PANJSHIR -- If Abdullah Abdullah emerges as the next president of Afghanistan, nobody will be more ecstatic than the people of Panjshir Valley.
While Abdullah was not born in the picturesque province, nestled among the snowy peaks of the Hindu Kush mountains, residents here have adopted him as a native son.
Go anywhere and you will find his posters plastered on street corners, shop windows, and cars. Huge billboards, depicting a neatly-bearded Abdullah in his trademark piran tumban covered in a zip-up coat and wooly scarf, dot the rocky hills. Students learn about his life in school, while clerics preach his words in mosques.
The world might remember Abdullah as the suave, sharply-dressed former foreign minister who finished second to President Hamid Karzai in the fraud-tainted 2009 presidential election. But here in Panjshir, where Abdullah is simply referred to as “doctor," he is seen as the type of leader they can call their own.
Abdullah ditches the suit and tie and dons traditional garb on his weekly visit to Panjshir from Kabul. He often attends prayers at the local mosque and hosts locals at his house.
Dastagir Shofaee is a former mujahedin fighter who was with Abdullah during the Soviet Invasion and later in the resistance against the Taliban. The fierce, bearded Shofaee says Abdullah is considered family by many. “Dr. Abdullah is our cousin, our nephew, and our grandson. He knows the people's needs and feels the people's pain in Panjshir."
The 53-year-old Abdullah is among the frontrunners to win the April 5 presidential election. Full preliminary results are not expected until April 26, but partial results released so far give him a 10 percent lead over his closest rival. In Panjshir, Abdullah has almost 90 percent of the vote. Official results will be announced on May 14 and, if needed, a second round will be held late May.
Abdullah, a surgeon, has spent a significant part of his life in Panjshir, the bastion of resistance to the 1979-89 Soviet intervention and the last stronghold of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.
In the 1980s, Abdullah treated wounded mujahedeen fighters. In the 1990s, he fought the Taliban alongside legendary anti-Soviet commander Ahmad Shah Masud, a Panjshir native and revered national hero.
But Abdullah's standing in Panjshir, dominated by ethnic Tajiks, is surprising given that he was born in Kabul and his father is a Pashtun from the southern province of Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban. His mother, however, is from Panjshir.
But many in Panjshir look beyond his mixed ethnicity.
Faisal is a 35-year-old carpenter from Panjshir. He says by all rights, the province should be the stronghold of native Panjshiris, including Ahmad Zia Masud, the younger brother of legendary anti-Soviet resistance commander Ahmad Shah Masud, a revered national hero.
Ahmad Zia Masud, the running mate of presidential candidate Zalmai Rasul, spent years outside Afghanistan and fought briefly alongside his older brother.
But Faisal says that, in comparison to other politicians, Abdullah is someone the average Panjshiri can relate to. According to election results released so far, Rasul has won less than 10 percent of the vote in Panjshir.
“Dr. Abdullah fought in the jihad, he fought alongside Ahmad Shah Masud, and he's a good man that we all love for his sacrifice to Panjshir," he says. “We also care for Ahmad Zia Masud but no one can replace Dr. Abdullah. Everyone has their place."
'On Behalf Of The People'
Faisal says Abdullah visits Panjshir every Thursday, when he hosts locals at his house. Abdullah then attends Friday prayers in a local mosque before traveling back to Kabul, he says.
Abdullah's uncle, Abdul Rahim, lives in Abdullah's residence in Panjshir, a two-story house draped in white and green paint that sits on the banks of the Panjshir River.
He says his nephew is respected because he understands the suffering of common people.
“Abdullah speaks on behalf of the people," says the 75-year-old. “He speaks on behalf of the farmers and the workers. He's an honest man who has never abused his power. That's why he is loved by everyone. Young men, girls, and women all love him dearly."
Abdullah, who has spent the last six years as opposition leader, has pointed out that his two closest rivals – former finance Minister Ashraf Ghani and former Foreign Minister Zalmai Rasul, both Western-educated technocrats – moved to the West at the onset of the war in Afghanistan. He, on the other hand, stayed and defended his country.
Panjshir bears the scars of the last three decades of conflict in the country. Hundreds of destroyed Soviet tanks are littered throughout the valley, as are weapons left by the Taliban in their failed attempts to conquer the area. There are vast tunnel networks carved into the mountains that the mujahedeen used to escape Soviet and Taliban aerial bombardments. To this day, there are dozens of mine-clearing operations on the rocky hilltops surrounding the picturesque valley.
Some also put Abdullah's status in Panjshir down to his close relationship with Masud, who is known as the “Lion of Panjshir."
The two forged a close bond and Abdullah became Masud's right-hand man during the devastating civil war and Taliban rule in the 1990s before the latter was assassinated on the eve of the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States. Masud's remains are kept at a grand memorial site that overlooks the vast valley.
Rahim says the Abdullah and Masud saw each other as brothers. “Abdullah's was Ahmad Shah Masud's friend, close companion, and his disciple," says Rahim, who fought for Masud. “Nobody had a closer relationship with Masud than Abdullah."
Hamid, a soldier stationed in Panjshir, says many here believe Abdullah is the only one capable of realizing Masud's dream. "Masud made many mistakes. But he was also a patriot who dreamed of a united and strong Afghanistan. With God's help, Dr. Abdullah can do what many others have failed to do."