There’s an old Afghan saying: “If you want to die, go to Kunduz.”
And early Wednesday afternoon, the stifling heat that originally helped inspire that saying was in full effect as a bus packed with journalists headed to a campaign event for Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, a frontrunner in next month’s presidential elections. But when people repeat the saying nowadays, they're not referring to the heat. They're talking about the threat of attack.
To compound the danger inherent in a trip to Kunduz, the Taliban has been issuing repeated threats to anyone partaking in activities related to Afghanistan's upcoming elections. And Ahmadzai's front-runner standing in the polls are sure to put him square in the sights of the armed opposition.
Not that any of that seemed to matter to Ahmadzai as he addressed a cheering crowd of up to 50,000 people covering a hillside outside the provincial capital.
“On this day, Kunduz is a model of unity," said the ex-finance minister, who hasn't held a government post since 2004. A graduate of Columbia University, he was once accused of being out of touch with the Afghan people due to his 24 years spent abroad — time that included stints with the World Bank and United Nations. When he ran in the 2009 election, he secured less than 3 percent of the vote.
But in the current run-up to the April 5 election, Ahmadzai is connecting with voters all over the country. Wearing a traditional piran tomban, he has managed to draw tens of thousands of supporters in the north, east, and south. Ahmadzai is a Kochi nomad from the eastern province of Logar who credits spending the past 13 years in Afghanistan with helping him shed the image of a Western-educated bureaucrat. During that time, he served as the chief advisor to President Hamid Karzai, minister of finance, and chancellor of Kabul University. But it was his time as chairman of the Transition Coordination Commission, the body tasked with facilitating the transition from coalition (read: American) security forces to those led by Afghans, that Ahmadzai sees as truly strengthening the bonds between him and the general public. As head of the transition, he spent two years continually traveling to the country's 34 provinces.
But a new outfit and vigorous campaigning aren't solely responsible for Ahmadzai's newfound popularity. In a reminder of the levels of control the nation’s jihadi leaders still exert, shouts of “Long live Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai!” at the rally were immediately followed by “Long live General Dostum, kingmaker!”
A dust storm swept across the green hilltops, kicked up by hundreds of men, young and old, who were chasing after Dostum like he was a rock star.
General Abdul Rashid Dostum is the powerful Uzbek commander accused of the November 2001 mass killing of hundreds of surrendered Taliban prisoners. Last October, Ahmadzai’s announcement that Dostum would serve as his vice president was met with surprise from Kabul to Washington. An ex-jihadi commander linked to mass killings at first seemed like an odd running mate for a man who had once worked for the UN.
But judging by the crowd’s reaction to Dostum — tellingly, it was Dostum, not Ahmadzai, who was the keynote speaker at Wednesday's campaign rally — Ahmadzai's selection was an incredibly shrewd political move. As one of the few still-living Mujahideen commanders from the wars of the 1980s and '90s, Dostum continues to command a level of support and adulation few others today can match. Some estimate Dostum’s endorsement is worth as many as 2 million votes, mostly from the ethnic Uzbek community.
A man I spoke with at the rally named Din Mohammad told me that there was no question many of those gathered had come to support Dostum. “He did a lot for us — he did what no one else has done," Mohammad said. What would happen, I asked, in the (unlikely) event that Dostum supports another candidate? "At least 80 percent of these people would go where he goes.”
Faizullah Zaki, deputy chief of the National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan — the political party Dostum heads — said Ahmadzai's embrace of Dostum is an attempt to correct mistakes made by Karzai. When he won the presidential election in 2004, Karzai's opponents were leading figures from the Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara minorities. But according to Zaki, Karzai essentially excluded them from his administration, leaving millions of Afghans without any high-level political representation.
Perhaps realizing this, Ahmadzai has promised that if victorious, he will immediately work to form a coalition with his competitors.
Once Dostum finished his speech, a dust storm suddenly swept across the green hilltops. The dust was kicked up by hundreds of men, young and old, who were chasing after him like he was a rock star.
“General! General! General!” they yelled as they reached out their hands in an attempt to touch him. Others, separated from Dostum by the crowds of people, raised their smartphones and cameras in the air to snap a picture. Later, on his way out of the rally, one young man in his early 20s yelled out.
“Long live me! He shook my hand!”