STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
I'm David Greene, and our colleague Renee Montagne is in Afghanistan all this week and next week. She's there for Afghanistan's presidential election, which is a critical moment.
For the first time since America went to war there, the man who's come to personify the country for Americans - Hamid Karzai - will not be on the ballot. Now, whoever wins this election will help forge the way ahead. And this includes deciding whether thousands of American troops will remain in Afghanistan after this year.
We're on the line with Renee in Kabul to get an idea for what she's expecting in this weekend's election. Good morning, Renee.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Good morning, David.
GREENE: Well, it's good to hear your voice from over there. Are Afghans starting to pay attention to this election that you're following?
MONTAGNE: Oh, they're in the thick of it over here, and have been following it really intensely since debates began several weeks ago. The campaigns have been going since early February, and there have been a dozen debates where candidates got to lay out their platforms. And people have been tuning in - millions of Afghans.
There's a lot of interest in the streets, and many listeners might be surprised by this, given the surge in violence here in recent weeks. But the leading candidates have been putting on rally after rally, crisscrossing the country, drawing thousands of supporters to cheer them on.
I mean, I traveled to Kandahar yesterday to attend the rally for Abdullah Abdullah. And it's worth remembering that Kandahar is the former stronghold of the Taliban. Abdullah's political base is in the north, which resisted the Taliban, but there he was, talking to the crowd.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: (Through translator) Now that I'm in Kandahar, this is the land that has produced many heroes, scholars and people who have endured a lot of suffering. This is the house of the founder of Afghanistan. He envisioned a progressive country, a developed country.
MONTAGNE: And there you go, David. On the campaign trail here, talk of progress goes over very well with voters, even in conservative Kandahar.
GREENE: Well, I guess, as we mentioned, you know, Hamid Karzai is the name that a lot of Americans know so well. Tell us who some these other candidates are. You know, I gather these are names we might be hearing more about in the coming weeks.
MONTAGNE: Well, definitely, because at least one of them is going to be president, eventually. Now, I just mentioned Abdullah Abdullah. He was the candidate who lost to incumbent Hamid Karzai in the disputed 2009 election. He's well-known for his closeness to the Ahmad-Shah Massoud, the legendary commander who fought the Soviets and the Taliban. And that association to the Mujahidin has been a huge positive for Abdullah.
Running neck-and-neck with him is a former top World Bank official, Ashraf Ghani, whose appeal to voters seems to be his experience in education and development. And the third key candidate is Zalmai Rassoul, and he's a one-time foreign minister who's seen as Karzai's chosen successor, which is turning out to be both a positive and a negative for him.
GREENE: And, Renee, as you've been learning more about these candidates, I mean, how big a difference does it make who wins here?
Well, for the candidates, of course, it makes a big difference, because they care a lot. For the country, maybe not so much, David. They're all widely respected as candidates, and it's a tossup as to who will get the most votes next Saturday. A runoff is widely expected.
MONTAGNE: Shaharzad Akbar, who's a leader of an influential youth group here, summed it up this way.
SHAHARZAD AKBAR: For us, we don't see this as the election that will solve everything, that will bring radical change to our lives. We will see this as a way of saying no to Taliban, saying no to terrorism, saying no to wars over power. The win for me is that we have a smooth transfer of power democratically from one person to another person, and people show up to vote in all parts of Afghanistan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.