Election 2008 The World is Watching

video dispatch

Afghanistan: Voices from Kabul

U.S. presidential race on the minds of many Afghans

BY Nadene GhouriAugust 25, 2008


Nadene Ghouri is an award-winning reporter who specializes in social affairs and human interest issues. She lives between London and Kabul, and has been regularly reporting the changing situation in Afghanistan since 2001. She has previously reported for both the BBC and Al Jazeera English. This is her first dispatch for FRONTLINE/World.

In the past week Kabul's newspapers have carried the following headlines: "Ten French soldiers killed in a fierce battle with Taliban militants near Kabul"; "British soldier killed in a suicide attack"; "Several Afghan civilians including women and children killed accidentally at a wedding party by NATO forces"; "U.S. military claim to have killed 21 militants near the border with Pakistan."

It's no exaggeration to say the news here in Kabul is mostly bad.

And it's not just the continuing insurgency preoccupying Afghan journalists. They report on rising crime and a dire economy. Most Afghans don't have access to jobs, basic sanitation or any guarantee of regular electricity. On the streets of Kabul, children increasingly scavenge for food.

Between now and November, however, another story is going to take prominence.

"The elections are a huge story here in Afghanistan," says Kabul-based journalist Danesh Karokel. "What happens in the U.S. has a direct impact on Afghans. The U.S. affects Afghanistan in so many ways -- the U.S. troops we have here, the aid we receive to help fund our development. Every Afghan has an opinion about the November elections."

Which candidate Afghans would like to win is becoming a major topic of conversation.

"I want Obama -- he's young; he's wise and he's going to be good for Afghanistan," says 21-year-old university student Amal. "I don't like McCain. He shouldn't win; he's too much like Bush."

A walk through Kabul's noisy bazaars reveals that Amal isn't alone in that view.
At a stall piled high with vegetables imported from Pakistan, customers complain about rising prices that have doubled in the past day.

Afghanistan has little in the way of industry, and because of rising military insecurity, it's almost impossible for Afghan farmers to get their crops to market safely.

Most of the country's basic supplies are trucked in from Pakistan. Frequently, the Taliban attacks these convoys, and with each attack, prices go up as goods become scarce.

"Obama is a decent person. We see that from the seriousness of his speeches," says Khalid, a 40-year-old fruit seller. "The problems in Afghanistan are caused by neighboring countries like Iran and Pakistan interfering here and creating problems for us. Obama appreciates the seriousness of that matter and he will deal with it seriously."

When I asked him if he thought McCain had also taken a strong stance on Iran, he replied, "McCain, who is he?"

Few people I met had any idea who McCain was. Those who did know the name knew precious little about him except for his age. In Afghanistan, age equates to wisdom, but the life expectancy for adult males here is just 46. It's rare to see someone of McCain's age walking the streets of Kabul. It sounds brutal, but in the Afghan psyche McCain's age is a reminder of mortality; while Obama's youth equals good health and a future.

Many Afghans I met spoke glowingly of a "good", "decent", "wise", "youthful" Obama. Yet not one of them referred to the color of his skin.

Meena, an 18-year-old translator, who lived in Vermont for a year as part of a youth exchange program, offered this explanation: "In American politics the "black" issue is really big. But because we don't have black people here it's totally irrelevant to us." She said Afghans are more likely to think black people are Muslim. "They don't know if Obama is Muslim or not, but they may think that he is and that may be why more people like him."

Others I spoke to thought Obama was actually standing against President Bush. Newspaper journalist Karokel told me that Obama's much publicized visit to Afghanistan in June also helped his popularity: "People became familiar with him after that. It was broadcast on Afghanistan TV so people in the street recognize his picture. And people respected his coming."

If Obama is successful in his bid for the presidency, he will face high expectations from Afghans who feel incredibly let down by the international effort since 2001. Increasingly here, people refer to the rule of the Taliban as "the good old days."

share your reactions

Sam Robertson - Wellington, New Zealand
It's an interesting insight into how Afghans see the election. I think their sentiments are shared by many people in the world. US foreign policy is such a powerful force in shaping our planet and I believe there's a general fear that America under Bush became increasingly self serving. From what I can see it's a mood increasingly shared by many Americans. We will have to wait and see whether that will be reflected in the polls.

New York, USA
A good solid piece of journalism. It's a good flipside to hear what Afghani's think of the US election.We need to get feedback of 'hot spots' regarding the election and ultimately US policy.

Clive Earnhart - Fullerton, CA
Of course, citizens of any country will obviously side for the candidate that best suits the personal interests of that voter. In the case of the Afghanis, if Obama says he will hunt for Osama and the Taliban in Afghanistan bringing troops, and of course, American dollars to their economy, they will be delighted to welcome that influx by showing favoratism to him. And there are many other factors that foreign citizens consider when voicing interest in America's next President. But are Americans so different? The war in Iraq may be an unpopular one based upon the information made available to the media conveyed to the U.S. public, but I vehemently believe there is more to the War On Terrorism than meets the eye, and it doesn't directly funnel into the pocketbooks of Bush or Cheney as many may believe. If Bush was concerned with his popularity polls or dollars, why would he have stayed so long in Iraq spending at such great cost? The real answer, I believe, will not be revealed openly in the media, but McCain will be intent on continuing the mission of his predecessor. Obama will definitely please the American public by exiting Iraq for Afghanistan, but at what cost? Afghanistan and other nations who have not been known for being flag waving U.S. supporters sure are dying to find out.

Azeez Moogees - London, England
A really good, informative feature on what the Afghan people think about the forthcoming U.S elections. It will be interesting for Americans to see and hear these and understand how Afghanistan sees its future bound so tightly with the U.S.