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Afghans in Kabul brush aside jitters on eve of vote

Mohammed Yosin was 9 when the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan, not long out of his teens when terrifying rocket duels between rival warlords leveled whole swaths of Kabul, a young man when the Taliban came to power, and breadwinner for his fast-growing family when U.S.-led troops arrived nearly eight years ago.

Like many in the Afghan capital, he views today’s presidential election with more than a touch of fatalism, brushing aside jitters over a wave of insurgent attacks and threats in advance of the vote.

“I’ve seen so much war,” Yosin said, pausing for a moment in the potholed roadway, balancing a battered bicycle with a load of tomatoes strapped to the back. “It’s my whole life. I don’t know anything else. Why would I be afraid now?”

Voting began this morning on schedule and under tight security. At a run-down school in central Kabul, people had already formed a line when the polls opened at 7 a.m. Everyone entering was searched, and police had blocked off both ends of the street.

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“There’s a risk coming here, but this is a day to make our future,” said Mohammed Ibrahim, a 38-year-old office worker.

A stream of people emerged from the cardboard-partitioned booths, some proudly holding up their ink-stained right index fingers -- proof they had cast a ballot.

On the eve of the vote, there was ample reason for nervousness. At least six election workers died in attacks by insurgents. Six more American troop deaths were reported in Afghanistan’s volatile south. And Taliban fighters engaged in an hours-long shootout with police in the heart of the capital, a clash that left three militants dead.

Yosin, whose ragged trousers, callused hands and broken teeth make him appear far older than his 39 years, was one of the few people out on the streets of Kabul on Wednesday. It was a national holiday, commemorating independence from the British and providing a reminder of the historic collision of imperial dreams and Afghan realities.

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Most businesses were shuttered, and the city’s usual roaring traffic jams subsided to nearly nothing. Even the laundresses who congregate daily on the banks of the Kabul River, scrubbing clothes in its dirty trickle of water, stayed out of sight.

Stray dogs skulked along crumbling mud-brick walls and open sewage ditches. A few ragpickers searched desultorily among piles of trash. Campaign posters that were pasted to walls and lampposts when the campaign for the presidency and provincial assembly seats began two months ago flapped in the hot wind, their garish colors fading in the punishing summer sun.

Wednesday brought a final flurry of preparations at about 6,000 polling stations around the country. This is only Afghanistan’s second direct presidential election, and the logistical challenges are enormous. Election materials were still arriving at some sites. Many voting venues, high in the mountains or deep in the desert, are so remote that ballots were being delivered by helicopter or donkey train.

Many of Kabul’s expatriates -- diplomats, aid workers, contractors -- were on lockdown, ordered by their employers to stay off the streets until the vote was over. But in the city’s poorer districts, market stalls were open and patrons haggled over heaps of eggplant and piles of grapes. Nationalistic songs blared from an old radio, interrupted by bursts of static.

“I haven’t got any money, so I have to work today, even without so many customers around,” said Sayed Mujib, a street vendor of kishmish, a sweetened drink flavored with fruit and nuts.

Asked whether any of the presidential candidates -- the incumbent, Hamid Karzai, or his rivals -- would better the lives of Afghans, Mujib shrugged and pointed to the chunk of melting ice cooling his vat of syrupy liquid.

“My hopes are like that; they get smaller and smaller,” he said.

A white surveillance blimp floated in the sky. It is a recently added security measure, intended as a bulwark against insurgent attacks, but suicide bombers have lately penetrated even the most heavily guarded precincts of Kabul.

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On the vote’s eve, the city bristled with checkpoints. When a taxi pulled over to drop off a passenger, a policeman banged the door with a rifle butt as a blunt message to move along. Some of the patrolling police officers appeared alert and watchful; others, lulled into lassitude by the heat of the day, lounged in the shade with cups of tea.

The vote, like Kabul itself, spotlights the ways in which traditions compete with modern mores. In a city where donkey carts creak their way past billboards for wireless-enabled cellphones, election workers expect to have to draw a firm line when some men turn up and demand to cast ballots for their wives as well.

As the afternoon call to prayer echoed through the streets, a Western military convoy sped along a thoroughfare. The few Afghan motorists on the road quickly scooted out of the way, fearful of being mistaken for suicide bombers if they ventured too close.

Abdul Rahman, a bakery worker, was pulling loaves from a hot oven this week when a suicide blast down the street made him stagger. His ears rang for an hour afterward, he said.

“I don’t care about such things,” he said. “Time passes, and they are not what matters. So I say to every Afghan, ‘Go and vote.’ ”

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laura.king@latimes.com

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BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX

The top contenders

A look at incumbent Hamid Karzai and his main challengers in today’s presidential vote. Karzai is expected to be the top vote-getter, but a victory short of an absolute majority would mean a runoff between the two leading candidates in October.

HAMID KARZAI

Afghanistan’s president once enjoyed both the favor of the West and strong domestic support, but his popularity has waned at home and abroad amid accusations of inefficiency and corruption in his government. Karzai, 51, has led the country since the fall of the Taliban, first as the appointed interim leader in 2001, and as elected president since 2004. A Pashtun tribal leader, he draws much of his support from fellow Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group. Opponents have accused him of using his incumbency to unfair advantage during this race. Polls have put his support at about 45%, making him the front-runner, but he may have trouble garnering the absolute majority he would need to win today’s vote.

ABDULLAH ABDULLAH

Abdullah, 48, trained as an ophthalmologist, came to world prominence as foreign minister and spokesman for the Northern Alliance, which helped American-led forces topple the Taliban in 2001. He was a senior aide and confidant to alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, who was assassinated just before the Sept. 11 attacks. Abdullah has a Pashtun father, but his main political identity is as a Tajik, the dominant ethnic group in Afghanistan’s north. Surveys indicate that after an energetic campaign, Abdullah is in second place with about 25% of the vote. He has suggested that only fraud on the part of Karzai’s backers could deprive him of victory.

RAMAZAN BASHARDOST

A lawmaker and former Cabinet minister, Bashardost, 43, is a self-styled populist and ascetic whose campaign office is a tent pitched outside the parliament building. He refrains from eating meat in what he says is a statement of solidarity with Afghanistan’s poor. He is a member of the ethnic Hazara minority, a Shiite Muslim group that makes up about 10% of the country’s population. He was a near-unknown at the campaign’s outset, but polls suggest he now has the backing of about 10% of the electorate.

ASHRAF GHANI

An urbane, Western-educated technocrat, Ghani, 60, has spent much of his adult life in exile. He served as Afghanistan’s finance minister, but broke with Karzai and left the government in 2004. Like Karzai, he is from a prominent Pashtun family and may draw off some of the president’s support among Pashtuns. He is a former World Bank official, university professor and special advisor to the United Nations. Ghani is well respected by Western officials, and American political strategist James Carville advised his campaign. However, surveys have put his support in the 6% range.

Source: Times reporting


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