For someone who is used to think of Pashtuns as wild big guys with big beards and big noses, armed with Kalashnikovs, a stroll through the bazaar of Gardez today must have been shocking. With not only the presidential elections (on 20 August) but also the holy fasting month of Ramazan (on 21 August – if the moon-sighting works properly) approaching fast, most of them carried heavy plastic bags full with green cucumbers and tomatoes. With the woman mainly confined to the homes, the gentlemen are doing the shopping here.
Not much could be noticed, meanwhile, that indicated that this was the last day of the election campaign already, ending sharp at midnight. If it weren’t for the sound of dhols, the Pashtun drums, in the morning calling for the men to join the attan, the war dance. In fact, these were Pashtuns from outlying districts who came to the final election meeting of Dr Abdullah which he had scheduled here in the South-eastern Pashtun heartland which is believed to vote Karzai mainly. Accordingly, the authorities – not yet used to political pluralism – reacted nervously, blocking roads and telling the foreign observer that ‘nothing really was happening’.
After three minutes of discussion and passing the gate of the large compound, it turned out that nothing was a bit of an understatement: A large tent had been put up, with possibly more than a thousand chairs for the spectators. In a distant corner, rice was already under process in large vessels while piles of bottled water were boiling in the sun. A ferocious speaker – who turned out to be Qara Beg Izadyar, a former mujahedin commander and head of the Afghan Red Crescent – was already praising the jihad, the mujahedin and Dr Abdullah in particular and promised reward on the day of judgement for those casting their votes for him. Dr Abdullah himself was expected for the afternoon. But already in the midday sun, organisers were arranging young boys in football, taekwondo and other sport outfits for the expected defile. T-shirts with the candidate’s portrait were even worn in the bazaar. Indeed, the Dari-speaking part of the town’s population is expected to vote Abdullah whose Jamiat party traditionally has a base here.
This was also reflected in Dr Abdullah’s Paktia campaign team that prominently features three pakol-wearing former commanders of local mujahedin units that were DDR-ed against their protracted resistance in 2003. One of them, who was held responsible by the US forces for a lot of the rockets that were fired into town in that period, even spent some years in Guantanamo and recently returned. All in all, Dr Abdullah’s Paktia team doesn’t look like his ‘hope and change’ election slogan but more like forward to the past.
Despite the heavy rally turn-out, there was surprisingly weak applause after the speeches. As a young Afghan ironically commented: Attending were mainly the same people who already had been at Karzai’s and Ashraf Ghani’s rallies earlier in the month. A member of the Paktia administration was probably also right in stating that these rallies would not mean much for voters’ behaviour.
The other contenders’ offices were already in a scaling-down mode. In the Karzai campaign office – comfortably located opposite the governor’s guest house – elders were drinking tea while others were finishing the paperwork for visitors’ travel expenses. No trace of any public campaigning any more. Paktia campaign manager Janat Khan Mangal had time to express his concern with regard to the security situation, which he though might not allow the Pashtun voters to turn and would favour Dr Abdullah.
A few corners away, on the third floor of one of the local shopping malls, with their bare concrete structures, an already yellowed curtain against the flies at the entrance and rail-less stairways, former PDPA Polit Bureau member Dr Habib Mangal received campaign workers for a first review of the work done. Surprisingly moderate while firm in his criticism of the misuse of government assets for the incumbent’s campaign, he called the pre-election exercise a ‘school of democracy’ in which he had ‘learned a lot’, not least how to get ‘close to the people’. He also admitted frankly that they had miscalculated the campaign period. So what was planned to be the highlight at the end of his campaign – a tour through the districts of his tribe’s areas in Paktia and Khost – had to be cancelled. Finally, he demonstrated how much (or not) ideological barriers mean here: He presented a provincial council candidate campaigning for him as a former Hezb-e Islami commander.
The same was experienced at Dr Abdullah’s office earlier on where a bulky, one-toothed former Sayyaf commander was the head of the local candidate agents’ team (those who will observe the polling sites) and a younger chap who introduced himself as a former Mahazi – a follower of Pir Gailani’s party – who somewhat inconsistently declared that the time of the old Jihadi leaders was over and that’s why he was supporting change with Dr Abdullah.
(The author was not able to locate the office of the other main contender, Dr Ashraf Ghani.)
The highlight of the day, however, was watching a heavily armed US convoy escorting election material out of town – with a heavy machine-gun barrel shortly but menacingly pointing at our car that had to immediately stop at the roadside.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020