KANDAHAR, AFGHANISTAN – Growing violence in Afghanistan’s southern province of Kandahar ahead of the presidential election next week highlights a rift between Pashtun tribes that could tip the country back into civil war.
The fate of Kandahar, birthplace of the Taliban insurgency, is crucial.
Some Afghans fear that a loss in the vote for Zalmai Rassoul, a candidate close to President Hamid Karzai, could push Kandahar’s powerful Pashtun tribes into rejecting rule from Kabul, 500 km (300 miles) away. Others fear the same outcome if he wins.
Such a revolt will have the potential to split the rugged nation of 30 million people, already divided by fierce loyalties beyond the Pashtun among such tribes as the Tajiks, Uzbeks and others.
The two presidential front-runners favored in Kandahar are Rassoul, backed by Karzai’s brothers, and Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank official. Both are Pashtun.
“If Kandahar is peaceful, Afghanistan is peaceful,” said provincial Gov. Tooryalai Wesa. “The key of Afghanistan is here. The history and politics of Afghanistan have always belonged to Kandahar.”
The violence in Kandahar comes despite the governor doubling the size of the provincial army, driving the Taliban to the edge of the region.
But now the militant group, which has vowed to disrupt Saturday’s vote and return to power, is gaining momentum with a series of bomb attacks leading up to the poll.
Tribal leaders in Kandahar say the Taliban insurgency has been galvanized by Karzai’s 12 years in office because of his family’s growing wealth and power, which have fueled rivalry among regional elites.
Karzai is from the powerful Pashtun Popalzai tribe, and Ghani is from the Ahmedzai tribe.
“People in Kandahar are tired of exclusive rule by the president’s brothers while other tribes have been suppressed,” said Haji Ehsaan, an elder of another Pashtun tribe.
With Karzai legally barred from a third term, many Afghans see his family’s public backing of Rassoul as a move to tighten its grip on Kandahar.
All nine presidential candidates are Pashtun except Abdullah Abdullah, a front-runner along with Rassoul and Ghani.
A successful vote Saturday will mark Afghanistan’s first democratic transfer of power and signal prospects for stability after most foreign troops withdraw at the end of the year. But only a win for Rassoul will ensure this stability, his supporters say.
“He is a Pashtun from Kandahar and has the support of the Karzais,” said the chief of the Kandahar provincial council, Haji Sayed Jan. “If someone other than Rassoul wins, the people of Kandahar will not accept that, and tribal tensions will grow.”
The businesses of the president’s brothers, Mehmood and Qayum, have flourished during his tenure. They plan to fight the Taliban’s growing influence in Kandahar by fighting economic deprivation, stiffening the justice system and rooting out corruption.
But even in Karzai’s family there are cracks. One fierce critic is a cousin, Hashmat, who said corruption and injustice among the current leaders are driving citizens into the arms of the Taliban.
The Taliban, in power from 1996 to 2001, are seeking to oust foreign forces and set up an Islamic state.
Hashmat said he is gathering tribal leaders from three southern provinces to back Ghani, the former World Bank official, who is popular with young people and women.
“Once the tribes or the elders decide (to support Ghani), it would make a big impact on the election,” said Hashmat.
If Rassoul wins, more people will join the Taliban, Hashmat said, strengthening the insurgency as foreign troops pull out.
But it will be hard to convince the people of Kandahar that the elections will be fair. Most of them expect a repeat of the corruption that marred the presidential vote in 2009, when about 40 percent of votes cast in Kandahar were suspected to be fraudulent.
“What was happening before will happen on the same scale,” Abdul Hadi, chief of Kandahar’s Independent Electoral Commission, said in his office beside a graveyard of Soviet tanks left behind from the 1979 invasion.