As Afghans prepare to choose a new president Saturday, it's hard not to notice a striking contradiction.
The three leading candidates are all urbane, Westernized men inclined to wear suits and ties in public. And yet, as they crisscross this impoverished, traditional country, they've all had to remake themselves to some degree, in their dress, their speech and even in the surprising choices they've made for vice presidential running mates, who range from notorious warlords to a woman.
Dr. Abdullah Abdullah is a former ophthalmologist and foreign minister who finished second in the 2009 race. He made his name with the Northern Alliance, a group made up mostly of ethnic Tajiks who fought against the Taliban, who are largely ethnic Pashtuns with strongholds in the south.
But on a recent day, Abdullah was campaigning at a soccer stadium in Kandahar, the largest city in the south, and the crowd was a sea of turbans under a hot sun.
The crowd waved placards and Afghan flags, and shouted, "Long live Dr. Abdullah. We're not going to give our votes to anybody but Dr. Abdullah."
In an attempt to broaden his appeal, Abdullah's first vice presidential running mate is Eng Mohammed Khan, a leading figure in Hezb-i-Islami, or the Islamic Party, a group that battled the Soviets in the 1980s and the Americans since the fall of the Taliban. Khan belongs to the party's political wing, not its militant faction. Although technically separate entities, they share the same fundamentalist Islamist ideology.
Then there's Dr. Zalmay Rassoul, a former foreign minister and a close confidant of President Hamid Karzai, who is barred from running for another term. Rassoul, by the way, received his medical degree from the Paris Medical School in France.
He was campaigning recently in the cool, gray highlands of Bamiyan, in central Afghanistan, as a boys choir celebrated him with a special song praising the candidate.
One speaker urged the crowd to roar loud enough "to shake the dust off the Buddhas." Just across the valley are the outlines of where the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan had stood for hundreds of years, carved into a hillside, until the Taliban destroyed them in 2001.
Rassoul has taken the unprecedented step of selecting a woman, Habiba Sarobi, as one of his two vice presidential running mates in hopes she will attract female voters, who make up roughly a third of the electorate. But it's not clear if women will vote in large numbers and if they will make their own choice, or follow the wishes of their husbands.
The other leading candidate, Ashraf Ghani, who has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Colombia University and spent 10 years with the World Bank, is also reaching out to women.
"As long as there's no money in an Afghan woman's pocket, her rights under Sharia law [Islamic law] won't be guaranteed," Ghani said in the final presidential debate, which was broadcast on Afghan television. "If a woman is poor, it affects the next five generations. If a woman is educated, it also affects the next five generations."
The race is considered wide open. Polls in Afghanistan do not have the same degree of accuracy as in the West, but they show Ghani to be a few points ahead. That's quite an improvement from his showing in the last presidential race in 2009 when he was an also-ran with just 3 percent of the vote.
This time around, Ghani is something of a new man. He has a beard, white and closely trimmed. And he will often exchange his tie for a turban, and his suit for a traditional shalwar kameez, the loose-fitting tunic worn by most Afghan men.
At his home in Kabul, there are blast walls and armed guards. Inside, we sat down in a graceful room, adorned with intricately carved wood and covered in Afghan carpets.
Ghani was in his World Bank office in Washington on Sept. 11, 2001, when one of the hijacked airplanes slammed into the Pentagon, just a few miles away, shutting down the city's transportation system.
"My house was eight miles away, and I couldn't walk eight miles," he said. "So I started writing the plan for the reconstruction of Afghanistan that day."
Ghani left Washington and returned to Afghanistan in December 2001 after more than two decades in the West. Soon after, President Hamid Karzai named him finance minister.
At the time, Afghanistan's currency had lost so much of its value that people needed a sackful of notes just to buy flour and eggs.
The International Monetary Fund urged him to temporarily adopt the U.S. dollar as currency and then return to Afghan currency at a later date — something that would have been a massive undertaking.
