It's easy to spot where the secret negotiations are taking place in Kabul. Look for heavily armed men in camouflage fatigues blocking traffic, or for armadas of luxury four-by-fours with tinted windows double-parked. Inside restaurants, private residences and guesthouses around Kabul, presidential candidates are meeting with each other or the representatives of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, the man to beat in the country's first presidential election on Oct. 9. Rather than building their political operations or hitting the campaign trail in dusty towns and mud-brick villages across the country, the 17 candidates opposing Karzai are doing what comes naturally: resorting to traditional, tribal-style bargaining to secure political power before the vote. "The name of the game right now is 'Let's Make a Deal'," says Andrew Wilder, director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, an independent research organization.

The fact that the war-ravaged country is about to hold elections has introduced an unpredictable variable into Afghan politics: popular will. Nearly 10 million Afghans--more than 90 percent of the eligible electorate, according to the United Nations--have already registered to vote. Many candidates, even powerful former mujahedin who are backed by large, ethnic-based militias, are reasoning that it may be better to strike a bargain beforehand than to risk the vagaries of a popular vote. Some are looking for a slice of influence, while others want to extract concessions that could derail the president's reform agenda. In fact, many Afghans think reaching a pre-electoral deal with Karzai in exchange for their support may have been the motive that drove most of his 17 opponents to register their candidacies in the first place. "None of the candidates believes that he has even the remotest chance of beating Karzai," says a Western source close to the Afghan government. "They see running as the best way to position themselves to extract deals from the center."

That seems to be true of Karzai's former Education minister Yunus Qanooni, 46, who could be the president's toughest challenger. In late July, Karzai stunned Afghans by dropping his powerful Defense minister and Qanooni's close associate, Marshal Mohammad Qasim Fahim, as his vice presidential running mate. Instead he picked Ahmed Zia Massoud, the brother of the late, charismatic leader of the Northern Alliance, Ahmed Shah Massoud. Fahim's ouster and the sudden defection of Massoud weakened the influence of the Northern Alliance's commanders and effectively shut out its core Tajik following, led by Qanooni and Fahim, from a second Karzai administration. In response, Qanooni resigned from Karzai's cabinet and immediately declared his candidacy with Fahim's full backing.

Of course, Qanooni insists he's not looking to bargain. "I will not cut a deal with Karzai before the election," he says, sitting in the living room of his posh Kabul house. "I will stay in the race." But the longtime Northern Alliance political operative is leaving his options open, he says, if Karzai does not get more than 50 percent of the vote in the election, forcing a second round. In that case, he says, "I will not reject an offer of a deal with Karzai for national unity."

On the other hand, Massoud, Karzai's liaison to senior Northern Alliance leaders, is confident that Qanooni and the other candidates are eager for a deal. In fact, Massoud says he has been in direct talks with Qanooni about rejoining Karzai either before or after the election. "Qanooni will probably come back to us," Massoud told NEWSWEEK. "He wants a share of power." Speaking inside the house of the late Afghan dictator Mohammad Najibullah, Massoud adds, "If he runs and loses, he risks becoming a weak opposition leader for the next few years."

Qanooni may already be feeling isolated. At his heavily guarded Kabul headquarters, turbaned tribal elders and men in business suits sit on couches and sprawl on carpets, sipping tea, asking for favors and pledging their support. Most are Tajiks. But outside his native, Tajik-dominated Panjshir Valley, northeast of the capital, Qanooni cannot count on much support. He simply doesn't have a far-flung political organization that can go from village to village, meet with elders and attend tribal councils to ensure a high voter turnout. Many of Qanooni's own supporters seem to sense that. "It's in the nation's interest for Qanooni to join Karzai," says Anam Khan, a bearded and wizened supporter at Qanooni's headquarters.

Nor are the Northern Alliance commanders likely to rally behind anyone drawn from their ranks. Even before Massoud's defection, the former mujahedin were racked by disunity. Powerful warlords like Ismail Khan, Abdul Rashid Dostum and Mohammad Mohaqeq have gone their own ways, rebuilding independent, regional power bases. Spurning offers to join with Qanooni, Dostum decided to run for president himself. So did Mohaqeq. Karzai has also weakened the once dominant ethnic Tajik forces within his government by replacing them gradually with technocrats belonging to his ethnic Pashtun majority. "[The Northern Alliance] can't reunite," says Vikram Parekh, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group in Kabul. "None of its leaders wants to give up the impression that he's the top dog."

The other commanders may be close to an agreement with Karzai. Massoud is convinced that his talks with Khan, who controls large swaths of western Afghanistan, have already succeeded in bringing him into Karzai's camp. Presidential candidate Mohaqeq, the ethnic Hazara warlord, appears intent on cutting a deal, too. He has told visitors that in a recent meeting with Karzai and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, he asked for two cabinet ministries, two deputy ministries and the naming of the new Kabul-to-Bamian highway after a Hazara leader who was killed by the Taliban, in exchange for throwing his considerable weight behind the president. Although they haven't reached an agreement, both sides are still talking. (A U.S. Embassy spokeswoman denies that Khalilzad is negotiating with the candidates, saying that his meetings with presidential hopefuls are a normal part of his job.)

More generally, rivals like Mohaqeq, Dostum and Qanooni are eager to get back a share of power in order to slow down Karzai's key reforms, such as disarming and demobilizing more than 60,000 private militiamen and extending the central government's control over security and taxation in the provinces. The regional warlords need their gunmen to keep control of the people and local revenues that are the source of their unchecked power. But sources close to the presidential palace say that reform is the one thing that's not on the table. Karzai is apparently willing to welcome Qanooni back into government but only on the president's, not Qanooni's, terms. "Anyone he makes a deal with has to be on the same page," says one source.

Many Afghans don't want Karzai to negotiate with the warlords. They still have nightmares about the Afghan civil war in the mid-1990s when the mujahedin groups, including those in the Northern Alliance, turned on each other, destroying much of Kabul and the country. "We don't want people with bloody hands in Karzai's new government," says Jamshid Logharai, 24, whose family runs a construction company. A recent survey conducted by 12 Afghan aid groups found that most Afghans view the militias as being a bigger threat to their security than that posed by the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

But running without reaching an electoral compact has risks for Karzai, too. Sources close to the president say he wants to win big on Election Day and avoid a runoff. To do that he needs to make some headway with the non-Pashtun communities that are loyal to the various mujahedin chieftains. The price could well be the reforms he values most. "This is his last and best chance to clean the stables," says Wilder. "If he deals, it will make reform difficult if not impossible in the future." That's a bargain that may not be worth striking.