HERAT, Afghanistan – The official from Kabul flew into town for only a few hours. He handed out free radios, announced a new road, a new bridge and a new irrigation project to help 2,600 farms. He answered questions from people worried about guns and security.

Everywhere he went Sunday, people wanted to shake his hand. The election for Afghanistan’s president was only six days away, but some Afghans wanted to meet the man they believe holds real power in their country: U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.

“What he promises to people, he does it,” said Ghulam Razaq, a painter and electrician in Herat. “Unlike President Hamid Karzai.”

On Saturday, Afghans will choose among 18 candidates for the country’s first elected president. The election, almost three years after the fall of the Taliban, is being touted as a foreign policy success story by President Bush, proof that democracy is coming to this war-torn country. Insurgents have so far failed to mount a significant attack against the election, despite promising to do so.

But Khalilzad, the energetic, hands-on, Afghan-born envoy to Afghanistan, has become a player in the election campaign. Some accuse him of being too close to Karzai, of pulling the president’s strings. Some candidates accuse the U.S. and Khalilzad of wielding too much power in Afghanistan and backing Karzai in the upcoming election. One candidate said Khalilzad suggested he drop out of the race.

“There was no pressure,” said Mohammad Mohaqiq, who considers Khalilzad a friend. “It was just a friendly suggestion. I have no problem with Mr. Khalilzad, except one thing. … He sometimes shows his support of Hamid Karzai.”

On Friday, Karzai’s chief rival, Yunus Qanooni, held a campaign rally in Herat and accused Karzai of working too closely with Khalilzad. In front of 1,000 people, crammed into the city’s main mosque, Qanooni said Afghans do not want a leader imposed from abroad.

Denies interference

In every press conference, Khalilzad is asked questions about his role in the Afghan election. He always gives the same answers. He denies interfering in Afghan politics, denies asking anyone to leave the race, denies supporting Karzai, denies being more powerful than Karzai. Khalilzad says he passes messages back and forth to Karzai, who often is confined to the presidential palace for security reasons.

“It is the decision of the Afghans as to who the next president of Afghanistan will be,” said Khalilzad, after fielding several similar questions about Karzai at a news conference Monday.

But three years after declaring war on the Taliban, the influence of America in Afghanistan and with Karzai is undeniable. About 18,000 U.S. troops patrol the country. Karzai travels in U.S. military planes and helicopters. He is constantly surrounded by American bodyguards from the DynCorp security company, through a U.S. State Department contract. The guards often annoy local Afghans, who are forced to wait in traffic jams if Karzai goes anywhere.

In all but one of his rare public appearances in the last 10 days, Karzai has stood steps away from Khalilzad. At a road opening ceremony near Shiberghan, at the opening of a new women’s dormitory in Kabul, at the re-opening of the national museum in Kabul, Khalilzad has showed up in suit and tie, announcing U.S. support. These projects will not be finished for months – one of the museum’s walls was not even built.

Whether true, the implication seemed obvious: With Karzai in charge, American dollars are guaranteed. USAID alone spent $1.2 billion in Afghanistan in the past fiscal year.

Even some powerbrokers in Afghanistan who were once lukewarm about Karzai have started to negotiate on his behalf, saying his election is essential for American support. A former president and a leader of a major militia party now support Karzai. Such endorsements and maneuvering worry other candidates. In a country just learning about democracy, they say, this message about American support might taint the ballots.

‘Deep concern’

“We have a deep concern that this will not be a fair election,” said Abdul Sattar Sirat, adding that Khalilzad assured him the U.S. is not interfering in Afghan elections.

Although some candidates have declared they would like the U.S. to leave Afghanistan, many Afghans welcome the U.S. presence for security reasons. If anything, most want more U.S. money, more U.S. soldiers. Two-thirds of those asked earlier this year approved of the U.S.-backed overthrow of the Taliban, according to a poll commissioned by the Asia Foundation.

“A country like our country needs a powerful supporter like America,” said Khadija Ahadi, 26, a journalism student in Herat given a radio by Khalilzad. “It’s known to everyone that Khalilzad is the most powerful person here. He is the bridge between Afghanistan and America.”

Khalilzad’s influence in this country can also be attributed to his personality. He’s from Afghanistan, able to move in Afghan circles without an interpreter. To call him “hands-on” is almost an understatement. Since his arrival in November, he often meets daily with Karzai, attends dinners with Afghans late into the night and rides in the cockpit of the U.S. military C-130 Hercules when he travels. He seems compelled to shake one more hand, answer one more question, even when his aides are trying to get him to move on.

“Thanks for your struggles,” said Khalilzad, shaking the paint-covered hand of Razaq, the electrician and painter in Herat. “These are the hands of work.”

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