40 Percent of Afghans Don't Know Who They'll Vote for in the Next Presidential Election

With six months until presidential elections and half the country undecided, it's officially campaign season in Afghanistan. Twenty-seven candidates have registered to be put on the ballot -- though many of these will likely be disqualified as their paperwork is reviewed. The first tracking poll, conducted by the Afghan news network TOLOnews and consulting company ATR, is already out -- and it shows that Afghans have a long way to go to make up their minds about who should succeed President Hamid Karzai.

The leading contender in the race is Abdullah Abdullah, the country's former foreign minister who ran against Karzai in 2009 but ultimately withdrew from the contest rather than force what would have been a divisive runoff election. He has the support of about 22 percent of the country, far more than any other candidate. "Abdullah's lead at this early juncture is not surprising, since he has more name recognition than others and has also spent the last few years organizing for the 2014 elections," Omar Samad, a senior Central Asia fellow at the New America Foundation and former Afghan ambassador to France and Canada, told FP, "whereas many other nominees entered the race at the last minute."

Statisticians (including Nate Silver, writing just earlier this week) are quick to warn about the predictive ability of early campaign polls, and this one's no different. Javid Ahmad, a program coordinator at the German Marshall Fund, points out that Abdullah's support is dwarfed by Afghanistan's large bloc of undecided voters. They make up half the country: 38 percent of poll respondents said they hadn't settled on a candidate and another 12 percent said they don't believe there are any good candidates in the field.

Abdullah will be competing with another 2009 candidate, former Afghan Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani (sometimes referred to with his tribal affiliation, Ahmadzai), who was favored by approximately 14 percent of respondents. Like Abdullah, Ghani's support is concentrated in urban areas. Rounding out the top three is President Karzai's brother, Qayum, who polled under 10 points, but enjoyed more rural support than the leading candidates, especially in Afghanistan's southern and eastern provinces. Of the other 24 candidates, only five were selected by at least 0.5 percent of the poll's respondents.

The challenge, Samad and Ahmad noted, will be for the candidates to transcend ethnic and regional lines and build nationwide support. As in U.S. elections, some of that can come through the careful selection of running mates -- a consideration that already shows somewhat in the polling data, as Ghani's vice presidential candidate, Gen. Rashid Dostum, is earning him supporters in northern Afghanistan. But that won't be enough in April, says Samad, who explains, "Potential front-runners cannot rely solely on a single regional/ethnic constituency, and [will] have to cross the boundaries to remain viable."

That will take a combination of broad appeal, political finesse, and old-fashioned patronage -- the effects of which aren't apparent yet in the polling data. This sort of network-building is something Hamid Karzai has mastered over the past decade, and which Qayum was deeply involved in during his 2009 campaign. "With Karzai still in power and as a key powerbroker, he can easily employ his vast patronage network in support of whomever he will back," notes Ahmad. Karzai's support network will play a large role, but it's not the only route to an electoral victory. The Karzai network "kept the polity fractured and disorganized," says Samad, but Abdullah's approach has been to build a coalition that's "a mix of factional, regional, urban/rural, and small-scale alliances, which do not rely very much on traditional clan-style politics." That served him well in 2009.

There's also the issue of corruption. Reuters reports that votes are already being bartered and sold; the going rate is about $5.

The real prize -- and what to watch over the next six months -- is Afghanistan's undecided voters, and which candidate can build support not just in the north or the east, but across such a factionalized country.

You can read the full tracking poll below:



Medal of Honor: The Gamification of a Controversial American Hero

On Tuesday, President Obama will bestow the country's highest military award, the Medal of Honor, on U.S. Army Capt. William Swenson, the first Army officer to receive the distinction since the Vietnam War. Swenson is being recognized for saving several of his wounded companions in battle -- or, as the Army puts it, "conspicuous gallantry at the risk of his own life and well beyond the call of duty." But the unemployed, divisive Swenson isn't your stereotypical Medal of Honor recipient -- and the rollout for his award is pretty remarkable as well.

Swenson, who completed one tour in Iraq and two tours in Afghanistan, served during his final tour on Task Force Phoenix as an "embedded trainer and mentor" for the Afghan Border Police. During the Battle of Ganjgal in 2009, Swenson and his colleague Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Westbrook were leading Afghan troops on a routine patrol when they were ambushed. As the Army tells it, "Deadly, accurate fire hit the formation on its way to the village. An estimated 60 insurgents had infiltrated and maneuvered into Ganjgal from the north and south through unseen trenches as heavy fire spewed from houses and buildings." As U.S. and Afghan troops withdraw, Swenson coordinated the recovery of the wounded, which saved several lives, including Kenneth Westbrook's. "Negotiating 50 meters of open space, Swenson, Garza and Fabayo quickly covered ground, zig-zagging and returning fire as they raced for Westbrook," the Army notes, references some of Swenson's fellow soldiers. Despite these efforts, Kenneth Westbrook died a month later.

As the Washington Post reports, it took four years and a lot of effort to honor the 34-year-old Swenson, whose initial account of the battle diverged from the Army's. He questioned the decisions of his commanding officers, who, according to Swenson, ignored his requests for air cover and artillery support. According to the Military Times he told U.S. investigators after the incident that he was "being second-guessed by [higher-ups] or somebody that's sitting in an air-conditioned" office. "Why [the] hell am I even out there in the first place?" he asked. "Let's sit back and play Nintendo."

Coincidentally, that's exactly what the Army wants you to do (well maybe not while you're on the battlefield). To learn about Swenson's heroics, you can either delve into the Army's detailed, 2,000-word narrative on the battle of Ganjgal, or you can check out a flashy Call Of Duty-style rendering of the Battle of Ganjgal.

The "gamification" of Swenson's heroism, complete with CGI images of Black Hawk choppers, Humvees, and a Sim-like Swenson who bears almost no resemblance to the original, is no new Army tactic. Aside from producing these "battlescapes" for Medal of Honor recipients, the U.S military has been using "America's Army," a "tactical multiplayer first-person shooter" modeled on commercial counterparts, since 2002. According to MIT researchers, the game has been the most effective recruiting tool for the Army -- more effective than all other advertisements combined. During the Iraq war, photos surfaced of U.S. troops winding down after exchanging fire with actual enemies by shooting some virtual ones in games like Halo.

The Army encourages such form of leisure, since research has shown that gaming improves actual battlefield skills. As Greg Appelbaum, a professor at Duke University, told the Daily Mail earlier this year, "Gamers see the world differently. They are able to extract more information from a visual scene."

But games also simplify real-world events. The Army's Ganjgal "Battlescape" boils down the combat to catchy (though lengthy) captions, but omits the controversy surrounding it.

You can watch the Medal of Honor ceremony below: