KABUL, Afghanistan – Presidential campaign politics are not limited to the United States this summer. Big surprises, tough choices and security concerns are the backdrop for the upcoming Oct. 9 Afghan presidential election. Sound familiar?
Kabul is on edge, for obvious security concerns, but it is also on the edge of blazing a new trail as it faces its first democratic presidential election ever.
Last week, presidential candidate and current interim President Hamid Karzai (search) surprised many in Kabul when he announced his two vice presidential running mates (there are two VPs on the ticket). Glaringly omitted was the current defense minister and first Vice President Mohammed Fahim (search). This was a political slap in the face, done for political reasons.
Fahim has been accused by many in the international community for resisting to disarm the thousands of militia fighters in Afghanistan. His militia and the many others in the country, according to Karzai, are the biggest roadblock for progress in Afghanistan. It is the various militia groups, not the Taliban or Al Qaeda, who have the power to influence the election.
So, it's one thing to criticize an anticipated running mate in the States, but it is an entirely different thing to go after a man who is probably Afghanistan's most powerful warlord.
Rumors of retaliation on the streets of Kabul swirled for a few days. Afghan National Army troops lined the main streets in the capital, U.N. and humanitarian organizations limited their travel around town, and there was an eerie quiet on the normally chaotic streets of Kabul.
But thankfully, as most recent spikes in security warnings here, it ended calmly after a few days.
And on Wednesday, something amazing happened. Fahim, who wields the most power over the military and militia groups, said, "the time to pick up a gun and fight is over. Now is the time for politicians."
Less amazingly, but on the same day, Fahim announced that he was backing one of Karzai's rivals.
The night of that announcement, a conversation I was having at home was interrupted by the whoosh of a rocket being fired.
Analyzing the situation, a buddy said, "it's always a good thing to hear the whoosh, because that means you are close to where the rocket is being launched from — or it's flying overhead. You don't want to be near the thud."
Two construction workers were the unlucky ones who were near the thud that night. One was critically injured.
The close call made me reflect back on some of the scary places I've been in: Baghdad soon after the fall, Kashmir when Pakistan and India were exchanging nuclear threats, and Kosovo as Serb forces were being forced out in 1999. Hostile situations are not foreign to me.
But what is happening in Kabul is beginning to affect me in a more personal way.
Maybe it's because I have spent a great deal of time in this region and have called Kabul home now for the last four months (and will for some months to come), but I'm starting to take the security here personally.
I have treated other security situations with the gravity they deserve, but there is so much at stake here and what happens over the next two months will determine Afghanistan's future. The future of international investment, the future plans of international groups helping Afghanistan (last week Doctors Without Borders announced it's withdrawing due to security concerns) and the hope of a future with less weapons.
As a reporter, you're always concerned about safety. In Baghdad, you never want a car bomb blast to wake you up in the morning and in Kashmir you don't want the Indian Army to start shelling Pakistan. But in Kabul, my concerns for safety are combined with my desire for a secure and stable Afghanistan.
Many nations need a fresh start, but the Afghan people are well overdue.
I cringe when I hear reports of militants boarding buses in the southern provinces and threatening to shoot anyone with a voter registration card.
Conversely, I have to smile when, despite barbaric attempts to thwart the elections, it is reported that nearly 9 million Afghans have taken the risk to participate in their first free presidential elections.
The incredible registration turnout of the people — even when faced with deadly obstacles — demonstrates the resolve of the Afghan spirit.