Ghani took a simpler route and went straight to the shops and streets of the traditional money changers. They swapped out new bills for the old in just weeks.
It's this practical, problem-solving approach that has attracted voters to Ghani — which made it all the more surprising that he chose as his running mate Rashid Dostum, a former warlord known for his ruthlessness in Afghan's civil war. Ghani once called him a "murderer."
But Dostum has a strong following of his own and is the most prominent figure among the ethnic Uzbeks, who make up a significant voting bloc.
"It's not just the voting bloc. The issue is national unity," Ghani said. "If we are going to move forward, we cannot keep excluding people who have a social base in this country. If we treat them like a problem, they become problems."
Asked why he seems to be a more effective candidate in this election, Ghani replied, "What I learned was to speak the language of my country. Get out of my technocratic skin and speak like my grandfather, who was an influential man, a general, but really a man of the people."
"I'm re-rooted firmly in the soil of this country," he added. "Nobody can look and say, 'Oh, there goes a Johns Hopkins professor.' What they say is, 'There goes a man of the people.' "
LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
And I'm Steve Inskeep, good morning.
Campaigning ended at midnight in Afghanistan. The country is supposed to get some time to think and then start voting for a new president on Saturday. If the voting goes as planned, Afghans will see one elected president hand over power to another, something that's never happened in that country before.
MORNING EDITION's Renee Montagne is in Afghanistan, following candidates who are most likely to take the place of President Hamid Karzai. She starts out this morning on the campaign trail.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And it is certainly the case that campaigning for office here in Afghanistan is not for the faint of heart. Earlier this week, a provincial candidate and his entourage were abducted and killed by the Taliban. One of the leading presidential candidates survived an attack on his motorcade as it passed through an area controlled by the Taliban.
Yet the campaigns went on and out, attracting tens of thousands of enthusiastic supporters to political rallies all over the country.
(SOUNDBITE OF RALLY)
MONTAGNE: When we arrived at a stadium in the Kandahar, we found a sea of turbans under a golden sun. Waving placards and Afghan flags, these Southern Kandaharis cheered for a candidate who had made his name with the Northern Alliance, in the fight against the Taliban: Dr. Abdullah Abdullah.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Through Translator) Long live Dr Abdullah. We're not going to give our votes to anyone but Dr. Abdullah.
MONTAGNE: Days later, in the cool grey highlands of Bamiyan, a boys' choir celebrated Zalmay Roussoul with a special song praising the candidate.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MONTAGNE: One speaker urged the crowd to roar loud enough to shake the dust off the Buddhas. Just across the valley, the outlines of where the giant Buddhas of Bamiyan had stood for hundreds of years were a poignant reminder of all that was destroyed here by the Taliban.
And in between crisscrossing the country the candidates debated. Afghanistan's biggest broadcaster estimates 12 million people tuned in to a series of debates. We tuned in to the final one. And for candidate Ashraf Ghani, debating is a comfortable fit. He's been a professor and spent 10 years with the World Bank. And in this debate he reached out especially to the young and to women.
ASHRAF GHANI: (Through translator) As long as there is no money in an Afghan woman's pocket, her rights under Sharia law won't be guaranteed. If a woman is poor, it affects the next five generations. If a woman is educated, it also affects the next five generations.
MONTAGNE: Now that voting is about to begin, it's a toss-up over who will get the most votes. But among the leading candidates, it's Ashraf Ghani who is a few points ahead in the polls. Quite an improvement from his showing in the last presidential election five years ago, when he got just three percent of the vote. This time around Ghani is something of a new man. He has a beard - white and closely trimmed. He will often exchange his tie for a turban and his suit for a traditional salwar kameez.
I joined him at his home in Kabul. Outside there are now blast walls and armed guards. But inside we sat down in a graceful room, adorned with intricately carved wood and covered in Afghan carpets.
