In a cloud of dust and fumes, the convoy of SUVs and battered sedans screeched to a halt before the Shrine of the Cloak of Prophet Mohammad in Kandahar.
Flanked by a dozen bodyguards, outstepped Dr Abdullah Abdullah, the main challenger in a presidential election on Thursday that will test the limits of a democracy for which 199 British lives have now been lost.
“Go! Hurry!” shouted one of Dr Abdullah’s aides as the bodyguards hustled him through the shrine’s gates, scouring the surroundings for suicide bombers or gunmen.
Once inside, Dr Abdullah uttered a prayer and bowed solemnly as tribal elders placed a black turban on his head — a sign both of welcome and of deference.
It was a moment of calculated political symbolism: this was the place where Mullah Omar, the Taleban leader, famously removed the Prophet’s cloak and displayed it from a rooftop to launch his campaign to conquer Afghanistan in 1996.
The cloak, traditionally brought out only in times of national crisis, is still there; it was left untouched by Dr Abdullah.
The shrine is also the symbolic heart of Kandahar, the former Taleban stronghold largely controlled by Mr Karzai’s half-brother and campaign manager, Ahmed Wali Karzai.
“Without rigging, Karzai will lose the vote in southern Afghanistan,” Dr Abdullah told The Times. “People are crossing ethnic, linguistic and regional lines.”
At the last election in 2004, Mr Karzai won in the first round with 55.4 per cent of the vote and vowed to eradicate terrorism, poverty, corruption and the opium trade.
Five years on, he has not only failed on all of those counts; a Taleban insurgency has enveloped most of the country and international forces have suffered their bloodiest month since 2001.
The election is seen not just as a test of his popularity but of the entire international mission in Afghanistan. “The legitimacy of the international community’s involvement in Afghanistan is at stake in this election,” said Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts’ Network. “These British soldiers — if they’ve died for something that ends in a mess then you simply can’t defend it.”
Most analysts believe that Mr Karzai is still the favourite to win — with the help of allies who will rig the vote, especially in the areas too remote or unsafe for independent monitors to visit.
But many now say that low turnout in the south could force him into a second-round run-off with Dr Abdullah, which could split the country along ethnic lines.
Mr Karzai is from the Pashtun ethnic majority, which dominates southern Afghanistan, whereas Dr Abdullah is half-Pashtun and half-Tajik and more closely associated with the Tajik north.
Dr Abdullah, however, is determined to win over disillusioned Pashtun voters. “I am a son of Kandahar,” he told a crowd at a rally after visiting the shrine. The response was mixed, not least because Dr Abdullah does not speak perfect Pashto. But he does appear to have the support of some Pashtun tribes, whose representatives attended the rally, as well as the vast majority of Tajiks.
Opinion polls are unreliable in Afghanistan, but one funded by the US this week put Mr Karzai in front with 36 per cent, and Dr Abdullah second with 20 per cent. Another released by the International Republican Institute on Thursday gave them 44 per cent and 26 per cent.
Mr Karzai’s aides dismiss those polls and insist that he will still win in the first round. His strategy has resolved around forging alliances with former warlords, ethnic minority leaders and other traditional powerbrokers whom he hopes can deliver large block votes.
Most controversially, he has chosen Marshal Fahim, a notorious Tajik warlord, as his candidate for vice-president, which has horrified many in the international community. The greater concern is that the insecurity in the south will hit turnout and encourage fraud to such an extent that the Afghan public will reject the results.
The Taleban has vowed to disrupt the poll and has distributed “night letters” threatening to cut the throats of anyone it finds with the ink stain on the finger that indicates they have voted.
Election officials say violence in the south will prevent about 700 of the country’s 7,000 polling centres from opening. Some observers report that Mr Karzai’s allies have been buying up voter registration cards in these areas.
Even Richard Holbrooke, the US envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, predicted a messy outcome. “There’ll be disputes, as there are in American elections,” he said on Wednesday. “We aren’t going to know on the evening of August 20 who won. CNN is not going to call this election.”
With the holy month of Ramadan due to start on August 21, the hope is that Afghans will stay off the streets after the poll. The fear is that a rigged result could trigger violent protests like those in Iran. “If there is too much rigging, there may be something similar to Iran, except more serious,” said Humayun Shah Asifi, Dr Abdullah’s vice-presidential candidate.
Hamid Karzai 51, is an ethnic Pashtun from the same tribe as the former Afghan Royal Family, who studied in India before joining the anti-Soviet Mujahidin in Pakistan. He returned to Afghanistan in late 2001 when he was appointed President of the country’s interim government in a UN-sponsored deal in Germany.
Dr Abdullah Abdullah 48, is a half-Pashtun, half-Tajik ophthalmologist who joined the Panjshir Resistance Front against the Soviets and served as an adviser to the late Ahmad Shah Masood, who was assassinated in 2001. Dr Abdullah was appointed Foreign Minister under Mr Karzai’s interim government, a position that he held until he was dismissed abruptely in 2006.
Dr Ramazan Bashardost 43, is an ethnic Hazara who spent more than 20 years in France before returning to Afghanistan to become a member of parliament and Planning Minister. A self-styled man of the people, he runs his campaign from a tent opposite parliament, accuses the Government of rampant corruption and has vowed that he would not allow foreign troops to stay in Afghanistan if elected.
Dr Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai 59, is an ethnic Pashtun who received a PhD in anthropology from Columbia University and spent more than two decades outside Afghanistan. He gave up a $250,000-a-year salary at the World Bank to return to Afghanistan and serve as Finance Minister from 2002 to 2004.