KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The prospect of a peace deal with Taliban insurgents created an atmosphere of uncertainty in the months leading up to Saturday's presidential election in Afghanistan. Even the 18 candidates for the country's top job didn't know whether an election would be held at all.
President Ashraf Ghani stood firm that polls would go ahead, but his campaign was barely visible. It wasn't until Sept. 7 when U.S. President Donald Trump stunned even his own peace envoy with a tweet saying a peace deal with Taliban insurgents, which only hours before had seemed a certainty, was dead and the presidential election was back on.
But for many of the candidates it seemed too late, and while their names will appear on the ballot, most have dropped out.
The two top contenders for Afghanistan's top job are long-time rivals Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, who were forced by Washington to share power in a so-called Unity Government after the 2014 presidential polls were mired in widespread corruption and fraud, and a winner couldn't be declared.
Here are the five leading contenders for president:
MOHAMMAD ASHRAF GHANI
Born in central Logar Province on May 19, 1949, Ghani, who holds a doctorate in Anthropology from Columbia University, first went to the U.S. as a high school exchange student.
Except for a brief teaching stint at Kabul University in the early 1970s, Ghani lived in the United States, where he was an academic until joining the World Bank as a senior adviser in 1991.
He returned to Afghanistan after 24 years when the Taliban were ousted by the U.S.-led coalition. Ghani was first the head of Kabul University until he joined President Hamid Karzai's government as finance minister. In 2010 he led the lengthy process to transfer security of the country from U.S.-led coalition forces to Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF), which took effect in 2014.
Ghani first ran for president in 2009, capturing barely a quarter of the votes. He ran again in 2014 in what was considered a deeply flawed and corrupt exercise. Rival Abdullah Abdullah took the most votes in a first round and Ghani the most in a second. So deeply flawed were the polls that the United States, fearing widespread violence, intervened to cobble together a Unity Government that allowed the two to share power: Ghani as president and Abdullah as chief executive.
Ghani and Abdullah's five-year rule as a Unity Government has been a tumultuous one marked by relentless bickering and infighting. Corruption remains rampant.
In Saturday's election, Ghani's vice-presidential candidates are former Afghan National Security Chief Amrullah Saleh and Sarwar Danish.
Born in the Afghan capital of Kabul on Sept. 5, 1960, Abdullah Abdullah joined the anti-communist resistance in Afghanistan shortly after graduating from Kabul University's Medical School.
He joined the ranks of Afghanistan's Jamiat-e Islami led by Ahmed Shah Masood, who was killed by suicide bombers on Sept. 9, 2001, just two days before the 9/11 attacks in the United States. Masood's Jamiat-e-Islami was one of several U.S.-backed mujahedeen groups who fought the former Soviet Union's Red Army, which invaded Afghanistan in 1979. The ex-Soviet Union pulled out in 1989 unable to defeat the mujahedeen who took power in Kabul three years later in 1992.
Abdullah served in the mujahedeen government led by Jamiat-e-Islami under the presidency of Buhanuddin Rabbani. During their time in power, the mujahedeen groups turned their guns on each other, destroying large swaths of the capital and killing about 50,000 people, mostly civilians. They were ousted in 1996 by the Taliban.
When the Taliban were overthrown in 2001, Abdullah served in President Hamid Karzai's government as foreign minister until 2005.
In 2009, Abdullah challenged Karzai for president and lost. He secured 30.5% of the votes.
In the deeply flawed 2014 polls, Abdullah took 45% of the vote in the first round against his rival Ghani, who secured 35%. When the second round of voting ended, Ghani had 55.3% of the vote and Abdullah 44.7%. Chaos ensued and the U.S. intervened to form a Unity Government.
Abdullah's two vice-presidential candidates Saturday are: Enayatullah Babar Farahmand and Sattar Saadati.
Born in northern Kunduz Province on Aug. 1, 1949, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was a U.S.-declared terrorist until he signed a peace agreement with President Ashraf Ghani in late 2016.
His history is a violent one.
Hekmatyar was leader of one of the U.S.-backed mujahedeen groups that fought the former Soviet Red Army in the 1980s and one of the largest recipients of U.S. money. When the mujahedeen government took control in 1992 from the pro-communist government, Hekmatyar was named prime minister but he instead went to war with rival mujahedeen groups, turning the capital into a battlefield. They stayed in power until the Taliban, whose fighters bitterly opposed Hekmatyar, took over in 1996.
For five years, Hekmatyar lived in Iran while the Taliban ruled, returning to Afghanistan after the insurgent group was overthrown. He fought the U.S.-backed coalition and those former mujahedeen like Abdullah who had aligned with other mujahedeen groups to become the Northern Alliance to fight the Taliban.
Hekmatyar's fighting strength was limited and he opened negotiations first with President Hamid Karzai and later with Ghani to eventually sign the deal. What deal?
He follows a hard-line interpretation of Islam, one that is restrictive of women's participation in society.
His vice-presidential candidates are Fazlul Hadi Wazine and Qazi Hafizulrahman Naqi.
Born on June 30, 1968 in Maidan Wardak Province, Nabil, an engineer, was the deputy director of internal affairs on the National Security Council following the collapse of the Taliban.
He later created and headed the Department of Protection for the President of Afghanistan. He also served as deputy head of the National Security Council and in 2010 was appointed to head Afghanistan's intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security. He served until 2012 but returned a year later as acting intelligence chief when a suicide bomber wounded Asadullah Khalid, the chief at the time.
His vice-presidential candidates are Murad Ali Morad, a former Afghan army general, and Masooda Jalal, a former presidential candidate and former minister of women's affairs. His campaign promise is "security and justice."
AHMAD WALI MASOOD
Born in the Afghan capital of Kabul on Nov. 1, 1964, Masood is the youngest brother of Ahmad Shah Masood, the Northern Alliance leader killed in a suicide bombing in September, 2001.
After university study, Masood took up politics under his older brother's guidance. During the 1992-96 rule of the mujahedeen government, Masood was appointed a diplomat at the Afghan Embassy in London, where he served as ambassador for the Taliban government, which was not recognized internationally.
His vice-presidential candidates are Faridah Mohammadi, a former minister of higher education, and Abdul Latif Nazari. Masood's slogan is "Change."