi-speakers make up a significant proportion of Kandahar’s school-going girls — are literate, often quite well-educated, so they at least understood that they were at a political rally, what it was for etc.

The police officer in charge of security at the rally made an announcement on the loudspeaker system: "If anyone brought any weapons in with them, please hand them in to us.  If we find them on you later, we won’t be so pleasant about it."  Great, I thought, they’re not even pretending to have security precautions in place.

It was really, really, really hot, even under the makeshift tents, but finally Abdullah came.

[Conversation from the crowd:

A: Which one’s Abdullah?

B: He’s the one with the turban.

A: That one?  He doesn’t look like I thought he would.]

Ulumi had put together a premier list of speakers, all of whom attested to Abdullah’s Pashtun-ness, his Kandahari roots, and his suitability for the post.  The problem was, nobody was really listening to the speeches, too concerned with fanning themselves and wondering when it would all be over and lunch would start.

Ezat Wasefi, former governor of Farah, spoke, as did Hajji Obaidullah and Ulumi himself.  All of the speeches were reactive in tone, spending more time criticising Karzai (in all the colours of the rainbow) and responding to criticisms that Abdullah wasn’t a real Pashtun.  "He’s from Kandahar, he’s a Pashtun, I know his family and I saw him here in the past," said one, as if that was going to overwrite all the bad feeling in the city at Abdullah’s attempt to "be Pashtun."

In the end, I left early, bored by Abdullah and his fake rally, bored by the utterly dead crowd.

Ashraf Ghani (in Kandahar more commonly identified by the last part of his name, ‘Ahmadzai’) was more interesting.  Determined not to make the same mistake of turning up hours before the rally as with Abdullah, this time I arrived late, presumably missing a few of the speeches, and had to fight my way up several flights of stairs, through at least five full body pat-downs and a visibly edgy security guard at the entrance to the main salon upstairs.

In the main salon itself there was space for around 1500, but many more had turned up so Ahmadzai’s supporters spilled out onto the road, shouting to be allowed in.

Last week saw one major newspaper suggest that Abdullah was ‘the Afghan Obama’ on account of his mixed ethnicity; to my mind, though, the support base of Ahmadzai and its strong contingent of the young and the educated is more reminiscent of an Obama campaign.  Indeed, most of the people who managed to get into the speech hall were under 30 years old.  In Kandahar, where educational opportunities are few and cultural stigma works against the educated class, Ahmadzai seems to represent a change that people could actually visualise.

Once again, though, the speeches that I caught were mainly focused on criticising Karzai and the fruits of his administration:

– administrative corruption

– "guns and democracy don’t go together"

– Karzai’s government as a ‘millionaire’s club’

– etc

Ahmadzai’s speech itself was much more forceful than I would have imagined, with a rasp in his voice and the face of a serious man.  I imagine his high educated style of Pashtu worked against him a little, but he made up for his deficiencies in speech with a good burst of Kandahari and Pashtun pride.

His more populist positions always drew a cheer and clapping from the crowd, and he even got in a good deal of criticism of foreign forces (on the drug problem: "If the foreigners are so weak that they can’t even stop drugs from going into their own countries, then why do they claim to be so powerful after all?")

He took pains to stress that he understood Kandahar, and the problems of the people.  "I spent many years studying in America, but remember this: I also drank water from the village well."

He spent a good ten or fifteen minutes explaining some of the things he planned to do if he were to win: creating jobs, houses, improving security, economic plans etc.  At least that was an improvement on Abdullah.

Almost as soon as he arrived, he was gone again, on his way to Farah for a six o’clock meeting there.

In the end, the rallies of Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani said less about what might happen on election day — I think we all have a pretty good idea about that — but revealed more about the aspirations of Kandahar’s young generation.  Very little is written about this large section of society, but a repeat of the Karzai regime is not going to do much for them.  The best they can hope for is to earn enough money to get out — to Kabul, to India, anywhere else.  Aside from that small possibility, their future looks bleak.

[UPDATE: Karzai supporters held a rally for him today in Kandahar Football Stadium and it’s worth a few comments:]

Presumably conceived in reaction to the two big rallies for Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, Ahmed Wali Karzai (the president’s half-brother) put on a huge rally held in Kandahar’s football stadium today.  As you can see in the video above, there were lots of people there, far more than were present at Ashraf Ghani or Abdullah’s rallies.

People came from all over the city, again and as for the previous rallies for the excitement of ‘something’ happening in town, but also because all government departments were closed for today and officials requested to attend the rally.  All schools were also closed, and buses present to take girls, boys and teachers to the stadium.  A rumour went round that teachers’ salaries would be paid at the stadium — teachers in Kandahar haven’t been paid for a couple of months — but I was unable to confirm this.  It was a good demonstration of the power that the state still has: who says Karzai has to use his incumbent powers to win the election, eh?

We initially heard that Karzai himself was coming to the rally, but once we arrived were told this wasn’t the case.  Lots of women were present, a mix of schoolgirls and others, again more than had turned out for Abdullah, but they sat in a separate place far from the larger men-only stage area.

As for the esteemed and respected guests, it was an impressive gathering.  A glance round the stage and those seated nearby revealed a who’s who of Kandahar: tribal elders, mujahedeen commanders, government officials, youth leaders and so on.  Almost all of the speakers referred to this in their speeches: "Look around you," Ahmed Wali said.  "The other candidates brought one or two people from Kandahar as their friends from Kabul.  We have everyone here to support us.  There isn’t a well-known figure perhaps who isn’t here."

It was a highly impressive display of power, but fake nonetheless.

Afghanmal, provincial council member, noted how all the opposition candidates had come to Kandahar and said that they were Pashtuns, that they were originally Kandaharis, that they had Kandahari friends, uncles and mothers, but that Karzai was the real deal.

Hajji Karim Khan, speaking second, warned people that if they didn’t vote that maybe Karzai would get more votes from Herat or Mazar and that would be shameful for the people of Kandahar when he was reelected… not the strongest endorsement…

Khalid Pashtun spoke and told people they needed to be realistic in their expectations of the regime.  100% success isn’t possible, he said.

Ahmed Wali himself took pains to stress how much his half-brother was working for the country.  "Have you ever heard that Karzai took a holiday?  Have you ever heard that he went for a picnic in someone’s garden as is our habit?  No!  He works for the country from eight in the morning until seven at night."

He also called on the Taliban to stop destroying the country.  If Pashtuns don’t stop fighting, he said, development money currently earmarked for Kandahar will be allocated to other provinces.  And the foreigners and their money won’t be here forever, he warned.

Responding to allegations of fraud: "People say that I’m buying up voting cards.  Look at all these people gathered here!  Why should I need to buy cards?"

None of the other speakers said anything especially interesting, and the rally passed without incident.  I think it’s clear from all of this how Kandahar will vote when we get to Thursday…

Alex Strick van Linschoten is a journalist based in Kandahar. This was originally posted on his blog.

Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn are Afghanistan-based researchers who edited the forthcoming memoirs of Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, My Life with the Taliban.

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