KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — The campaign for nationwide elections in Afghanistan got off to a subdued start Tuesday, shadowed by security fears and marked by the chronic disorganization that characterizes most large-scale endeavors here.
None of the three main presidential candidates made a public appearance on the first official day of the two-month campaign. Out in Afghanistan's vast hinterlands, many candidates for provincial assemblies stayed home, saying traditional campaign activities such as rallies would be far too dangerous.
In Kabul, the capital, campaign workers were out before dawn, plastering walls and utility poles and the city's few trees with campaign posters. By midday, many of the posters had been torn down, defaced or papered over with a rival's image.
The ballot for the Aug. 20 vote is laden with 41 presidential candidates, most of whom are considered to have little chance of victory. The only qualifications for running for president are holding Afghan citizenship and being at least 40 years old.
Last week, when the final list of candidates was compiled, the head of the election commission told reporters he was "ashamed" that lawmakers had failed to set basic requirements for seeking the country's highest office, such as the ability to read and write. Some candidates, he said, were illiterate.
Providing a secure environment for the vote will be an enormous challenge for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and U.S. forces in a country where a burgeoning insurgency has rendered large swaths of territory unsafe for travel, particularly in the south.
In Helmand, the country's largest opium-producing region and the scene of heavy fighting between coalition troops and the Taliban, officials said this week that five of the southern province's 13 districts were outside the government's control.
Western commanders have described election security as a key undertaking, and President Obama's decision to deploy 21,000 extra U.S. troops here over the summer was driven in part by the desire to safeguard the vote.
Hamid Karzai, who has led the country since world leaders appointed him president in 2001, is the front-runner. However, his popularity has slid sharply during the last two years, and polls suggest that he might have trouble garnering the 50% of votes needed to win outright. In that case, a runoff would be held in the fall.
Karzai's campaign manager, Haji Din Mohammed, dismissed a poll released Monday by the International Republican Institute indicating that the president's voter support had fallen to 31%. Other surveys have pointed to widespread disenchantment among the populace, citing corruption, pervasive violence and inefficient governance.
"These polls are not neutral," Mohammed said. "No other candidate has [Karzai's] standing."
That same poll by the IRI, a nonprofit group funded by the U.S. government, put the level of support for Karzai's two main challengers in single digits.
Each is a former Cabinet minister who had a falling-out with the president: Abdullah Abdullah is an ex-foreign minister and Ashraf Ghani previously served as finance minister.
"Karzai has failed to manage the country -- it needs to be dragged out of crisis," said Abdullah's campaign manager, Abdul Satar Murad.
The Afghan leader rattled many in the international community when he picked a notorious ex-warlord, Mohammed Qassim Fahim, as one of his two running mates. Fahim has been accused of serious human rights abuses, and the United Nations and a number of foreign diplomats have privately entreated Karzai not to put him on the ticket.
Even before the campaign began, the president's opponents accused Karzai, who was first elected to the presidency in 2004, of using his incumbency to unfair advantage, pointing to his daily appearances on state television and suggesting he might use official trips around the country to drum up support.
Karzai's senior campaign aides, some of whom resigned their government jobs on the morning the campaign officially kicked off, insisted that there would be a strict separation of government and campaign business.
On its opening day, the campaign had a distinctly ad hoc air. Most candidates had yet to open campaign headquarters or recruit staff -- though Ghani, a well-educated technocrat with an international reputation, has launched a website for fundraising.
At a news conference by the Karzai campaign, in a basement room at his headquarters, an aide scurried through the crowded room at the last moment, spraying disinfectant.
Another major candidate's campaign manager, queried about his platform, asked: "What is that?"
But the notion of democracy still has the power to inspire. This is only Afghanistan's second democratic presidential election, and for many people, the memory of Taliban rule, which ended with the U.S.-led invasion of 2001, is still fresh.
"I like the idea that I have something to say about something important," said a street vendor named Najibullah. "Even if I am not sure it will change anything."