POL-E-ALAM, Afghanistan - They are an ancient group of wanderers, mostly landless, illiterate and loyal to a way of life thousands of years old.
But when it comes to their nation's first democratic presidential elections, Afghanistan's Kuchi nomads are right in the thick of things.
Experts from Western nations are doing everything they can to ensure that Afghans vote their conscience in the presidential elections Saturday.
Yet, as the story of the Kuchi nomads shows, Afghan-style democracy seems to be shaping up as the kind of rough-and-tumble ward politics in which votes and favors are traded, political bosses call the shots and ethnic loyalties rule.
President Hamid Karzai, whom the United States helped install as Afghanistan's interim chief of state, finds himself in a surprisingly competitive race with rivals bent on denying him more than 50 percent of the vote and forcing a runoff. At the least, rivals hope to make a strong enough showing that Karzai will be forced to appoint them to top government posts.
To blunt the threat, Karzai has worked to shore up his base among fellow Pashtuns, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group.
Angry and apart
Normally, Karzai could have counted on the support of the nation's 1.5 million Kuchi nomads in Saturday's vote. They are not, strictly speaking, an ethnic group: Most are Pashtuns, and a few are Baluch, a people from Karzai's home in Afghanistan's southern Registan desert.
The problem is, many Kuchi nomads are very upset with Karzai.
Two years ago, the diabetic tribal chieftain Naim Kuchi, in his late 60s, was arrested by U.S. special forces, flown secretly to Cuba and locked up in the chain-link cages at Guantanamo Bay for 21 months.
The Afghan government says Naim Kuchi was a Taliban commander in the mid-1990s. But after the Taliban were driven from power in November 2001, Naim Kuchi renounced the fundamentalist Muslim militia and pledged allegiance to the new government. He participated in the first loya jirga, or grand council, in June 2002, along with 25 other Kuchi leaders.
His subsequent arrest angered hundreds of Kuchi elders who regarded Naim Kuchi rather than the government-sanctioned tribal leader, Hasmat Ghani, as their legitimate leader.
Ghani is a businessman with a transport company in Pakistan and a home in Virginia. His brother, Ashraf Ghani, is Karzai's finance minister.
Fairly or not, Hasmat Ghani is one of what Afghans here refer to with a hint of envy as "Afghan-Americans," successful former refugees who have returned from the United States to help run this country.
"We don't know him," said Naiz Muhammed, chief of the Kuchi village of Chineh, near the eastern border city of Khost. "We don't regard him as a Kuchi. He is not our representative. He is not living the life of a Kuchi."
The Kuchi life
While many Kuchis live permanently in villages or cities, some keep the traditional way of life. They drive their goats, sheep and camels hundreds of miles across deserts and plains. They wander through valleys and mountains, from summer to winter grazing lands, in an endless cycle.
On the move, the Kuchis live in huge, blister-shaped tents that dot Afghanistan's hillsides, stitched together from whatever is handy - goat or camel skins, canvas or blue plastic tarpaulins. Their hulking yellow dogs, notorious for their ferocity, stand sentry at night. During the day, families prod their herds along Afghanistan's narrow mountain roads.
The Kuchi have long been treated as a people apart. Even under the Taliban, Kuchi women often went unveiled, dressed in gaudy green, pink or scarlet dresses.
Kuchi nomads crossed the Pakistan border freely, sometimes shepherding their livestock across the front lines of Afghanistan's seemingly endless wars.
In recent decades, it has become harder for the Kuchi to pursue their traditional nomadic lifestyle. During decades of fighting, many were killed or crippled by land mines laid across their migration routes. The American and Pakistani troops that now patrol the border have made crossing more difficult.
There is bitterness left over from the recent war, when some Kuchi leaders supported the Taliban.
As a result, the Kuchi are no longer welcome in Tajik areas of Afghanistan's north or in the Hazarra lands of the Central Highlands. The Tajiks and the Hazarra were the targets of what they regard as ethnic cleansing by the Pashtun-dominated Taliban.
A four-year drought has decimated Kuchi herds, especially in Registan, the sandy desert covering most of southern Afghanistan where most Kuchi live.
A move to the cities
"There has also been a dramatic change in the last three years, because most of our families have come back from Pakistan to Afghanistan," said Gullam Nabi, a Kuchi tribal leader from the Pakistan border area.
Attracted by the relative security and a booming job market in Kabul, almost all of the returnees are heading for Afghan cities. Increasingly, the Kuchi are becoming urbanized. And some lament it.