Top candidates in the Afghan presidential race addressed rallies attended by thousands of cheering supporters on Monday, the last day of campaigning for key elections overshadowed by Taliban threats.
Seventeen million voters go to the polls Thursday to elect a president for the second time in Afghanistan's history. They will also elect 420 councillors in 34 provinces, in a huge logistical operation handicapped by insecurity.
President Hamid Karzai, who has ruled Afghanistan since the US-led invasion overthrew the Taliban regime in 2001, is the frontrunner but a strong campaign by former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah could force a run-off.
Amid threats from the Taliban to attack polling stations, US President Barack Obama warned defeating the insurgency in Afghanistan would be tough.
"We won't defeat it overnight. This will not be quick. This will not be easy," Obama told the Veterans of Foreign Wars service organisation in the southwestern US state of Arizona.
In Kabul, more than 10,000 people poured into a stadium -- a once notorious Taliban execution ground -- wearing blue baseball hats, waving blue flags, carrying pictures of Abdullah and chanting his name over and over again.
In a vote stunt rare for Afghanistan, a helicopter circled overhead, dropping hundreds of leaflets with Abdullah's photo, election sign and number as marked on the ballot paper to help even the illiterate majority vote.
|Map showing Afghan provinces with a strong Taliban presence|
Afghan police later arrested the pilots of two helicopters and campaign staff for allegedly violating Kabul airspace by dropping the leaflets.
"Hey compatriots, wake up, it is time for a big change," said the leaflets written in the three most common Afghan languages, Dari, Pashtu and Uzbeki.
Karzai, whose office said eight candidates had now abdicated in his favour, leaving around 30 contenders in the fray, came under fire for alliances with warlords during a first television debate attended by an Afghan head of state.
In a 90-minute head-to-head broadcast Sunday, he was criticised by outspoken anti-corruption campaigners, ex-finance minister Ashraf Ghani, and eccentric but popular Kabul lawmaker Ramazan Bashardost, over the alleged deals.
The US embassy in Kabul expressed serious concern to the Afghan government on Monday following the homecoming of key Karzai ally, infamous warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum, "particularly during these historic elections".
Ghani, who is running on a campaign of clean governance, job creation and economic development, addressed a final rally of 5,000 in the eastern Nangarhar province, pledging to replace the "corrupt government with a legitimate one".
"Karzai will give you food now, but I will provide food for 100 years because I will provide jobs for one million people and build one million houses," the former World Bank academic pledged.
As campaigning ended, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the United States was impartial and was ready to work with whomever voters picked.
Progress has been made since the collapse of the 1996-2001 Taliban regime, but many people are frustrated. Despite billions of dollars of Western aid, most Afghans lack electricity, roads are bad, jobs are scarce, corruption rife.
Afghanistan is expected to mobilise all available 300,000 Afghan and foreign security forces in a bid to protect voting centres and counter fears that poor turnout, because of insecurity, could jeopardise the legitimacy of the polls.
The Taliban have escalated their bid to derail the elections and destabilise the Western-backed government in the impoverished, rural country where 70 percent of the population are illiterate.
But NATO deputy commander in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General Jim Dutton, said the success of NATO and US-led military campaigns in southern troublespots had improved security before the elections by wresting territory from the Taliban.
Afghan officials said insecurity meant that three days before the elections they were unable to confirm the number of polling stations that would be open.
Election officials have previously said insecurity could close up to 12 percent of the nearly 7,000 planned polling centres.