In Afghan race, wooing votes with ethnic strongmen

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In this Wednesday, March 12, 2014 photo, school children pass by a graffiti reading, “ballot not bullet” on their way back home on the outskirts of Kandahar, southern Afghanistan. Warlords with a violent past have played a role in influencing Afghan politics since a U.S.-led coalition helped oust the Taliban in 2001. But they are emerging to play an overt political role in next month’s presidential elections as President Hamid Karzai leaves the scene. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

In this Wednesday, March 12, 2014 photo, school children pass by a graffiti reading, “ballot not bullet” on their way back home on the outskirts of Kandahar, southern Afghanistan. Warlords with a violent past have played a role in influencing Afghan politics since a U.S.-led coalition helped oust the Taliban in 2001. But they are emerging to play an overt political role in next month’s presidential elections as President Hamid Karzai leaves the scene. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

In this Monday, March 17, 2014 photo, Afghan men play cards under a huge election poster showing Abdul Rahim Wardak, Afghanistan’s former defense minister, shaking hands with soldiers in Kabul, Afghanistan. Wardak pulled out of the presidential elections, but warlords with a violent past have played a role in influencing Afghan politics since a U.S.-led coalition helped oust the Taliban in 2001. But they are emerging to play an overt political role in next month’s presidential elections as President Hamid Karzai leaves the scene. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

In this Friday, March 7, 2014 photo, an Afghan man stands under a huge election poster showing presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, center, with his vice presidents Rashid Dostum, left, and Sarwar Danish in Kabul, Afghanistan. Ghani, a former World Bank official, who is as comfortable discussing high finance with the world’s leading economic minds as he is on the hustings in Kandahar, the Taliban’s birthplace, has chosen as his running mate Gen. Rashid Dostum, a powerful ethnic Uzbek warlord. Despite his violent past Dostum has emerged as the single leader behind whom Afghanistan’s ethnic Uzbeks will rally. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

In this Wednesday, March 19, 2014 photo, a police mans a traffic checkpoint next to an election poster showing provincial candidate Mohammad Harun Mosawer on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan. Wardak pulled out of the presidential elections but warlords, with a violent past have played a role in influencing Afghan politics since a U.S.-led coalition helped oust the Taliban in 2001. But they are emerging to play an overt political role in next month’s presidential elections as President Hamid Karzai leaves the scene. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

In this Wednesday, March 12, 2014 photo, two women in veils cross with a young girl a street next to an election poster demanding that voting is the right for every man and woman in Kandahar, southern Afghanistan. Still, many of the candidates or their running mates have violent histories. Several have been named by the U.S.-based Human Rights Watch as responsible for mass killings during the 1992 to 1996 civil war, fought between Islamic insurgents turned warlords who turned their guns on each other after throwing out the invading Soviet military. (AP Photo/Anja Niedringhaus)

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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — On the edge of a Kabul neighborhood dominated by members of Afghanistan’s ethnic Hazara minority, an election poster of presidential candidate Abdul Rasoul Sayyaf is damaged — partially scraped away by someone trying to remove it.

The vandalism could be his past as a warlord coming back to haunt him.

During Afghanistan’s civil war in the early 1990s, Sayyaf’s militia killed tens of thousands of Hazaras, a community who are mostly Shiite Muslims, considered infidels by the Sunni radical fighters in Sayyaf’s forces.

Warlords like Sayyaf with a violent past have played a role in influencing Afghan politics since a U.S.-led coalition helped oust the Taliban in 2001. But they are emerging to play an overt political role in next month’s presidential elections as President Hamid Karzai leaves the scene.

Some, like Sayyaf, are running. Others are being courted by the candidates because many of the warlords command strong followings, particularly along ethnic lines. Candidates are choosing well-known strongmen as running mates to win support in their communities — despite their violent histories. Even the most urbane and international savvy of the presidential candidates, a former World Bank official, has tied his hopes to a warlord whose violent history has been condemned by the U.S. and other Western governments.

The result is a mixed effect on Afghanistan’s politics. The courting of warlords shows their political strength. On the other hand, it also shows that, unlike in the past, candidates are trying to reach out across ethnic lines in this deeply divided country and balance among communities.

For the ethnic minorities, it is also a mixed bag. Candidates are trying to appeal to them. But now the communities are more internally divided than ever over whom to support. In the 2004 and 2009 presidential elections, a single ethnicity dominated each ticket. Ethnic Tajiks had one ticket — as did Hazaras, Pashtuns and Uzbeks.

Not this time around.

Each presidential candidate can take two vice presidential candidates on his ticket — and each has sought to spread the ethnic appeal. All three top front-runners in the April 5 vote have prominent Hazaras as running mates.

Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, also has a Pashtun vice presidential candidate; Zalmai Rassoul has a Tajik; Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, the former World Bank official, has a powerful Uzbek warlord, Gen. Rashid Dostum, as his main running mate. Despite a violent past in the civil war, Dostum has emerged as the single leader behind whom Afghanistan’s Uzbeks, who make up roughly 9 percent of the country’s 32 million people, will rally.

Some in the Hazara community, about nine percent of the population, are worried about splits.

“I’m not happy with the fact that Hazara leaders are going to different candidates,” said Rahmat Ula Karimi,

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