Squatting on the floor of a traditional Afghan house the chubby cleric shrugs off yet another Taleban death threat in the run-up to today’s presidential election. This one, delivered by telephone the previous night, warned Maulavi Hekmatullah Hekmati that he would be dead within a week.
Mr Hekmati knows that the threat is real: he often denounces the insurgents on local radio and enough of his fellow mullahs have been murdered for him to live under armed guard. For him, however, as for so many others in Kandahar, the threat of assassination has become almost routine as this southern city falls deeper into the hands of the Taleban.
The city is the heart of Afghanistan’s ethnic Pashtun majority, which rallied behind President Karzai at the election in 2004. This year, however, the Taleban have been steadily infiltrating the city and waging a campaign of intimidation designed to disrupt the poll. Graffiti, posters and “night letters” tacked to mosque walls warn people not to vote. The chatter of gunfire is commonplace.
Dozens of government employees, clerics and activists have been killed, including a prominent female politician, Sitara Achakzai, who was shot by the Taleban in April.
Ahmad Wali Karzai, the chairman of the provincial council and President Karzai’s half-brother, admitted that political violence was part of life in Kandahar. “This terrorising people is always in the air, people breathe it,” he told The Times inside his heavily fortified compound. “There will be attacks. The fear is there.”
Western officials and many locals say that Mr Wali Karzai is partly responsible because he is an alleged ringleader of the province’s powerful drug trade — a charge that he denies.
The fear, for many, is that the Taleban are taking over Kandahar — although to what extent it is difficult to gauge. Some say that a recent drop in suicide attacks means they already control the city; others say that the insurgents are trying to minimise civilian casualties by carrying out fewer bombings while continuing targeted killings.
For others police corruption is the main problem. Ghafar Shah was driving to the bazaar when he was stopped by three police officers, beaten unconscious, abducted and kept in chains in a house outside the city. “I didn’t think I’d live,” he said. He was rescued and his captors were jailed, but others have been held for ransoms of as much as $1 million (£600,000).
President Karzai hopes that Kandaharis will defy such risks to back him again today — but even those brave enough to defy the Taleban have little faith in the electoral process. “In the previous election there was fraud and in this election there will be, I’m sure,” Haji Mohammad Hussein, a local man said. “The country is corrupted. The power is with gunmen.”