Karzai Out Campaigning for Voting and Against Taliban

Posted in Broader Middle East | 26-Apr-04 | Author: Carlotta Gall| Source: The New York Times

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan, April 25 - President Hamid Karzai was back in his hometown this weekend for the first time since he narrowly escaped assassination by a Taliban sympathizer here 18 months ago. In a direct challenge to the Taliban in its former spiritual capital, he urged people to take part in the country's elections in September.

His two-day visit to Kandahar was the first of a series of planned trips to the regions of Afghanistan in the coming months, and it clearly opened the election season, the next big task for Mr. Karzai's government and for him as a presidential candidate.

Accompanied by five cabinet ministers, he said he was here to see how reconstruction was going and what more the government could do, but he also urged people to take part in the elections even if those trying to undermine the process used violence to deter participation.

There was heavy security during his visit, provided by helicopters and special forces of the American-led allies and members of the Afghan National Army, who lined the road and what appeared to be the entire Kandahar police and intelligence forces. Security concerns led to cancellation of a scheduled visit to a girls' school and the university, but Mr. Karzai toured the town in a motorcade, visited its famous shrines and his family's graves, and viewed the newly asphalted roads from a helicopter.

"My purpose is just to go and see the country, see what's happened, see if there is more reconstruction," he said in an interview on Sunday morning ahead of meetings with local tradesmen and women's representatives. "I have to visit the country, visit the provinces, election or no election. It is part of my job."

On Saturday evening, he met 300 elders and tribesmen from the region for dinner.

He warned of difficult times ahead, saying violence was likely to increase in the next four to five months before the elections, partly because militants may be set on disrupting the process and partly because of aggravated internal political tensions.

"Terrorism - by Al Qaeda and their associates, and those outside of Afghanistan who don't want Afghanistan to grow the way it has grown - will definitely try to sabotage the peace process by attacking the election process," Mr. Karzai said.

"I expect an increase in terrorist activities, to prevent people from going to register or from going to elections," he added, but said those trying to derail the process would not succeed.

In interviews and in leaflets scattered in the bazaars, members of the Taliban movement, which was removed from power in Afghanistan in the American-led war in 2001, have threatened to disrupt the elections and even to kill people who register to vote.

Mr. Karzai also warned that candidates would use regionalism, ethnicity or other affiliations to stir tensions. "Candidates for president and others, as in any other campaign, will use any method available to them to get popularity, to get votes," he said. "We should be aware of that, and we should not be afraid of that. It is going to be a difficult time for us."

With plans for the elections still uncertain, and with so much still to be done to make life better here - not least an ambitious disarmament program over the next two months - Mr. Karzai said he did not see his role merely as a political leader. Instead, he said, he sees himself as a unifying figure who can garner support for the transition to democratic rule.

"The Afghan people really don't want a partisan person to be their president," he said. "They want somebody that should be above these things." He added that he did not have the skills to run a political party anyway.

"I don't think I'll campaign like others do - I don't think I have the resources for that," he said. "I will talk to people, I will visit. I think the Afghan people know what I have done and what I haven't done."

Although he may not have political party funds to use, he has the trappings of state and the American alliance, which is anxious to see him re-elected and who are ready to provide the logistics and security for his tours around the country. The presidential entourage was flown to and from Kandahar on an American military plane, and American helicopters flew low circles overhead through much of his visit.

But as he says himself, his temperament is more conciliatory than competitive, and he feels more comfortable winning people to a general popular cause than promoting himself. "It is not in my temperament - I don't like to take sides," he said.

For parliamentary elections he said he was talking to "like-minded parties and individuals," and tribal and community elders so he could hope to find a body of support in the future legislature.

"It is going to take some time for Afghanistan to get a solid political party structure, widely presented and embedded in the Afghan political culture," he said. "Until then, we'll have to use traditional methods available, that are equally democratic."

"Democracy is something for me that comes from the people, and in Afghan society, the structure that we have is related to the decision by the people. And as long as we get that, I'll be happy, and that I am going to work on."

After a winter engrossed with drafting and passing a Constitution, and securing foreign assistance for a multibillion-dollar development program at a recent donors conference in Berlin, Mr. Karzai was clearly relaxed and happy to be out of the capital and among the people of his hometown.

"How are the men of Kandahar - are they the same as before or have they changed?" he asked, raising laughter among a group of teachers, all women.

The educated men were allowing their women to register for elections, but the uneducated men remained unchangingly strict, they replied. Women need more education, they said - there are no girls' schools in the countryside here - and they need factories to provide women with jobs.

"How are the gardens?" he asked the men.

"They are full, full of fruit," was the response from one. But the men asked for help with water, since the long draught is still hurting in the south.

The president's younger brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, pitched in on behalf of farmers, asking for relief from taxes on land and produce while the drought continues.