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In Afghan race, wooing votes with ethnic strongmen

Monday - 3/24/2014, 8:14am  ET

In this Wednesday, March 12, 2014 photo, school children pass by a graffiti reading, "ballot not bullet" on their way back home on the outskirts of Kandahar, southern Afghanistan. Warlords with a violent past have played a role in influencing Afghan politics since a U.S.-led coalition helped oust the Taliban in 2001. But they are emerging to play an overt political role in next month’s presidential elections as President Hamid Karzai leaves the scene. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

Associated Press

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- On the edge of a Kabul neighborhood dominated by members of Afghanistan's ethnic Hazara minority, an election poster of presidential candidate Abdul Rasoul Sayyaf is damaged -- partially scraped away by someone trying to remove it.

The vandalism could be his past as a warlord coming back to haunt him.

During Afghanistan's civil war in the early 1990s, Sayyaf's militia killed tens of thousands of Hazaras, a community who are mostly Shiite Muslims, considered infidels by the Sunni radical fighters in Sayyaf's forces.

Warlords like Sayyaf with a violent past have played a role in influencing Afghan politics since a U.S.-led coalition helped oust the Taliban in 2001. But they are emerging to play an overt political role in next month's presidential elections as President Hamid Karzai leaves the scene.

Some, like Sayyaf, are running. Others are being courted by the candidates because many of the warlords command strong followings, particularly along ethnic lines. Candidates are choosing well-known strongmen as running mates to win support in their communities -- despite their violent histories. Even the most urbane and international savvy of the presidential candidates, a former World Bank official, has tied his hopes to a warlord whose violent history has been condemned by the U.S. and other Western governments.

The result is a mixed effect on Afghanistan's politics. The courting of warlords shows their political strength. On the other hand, it also shows that, unlike in the past, candidates are trying to reach out across ethnic lines in this deeply divided country and balance among communities.

For the ethnic minorities, it is also a mixed bag. Candidates are trying to appeal to them. But now the communities are more internally divided than ever over whom to support. In the 2004 and 2009 presidential elections, a single ethnicity dominated each ticket. Ethnic Tajiks had one ticket -- as did Hazaras, Pashtuns and Uzbeks.

Not this time around.

Each presidential candidate can take two vice presidential candidates on his ticket -- and each has sought to spread the ethnic appeal. All three top front-runners in the April 5 vote have prominent Hazaras as running mates.

Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, also has a Pashtun vice presidential candidate; Zalmai Rassoul has a Tajik; Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, the former World Bank official, has a powerful Uzbek warlord, Gen. Rashid Dostum, as his main running mate. Despite a violent past in the civil war, Dostum has emerged as the single leader behind whom Afghanistan's Uzbeks, who make up roughly 9 percent of the country's 32 million people, will rally.

Some in the Hazara community, about nine percent of the population, are worried about splits.

"I'm not happy with the fact that Hazara leaders are going to different candidates," said Rahmat Ula Karimi, a 56-year-old Kabul resident from the community. "Hazaras should be one voice to protect their rights. All the Hazaras should back one leader so they can have a unified voice."

The ethnic minority Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras and Turkmens dominate in northern Afghanistan. The country's largest ethnic group is the Pashtuns, who make up 42 percent of the population, according to the CIA Factbook. Pashtuns, who also make up the backbone of the Taliban movement, dominate in the south and east of Afghanistan.

The outgoing Karzai is a Pashtun, as are most of the nine candidates in the upcoming vote -- though Abdullah has combined Tajik-Pashtun heritage.

Faheem Dashty, an Afghan analyst and journalist, said the ethnic balance on the tickets "is a positive change."

Still, many of the candidates or their running mates have violent histories. Several have been named by the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch as responsible for mass killings during the 1992 to 1996 civil war, fought between Islamic insurgents-turned-warlords who turned their guns on each other after throwing out the invading Soviet military. The chaos of the civil war helped pave the way for the Taliban to take power, and they ended up controlling all of the country except for a small portion of northern Afghanistan.

A storekeeper on Kabul's Chicken Street, where carpet sellers bump up against antique dealers and traditional jewelers, Mohammed Qasi Zazai, said he is disappointed with the presence of warlords on the ballot.

"It's the younger generation, who are educated, who are really sad to see all these warlords, their pictures everywhere, who were involved in the civil war," he said.

Political transformation is slow in a country emerging from nearly four decades of relentless war, where the measure of one's strength has been the size of one's militia or the guns one owns, said Nader Nadery, executive director of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan.

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