KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghans choose a new president Saturday in a runoff election between two candidates who both promise to improve ties with the West, combat corruption and guide the nation with a steadier hand than outgoing leader Hamid Karzai.
The Taliban, who have intensified attacks ahead of the vote, issued a new warning to stay away from the polls. Afghan troops stepped up security sharply, erecting more checkpoints, searching cars and banning trucks from the streets of the capital, Kabul.
With the insurgency showing no signs of weakening as foreign combat troops prepare to withdraw at the end of the year, the winner will have the task of bolstering Afghanistan's security forces while weighing the possibility of a negotiated peace with the militants. And he will have to find a way to improve the nation's infrastructure at a time when international aid for Afghanistan is drying up.
Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, whose differences lie more in personality than in policy, each say they would sign a long-delayed security pact with the United States. That would allow nearly 10,000 American troops to remain in the country for two more years to conduct counterterrorism operations and continue training and advising the ill-prepared Afghan army and police.
Karzai, who has grown increasingly alienated from his one-time U.S. allies during his two terms in office, has refused to sign the pact. The issue has gained urgency as Afghans have watched Islamic extremists seize large sections of Iraq nearly three years after U.S. troops withdrew from that country. Iraq's Shiite-led government had discussed with the Americans the possibility of a residual U.S. force but the two sides were unable to reach an agreement.
"If the foreign troops leave Afghanistan, the same thing will happen," said Afghan cleric Ghulam Hussain Naseri during a Friday sermon in a Kabul mosque.
The inconclusive first round on April 5 saw a massive turnout with voters excited about participating in the country's first peaceful transfer of authority and choosing from eight candidates, a crowded field that threw traditional alliances in flux. Analysts have predicted less enthusiasm and a tighter race in the second round following shifting endorsements from various power brokers and other community leaders.
Abdullah emerged as the front-runner after he garnered 45 percent of votes in the initial balloting; Ahmadzai was second with 31.6 percent. The two have since campaigned as much for the support from their six former rivals as from Afghans themselves.
"It is very essential for whoever becomes the president to work hard for national unity and to provide opportunities for talented and well-educated people regardless of whether they were their supporters or if they supported the opposition," said Jawed Kohistani, a political and military analyst in Kabul.
He also said the winner must move swiftly to establish an "environment of trust" with neighboring countries and the West. "If we don't have the support of the international community, I don't think either of these two candidates can do magic to secure this country or have progress and development."
Abdullah, 53, whose mother was a Tajik, draws his support mainly from that ethnicity although his father was Pashtun. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, he served as adviser to and spokesman for Tajik warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was assassinated by al-Qaida two days before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
Later that year, Abdullah became the face of Afghanistan's anti-Taliban movement after the U.S. toppled the Taliban regime, giving frequent press conferences to international media. He served as foreign minister and then was the runner-up in Karzai's disputed re-election in 2009.
Ahmadzai, a 64-year-old Pashtun, received a Ph.D. in anthropology from Columbia University, taught at Johns Hopkins University and worked at the World Bank. He gave up U.S. citizenship to run in the 2009 election, but received only 3 percent of the vote. With Karzai constitutionally barred from a third term, Ahmadzai has gained the support of many Pashtuns who voted against him five years ago.
"Ashraf Ghani is the best possible candidate," said Abdul Hakim Jan, a 24-year-old university student in the southern city of Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban. "He has a history that has proved his potential to be a great leader."
However, Gul Ayat Badazia, a 37-year-old businessman in Kandahar, said he would not go to the polls, pointing to widespread allegations of corruption in the government and security concerns.
"No matter who wins or loses, they will all more likely be allies of the Americans and will think about their needs and wants rather than ours," he said. "It's like we are risking our lives for almost nothing."
Michael O'Hanlon of the Washington-based Brookings Institution think tank said both men would make good and competent presidents so an important factor was how others would react to their leadership.
"My guess is that Abdullah will win with a solid percentage, but we will have to see!" he said in an email interview. "I could believe either outcome. Pashtuns may decide to rally around Ghani more now that they sense an Abdullah win, for example."
Interior Minister Mohammad Umar Daudzai said 180,000 police and soldiers would be deployed for Saturday's vote, which comes eight days after Abdullah narrowly escaped an assassination attempt.
"The threat level is higher compared with what it was in the first round, but on the other hand we also have gained experience and we have better equipment," he told reporters Friday at a news conference. "We are much better prepared to prevent any possible attack by the terrorists."
Shah Mirza, 38, who sells vegetable at the side of a road in Kabul, said he couldn't afford the risk of voting. He said the bombings targeting Abdullah as his convoy left a campaign rally in western Kabul were just about 600 meters (yards) away from his stall.
"I don't want to come out of my house on Saturday. I am afraid that an attack could happen at any minute," he said. "If I am killed, who will take care of my children?"
Associated Press writers Mirwais Khan in Kandahar and Kim Gamel in Cairo contributed to this report.