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Please give us the lowdown on Afghanistan's upcoming elections.

Don't Panic!... Your war questions answered

It turns out that the U.S. elections aren't the only ones most Americans will be ignoring this fall.

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Campaigning has officially begun for Afghanistan's first-ever free presidential election on Oct. 9. The duties of the Afghan president, as spelled out in the Afghan constitution ratified earlier this year, are similar to the duties of an American president, with a touch of European-style prime minister thrown in. The Afghan president will be commander-in-chief of the Afghan armed forces, enforce the nation's laws, nominate its ministers and high court judges, pardon criminals, hand out ribbons, and throw out the ceremonial "first carcass" at Buzkashi matches. Buzkashi is Afghanistan's national sport. It's played by two competing teams of men on horseback trying to carry a decapitated goat or calf carcass around a flag before depositing in the "circle of justice." And, no, I did not make any of that up. Imagine polo as conceived by Genghis Khan.

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Afghanistan's election and its presidency do, however, differ from ours in some important ways. For example, instead of having to choose between just two candidates, Afghanistan has 18 presidential candidates. Another big difference is that, unlike in the United States, the Afghan candidate who receives the most votes actually wins the election.

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Enthusiasm for the election among Afghans is incredibly high. When I say "incredibly," I mean that it nearly lacks credibility. Ten-and-a-half million Afghans are registered to vote in the election, even though the United Nations thought just a couple of months ago that there were only 9.8 million eligible voters. That discrepancy is the result of two big factors. First, 30 years of brutal war put census taking on the back burner, so any nationwide population figures for Afghanistan are merely educated guesses.

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Secondly, many people are registering more than once. Some people are doing it to skew the vote in favor of their favorite candidate, others to make money selling their registration cards. The country's backward attitudes about women also contribute to the confusion. If a woman comes to the voter registration office wearing a burka, how exactly are officials supposed to be able to tell that she's the same woman who came in and registered the day before?

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To thwart those who intend to vote early and often, people who vote on Oct. 9 will have a finger marked with indelible ink so that poll workers can see whether they've already voted.

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Of the 18 candidates vying for the job, current interim President Hamid Karzai is thought to be the front-runner. His strengths: He's well regarded internationally, and he's a Pashtun, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group. His weaknesses are, well, he's well regarded internationally and he's a Pashtun. His ties to the United States (he ascended to the presidency in 2002 with a nod and a wink from us) have made him the target of at least one assassination attempt and an enemy of the deposed Taliban (also, incidentally, Pashtuns) and their al-Qaeda cohorts. As for Karzai's ethnicity, in a country that's essentially tribal, it's nearly impossible for a leader from one ethnic group to earn the trust of the people from another.

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Karzai's most well-known challenger is the ethnic Uzbek warlord Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum. Chief among Dostum's beefs with Karzai is the "warlord" label itself. Karzai has said that regional military figures like Dostum that don't answer to the central government (aka warlords) are a bigger threat to national stability than a resurgent Taliban. Dostum is also pissed off that Karzai appointed rival Uzbek leader Atta Mohammed to a regional governorship.

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The Karzai rival thought to have the best chance of winning, though, is Yunus Qanooni. He's an ethnic Tajik, an Islamist, and reportedly is the favored candidate of Iran and Russia. The areas of his strongest support are also areas of the country with relatively little election-centered violence. If Taliban-led violence in the Pashtun south suppresses enough of the Pashtun vote, Qanooni could conceivably outpoll Karzai.

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To prevent election-centered violence and fraud, NATO has promised to boost its troop presence in Afghanistan from 6,500 to 10,000. Maybe if it works, we can get them to come to Florida afterward.

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andisheh@creativeloafing.com



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