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The death of Afghanistan's first vice president this week creates confusion in advance of the coming presidential election. Mohammed Qasim Fahim is said to have died of natural causes. He was formerly a warlord who fought the Soviets and then the Taliban alongside American allies. He had also been accused of human rights abuses. Without his influence, the Tajik vote is up for grabs in next month's presidential election.
NPR's Sean Carberry reports.
SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: The funeral was supposed to be a solemn military ceremony for the man dubbed Marshal Fahim, due to his honorary rank of field marshal. But, thousands of mourners thronged to Badam Bagh Hill in Kabul, nearly causing a riot.
(SOUNDBITE OF A CROWD)
CARBERRY: Those speaking were nearly drowned out by the crowd.
BISMULLAH KHAN MOHAMMADI: (Foreign language spoken)
CARBERRY: Defense minister and fellow Tajik, Bismullah Khan Mohammadi, lauded Fahim as a protector of national unity and one of the most important political figures of the past three decades. That's a widely held view.
During the Taliban rule, Fahim was a deputy to Ahmed Shah Massoud, the legendary commander of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance and the leader of the Tajiks. They're Afghanistan's second largest ethnic group who make up roughly 25 percent of the population. When Massoud was assassinated two days before 9/11, Fahim took command of the Northern Alliance and worked with the U.S. to overthrow the Taliban.
ASSADULLAH: (Foreign language spoken)
CARBERRY: Assadullah, a 25-year-old student at Kabul University, attended Fahim's funeral. Like many here, he says Fahim's death could affect the April 5th vote to elect a successor to President Hamid Karzai.
ASSADULLAH: (Through translator) His presence would have helped prevent election fraud and to help ensure a peaceful handover of power to the next president.
(SOUNDBITE OF A VEHICLE)
CARBERRY: The striking Panjshir Valley is a two-hour drive north of Kabul. A teal colored river cuts through imposing snow-capped peaks. The overwhelmingly Tajik-populated valley was the lifeblood of the anti-Soviet mujahedeen and later the Northern Alliance under Massoud.
DAOUD MOHAMMAD: (Foreign language spoken)
CARBERRY: Fifty-year old Daoud Mohammad is one of the caretakers of the Massoud shrine that sits on a windy hill overlooking the valley. He says the people of Panjshir are anxious in the wake of Fahim's death.
MOHAMMAD: (Through translator) It's a great concern. We are looking for someone who can serve our community.
CARBERRY: Mohammad says he's supporting Abdullah Abdullah in the election. He's a former political official in the Northern Alliance who was a close ally of Massoud. Abdullah is a mix of Tajik and Pashtun, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group. The opposition leader is considered by analysts one of three viable frontrunners in next month's vote.
Another is Zalmay Rassoul, the former foreign minister and a close ally of President Hamid Karzai. While he's a Pashtun, to broaden his appeal, he selected for a running mate Ahmad Zia Massoud, the Tajik brother of the former Northern Alliance leader. The third frontrunner is Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, a Pashtun and Western-educated technocrat who does not have a Tajik on his ticket and whose campaign posters are nowhere visible in Panjshir.
FAHIM FETRAT: (Through translator) Ahmad Zia Massoud and Abdullah Abdullah will get the major votes from this province.
CARBERRY: Twenty-eight-year old Fahim Fetrat is a candidate for the Panjshir Provincial Council. Sitting on the floor of his barren campaign office, he says the devastating loss of Fahim should motivate the people of Panjshir to rally behind Abdullah to fill the gap. It was widely believed that Vice President Fahim was quietly behind Abdullah.
FETRAT: (Foreign language spoken)
CARBERRY: But with Fahim gone, Fetrat says it's likely the Tajik vote could split. And that would end up helping Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai.
Sean Carberry, NPR News, Kabul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.