August 15, 2009 / 5:08 AM / in 8 years

Secrets of Karzai's strength in quiet Afghan north

FAIZABAD, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Afghanistan’s mountainous north ought to be the heartland of support for opposition presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah, scion of the mainly ethnic-Tajik militia movement that long held sway here.

<p>Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai, who is seeking a second term in the country's upcoming presidential election, waves during an election rally in Kabul August 13, 2009. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood</p>

Nevertheless, security guard Mohibullah says he would rather keep President Hamid Karzai in power for five more years.

“There’s been war for 30 years in Afghanistan, now there’s peace, electricity and we’re using the river properly,” he said. “I‘m voting for Karzai.”

The latest opinion poll suggests Karzai will place first in the Aug 20 presidential election, but not by enough to avoid a run-off, beating Abdullah 44 percent to 26.

Abdullah hopes to build a coalition strong enough to beat Karzai in a second round in October, but a visit to Badakhshan, the remote northern corner of the country in the high Hindu Kush mountains, shows the scale of the task he faces.

In the south, where war is raging, ethnic Pashtun voters mainly support Karzai, son of a Pashtun tribal chief. In the north, where the country is now largely at peace, even many of Abdullah’s natural constituents see little reason for change.

“I‘m happy with Karzai,” said 55-year old Ghorban Mohammad, a butcher, cradling his one-year old son at his hip. “We’ve had a tough past, we want progress.”

POSTERS PLASTERED

Posters for Karzai are plastered to the hundreds of wood and mud kiosks packed tightly along a winding dirt road carved out of a hillside in Faizabad, Badakhshan’s provincial capital.

They bear the president’s face and that of his two vice presidential running mates, the former chiefs of Tajik and Hazara ethnic minority militias, including one from Abdullah’s old Tajik faction which ran this area when the Taliban held sway in Kabul.

Karzai’s alliance with former militia leaders alarms some Western diplomats who fear warlords returning to carve up power if he wins re-election. The alliances make it harder for opposition figures such as Abdullah to secure a solid bloc of support.

“Abdullah’s a good man, I‘m not saying he’s bad,” said Mohibullah, who like many Afghans uses just one name. “It’s just about opinion, and I think we’ve had stability here the past five years or so and that should continue.”

Nehmatullah, a mechanic, agreed: “After 30 years of war we’ve just managed to breathe easy these past seven years, so I think most people here will vote for Karzai.”

The recent poll shows Afghans like both men -- Karzai enjoys the favorable opinion of 81 percent of Afghans while Abdullah enjoys 71 percent -- and not all minds are made up.

Perched behind jars of honey and rough slabs of lapis lazuli -- the semi-precious stone mined in Badakhshan since ancient times -- bushy-browed shopkeeper Khodabash Atah held a sheet of paper with a list of candidates. God, he said, will tell him whom to choose on polling day.

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