Jon Boone on Syed Mansoor Nadiri as he tours remote areas of the country in support of the incumbent candidate, Hamid Karzai Link to this video
(Guardian) – The crowds assembled in a remote village in Afghanistan‘s mountainous hinterland may have been kept waiting without water in the baking heat for four hours, but no one was complaining, or even questioning why they were there.
“We have come here to support Karzai because our leader has told us to vote for him,” said Abdul Salim, a student and one of the thousands of Ismailis – the Shia sect that follows the Aga Khan – who flocked to see Hamid Karzai‘s first campaign stop outside the capital.
When the president finally arrived at the rally in Kayan, he was given a suitably boisterous reception by thousands of Ismailis despite delivering a speech that was thin on ideas for solving the country’s many problems.
His three promises were to “work for peace”, extract even more money from Afghanistan’s western backers and push for economic development.
“We have made a long journey with many successes,” Karzai said of his record. “But our happiness has come with despair as we do not have overall security in the country.”
But policy pronouncements are not the point in a place like Kayan, a traditional village that typifies Karzai’s reliance on religious and ethnic leaders to turn out voters for him.
The backing of key powerbrokers has led many observers of Afghanistan’s second ever presidential election to assume that Karzai enjoys an unassailable advantage over a crowded field of candidates, despite widespread dissatisfaction with his eight-year rule.
The prospect of a free lunch, entertainment and the sheer spectacle of the president of Afghanistan swooping in via helicopter to the village all helped attract crowds, many of whom arrived the night before to camp out in the valley.
Karzai’s appearance necessitated a huge security operation, with hundreds of elite Afghan soldiers arriving the day before to secure the site. But the real draw was Syed Mansoor Nadiri, the spiritual leader in Afghanistan of the Ismailis.
Revered by his followers, many of whom paid obeisance to him by brushing their faces against his outstretched hands, Nadiri had put out the word that all Ismailis should vote for Karzai.
Some of the attendees seemed unaware they had come to attend a political rally, believing it was simply an Ismaili celebration. Others were critical of Karzai but said they would still vote for him after their leader’s endorsement.
Printed cards were distributed throughout the crowd showing where they should put their tick in less than two weeks’ time, and speakers led the assembled crowd of several thousand in chants of “Support Karzai!”
Standing next to Karzai on a covered stage, the Ismaili leader presented the president with a brown chapan, a traditional Afghan robe.
Nadiri’s son, a businessman who paid for the two-day festival, said his father had been courted by all the leading candidates in the 20 August poll – including Karzai’s two leading rivals, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani.
But Nadiri said he decided to throw his support behind Karzai, despite his presiding over of rising violence and endemic corruption in his government. He denied there had been any backroom deals with the president as many suspect.
“If we look at his cabinet we see every minority group is represented.
“This is the first time in the history of Afghanistan that we have seen all groups included.”
With Karzai still tipped to prevail in the poll Nadiri is anxious the Ismailis, a long persecuted and impoverished minority, should be on the winning side.
During the Soviet occupation of Afganistan in the 1980s, Kayan avoided much of the destruction in the rest of the country by declaring itself a “neutral” territory. But the village and the grand Nadiri family house, which boasted a swimming pool and an electric train, were laid to waste.