Inside Karzai's Campaign

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KABUL: Afghan President Hamid Karzai meets with Tribal leaders from the Afghan-Pakistan border at the Presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan

During Afghan President Hamid Karzai's first campaign outing two weeks ago, an enemy rocket whizzed by his U.S. military helicopter and slammed into the camelback hills where he was supposed to land. Karzai brushed off the near miss, but his American guardians insisted on returning to Kabul. Half-jokingly, Karzai said, "I'm an Afghan, and I promise I'll take my revenge." Sure enough, the next day, Karzai slipped past his American protectors and, with two baffled Afghan bodyguards in tow, commandeered a driver to take him to a Kabul bazaar. The President wanted to buy a pomegranate.

It took a few seconds for shopkeeper Gul Ahmad to realize that the elegant man asking for the ruby red fruit was none other than the leader of Afghanistan. Ahmad hugged Karzai and began shouting his name in disbelief. Soon a crowd gathered, pressing in on the President. By all accounts, he was at ease, joking with shoppers, enduring bear hugs. Meanwhile, his two Afghan bodyguards were frantically calling for backup. But Karzai bought his pomegranate and, by showing he wasn't intimidated, had exacted his revenge.

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More important, it gave Afghans and Karzai a brief chance to get reacquainted. Karzai needs this kind of impromptu pressing of the flesh because on Oct. 9 he will face 17 rivals in the country's first-ever presidential election. Since political differences here are often resolved with bullets, Karzai, 46, has been an invisible candidate, rarely leaving his granite-walled palace. U.N. officials say a third of the country is still in the grip of either Taliban fighters or lawless warlords, making it nearly impossible for Karzai and other candidates to campaign freely. Parliamentary elections will be held next April.

This election is being closely watched in Washington. During his campaign, President George W. Bush has repeatedly touted Afghanistan as a success story, in part to counter the horrific news coming out of Iraq. The inevitable TV-news clip of an Afghan woman lifting her blue veil to mark a ballot will be offered as compelling proof that Afghanistan, as Bush says, is "on the path to democracy and freedom."

It is still a difficult journey. To help secure Afghanistan against a new Taliban offensive aimed at sabotaging the elections, the U.S. is flying in 1,100 more troops to join the 15,000 already in the country. The Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan for nearly six years before the U.S. toppled the regime after 9/11, has made a campaign promise. "We will hit the election offices and the candidates, and anyone who gets in our way will die," spokesman Abdul Latif Hakimi told TIME by satellite telephone from an undisclosed location. At the same time, any victory that smells too much of U.S. influence could taint rather than legitimize Karzai and widen the murderous ethnic divisions among Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. The vote could also conceivably strengthen the warlords, weakening Karzai's ability to govern. He's trying to secure victory through brokered deals, offering some of the warlords jobs in his next Cabinet. As John Sifton of Human Rights Watch, a U.S. monitoring group, says, "Votes aren't being campaigned for; they're being bought by strongmen." Afghans, in other words, still live under the rule of the gun and the bribe, not the ballot.

The strongmen don't come any stronger than General Abdul Rashid Dostum. A former communist general known to have ordered enemy captives crushed under a Russian tank, Dostum, 49, is trying to transform himself from warlord into smiling presidential candidate. That's going to take some finesse, given that he strikes fear in many Afghans in his northern stronghold of Shebarghan. Dostum's idea of campaigning is to sit on a thronelike chair in his rose garden and scowl at a line of deferential tribal elders, officials and militia commanders who will be expected to deliver votes from among the Uzbeks. Those who don't obey suffer — such as one Uzbek man whose wife was kidnapped when he refused to rejoin Dostum's forces.

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