As candidates in Kabul launch their official bids for the Afghan presidency this week, consultants in Washington are helping some of them draw upon American-style campaign tactics to build up their war chests and pull ahead in the polls.
Presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani, the leading challenger to incumbent Hamid Karzai, has embarked on an Internet fundraising campaign modeled on that run by President Obama. The plan, says one American campaign consultant, is to appeal to "relatively young people outside the country" through a Web drive aimed at expatriates who have been contributing an average of $10 to $20. Campaign workers say that though these émigrés cannot vote, they wield not only cash but also substantial influence. "Most of them support families in Afghanistan, and those families see them with respect," says one Ghani volunteer in Kabul. "That respect influences their decision."
These are pivotal decisions in a high-stakes summer election season that will culminate with the vote on August 20. Though Karzai remains the front-runner, U.S. officials have expressed concern that he has promised control of sizable swaths of territory to men widely considered to be warlords in exchange for their support. It is deal-making that could lead to larger post-election problems. Karzai has promised more posts to warlords than are available; if he wins, it could cause infighting, officials say, and perhaps civil war. The most notorious pledge has been Karzai's choice of Mohammed Fahim to be his vice presidential running mate. Karzai dumped Fahim from his ticket during his 2004 election bid, a move many hailed at the time as a brave stand against one of many strongmen who still hold power throughout the country.
But while Karzai's maneuvering deeply concerns U.S. officials, they also concede that it is likely to be effective in allowing him to be re-elected despite deteriorating security throughout the country and charges of corruption that dog his administration. Ghani volunteers also note that because Karzai is an incumbent, he has use of government resources not available to cash-strapped candidates, including helicopters. Since Karzai also appoints the governors of Afghanistan's provinces, they campaign for him as well.
These are disparities that rival campaigns are privately urging American officials to investigate and rectify. For their part, campaigners for Ghani are hopeful that their candidate's record will sway voters. A contender for the post of secretary general of the United Nations in 2006, Ghani has a strong base of support among Afghans who emphasize his reform-minded initiatives and development projects during his time as Afghanistan's finance minister from 2002 to 2004.
As billboards for rival candidates go up in Karzai strongholds like Kandahar, Ghani volunteers point to recent polls that show that fewer than one third of Afghans say they would vote for Karzai again. They note that contributions to the Ghani website, though admittedly modest, are picking up. And the campaign is in talks with heavy-hitting Democratic political consultant James Carville. Still, as the campaign is heating up and violence is reaching record levels, the stakes, officials add, could not be higher.
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