To begin, I'd like to take you back and tell us the story of how you came back to Afghanistan. And your return involved a date very important in America, which is 9/11.
GHANI: On that date, I was sitting at the World Bank when the first planes hit New York. And then, you know, the plane in Pennsylvania that was directed at the White House. And had it come, of course, it would have taken the whole block, including the World Bank. So people start crying and they left. My house was eight miles away and I couldn't walk eight miles. So I started writing the plan for reconstruction of Afghanistan that day.
MONTAGNE: By late December 2001, Ashraf Ghani had left Washington and returned to Afghanistan after more than two decades in the West.
GHANI: I went to 10 provinces, including the province where my family has been for 600 years. It was bleak. After that there was no returning back to the West. I thought I could play a role. And on 1st of February 2002 I resigned both from the World Bank and from the U.N. President Karzai made me a classic offer. He said: You will have no pay, no privileges, your life will be at risk, but your country needs you. Will you come?
So I said, how can I refuse an offer like that? I became special advisor to the president.
MONTAGNE: Soon after, President Karzai named Ghani finance minister. At the time, Afghanistan's currency had lost so much value, you needed a sack full of notes just to buy some flour and eggs. The International Monetary Fund says Ghani urged him to adopt the U.S. dollar as currency and then return to the Afghan currency, a massive undertaking.
Ghani took a simpler route, straight to the shops and streets of the traditional money changers. They swapped out new bills for old in just weeks.
GHANI: Sixteen tons of currency, enough to pave the way to the moon three times. Our biggest problem was burning the damn money, and we printed the new money and it was immediately cause for celebration. Kids in streets would wave it, and since then fortunately we've had a stable currency.
MONTAGNE: It's this sort of thinking that has attracted voters to Ashraf Ghani. He's smart and a problem-solver, traits many here are hungry for in a leader, which made it all the more surprising that he chose, as his running mate, a former warlord known for his ruthlessness in Afghanistan's civil war and the fight against the Taliban.
It was truly a case of strange bedfellows when Ghani chose Rashid Dostum as his vice presidential pick. He's been accused of war crimes. You yourself at one point called him a murderer, but he does command the loyalty, the respect, the love of one entire ethnic group, the Uzbeks. Is that why you chose him, to get that voting bloc?
GHANI: It's not just to get the voting bloc. The issue is national unity. The issue is reconciliation between a man whose hands are neither sullied by corruption or by blood.
MONTAGNE: That would be you.
GHANI: Right. And...
MONTAGNE: The man whose hands are sullied by those things.
GHANI: But if we are going to move forward, we cannot keep excluding people with a social base in this country. If we treat them like a problem, they become problems. It's not a love marriage. Look at President Kennedy and Mr. Johnson. Bobby Kennedy gritted his teeth. The man he hated most was Lyndon Johnson, but without Lyndon Johnson his brother would have not become president.
MONTAGNE: You ran in 2009. You lost, as we know. The incumbent, Hamid Karzai, became president once again. What was the single most important thing you learned from that? Because you are now - you have a very great chance of winning this time.
GHANI: What I learned was to speak the language of my country, get out of my technocratic skin and speak like my grandfather, who was, you know, an influential man, a general, but really a man of the people. He knew how to speak to everybody. I'm re-rooted(ph) family in the soil of this country. Nobody can look and say, oh, there goes a Johns Hopkins professor.
What they say is there goes a man of the people, and that's a fundamental change.
MONTAGNE: Ashraf Ghani, thank you very much for having us.
GHANI: Pleasure. Thank you for coming.
MONTAGNE: Ashraf Ghani is one of the leading presidential candidates in Afghanistan. Tomorrow I'll bring you the voices of the two others - one President Karzai wants to win, the other he hopes does not.
INSKEEP: That's our own Renee Montagne reporting from Afghanistan, and she will be there in the coming days as Afghans vote. She'll bring us voices and stories from this pivotal election. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.