Voters still gripped by fear of the gun
Maseeh Rahman in Faizabad
A violent past holds sway as warlords retain power in run-up to first elections for the presidency
Political power is not supposed to flow from the barrel of a gun any more in Afghanistan. But as the country heads towards its first presidential election on October 9, the AK-47 and the militia men who wield the assault rifle still exert a subtle influence in the minds of fearful voters.
The story in Badakshan province in the rugged country's remote northeast mirrors that of the rest of the country. It mixes echoes of Afghanistan's violent past with hopes that the elections can create a more peaceful and prosperous future.
The man who is boss in Badakshan is a warlord who goes by the name of General Qadir and has 700 men under his command.
He is among a number of prominent warlords who, sensing a shift of the political wind, have allied themselves with President Hamid Karzai's attempt to retain office in a popular mandate.
The word on the streets of the province, coming through tribal elders, is vote for Mr Karzai. And when the word comes from a warlord with hundreds of fighters at his beck and call, it is not one to be taken lightly.
These days in the province it is a rarity to see a man out of uniform carrying a gun as Afghanistan slowly changes from its lawless past.
A small, German-trained police force, a court, a public prosecutor and a German army unit in Faizabad do play some role in restraining the warlords. 'The warlords have to be far more careful now,' said an official.
'The total absence of law is a thing of the past.'
But residents' worries are far from over. 'Just a few days ago a teenage girl was shot and killed by a mujahedeen fighter after an altercation with her father,' said foreign exchange dealer Abdullah Baig.
'Years ago these guys were revered as great fighters, now they're only interested in shaking you for money.'
Across the nation it is the same story. The fear factor from local warlords is the biggest threat to free and fair elections rather than the Taleban insurgents, according to a Human Rights Watch report released on Monday.
Although far from Kabul, Faizabad is in election mode, with campaign posters springing up on the main street in the provincial capital.
Besides having the backing of the local chieftain, Mr Karzai is also a popular choice and perceived as the best bet for ensuring freedom, development and the rule of law.
General Qadir rejected suggestions that he was exerting undue influence on voters. 'Elections will be totally free here,' he said.
But he acknowledged that his militia had yet to surrender its weapons under the national disarmament programme. 'Basically, lack of transport has prevented us from giving up the guns,' he said. 'We will disarm next year.'
Besides fear, some detect a quiet mood of defiance which could bode well.
'The commanders will tell the people whom to vote for, but when they go into the little room they will vote for whoever they choose,' said Abdul Hadi Karimi, a lawyer who heads Badakshan's Independent Human Rights Commission.
Having endured decades of violence, no one is expecting the elections will solve all their problems.
'What do people want - peace, bread and work, nothing more,' said Abdul Kahar, a hotel cook.
'But they remain very uncertain about what's to come - will things improve or will they become worse after the elections?'