Frontline World

AFGHANISTAN - Without Warlords, October 2004
a FRONTLINE/World Fellows project

Confronting the Elders
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Democracy is not new to Afghanistan.

In 1963, under King Zahir Shah, Afghanistan became a constitutional monarchy. During a period dubbed the "New Democracy," then-Prime Minister Mohammed Yousuf and other Western-educated intellectuals in Kabul promoted democratic changes under a new constitution adopted in 1964. In 1965, and in 1969, Afghanistan held national elections for a bicameral legislature. Women took part in the voting, and four seats in the Parliament's lower house were reserved for women.

Muhammed Jameel Karzai

Muhammed Jameel Karzai, a second cousin of Afghan president Hamid Karzai, is the head of National Youth Solidarity of Afghanistan, the second political party to be registered in the country. The party hopes to gain a wider role in Afghan politics, which have traditionally been dominated by tribal elders.
Muhammed Jameel Karzai, a second cousin of the president, wasn't even born then, but like other members of the National Youth Solidarity of Afghanistan, he wants to advance the same democratic ideals. Karzai is president of the party, which formed in Pakistan in 1998.

"The generation that I belong to was always deprived of basic rights," Karzai said. "This generation was not in school because of the wars, and most of us grew up outside of Afghanistan. We are involved in politics because we've seen the bad politics and the bad politicians. We want change."

His party has three main goals. The group wants to promote national unity by campaigning against ethnic, tribal and religious discrimination, raise the standard of Afghan life, and advance women's rights. Since this was becoming a familiar litany throughout my interviews, I asked Karzai how his party planned to carry out some of its goals.

React!His answer: sports. Twice a month, the party holds volleyball, soccer and bike tournaments. A few months ago, for example, a cricket team from Kandahar, a province in the south, came to Kabul to compete against local teams, Karzai said. "Obviously when a team comes from one province to another it means that they start to recognize each other's cultural differences and they acknowledge those differences," he said. "From this point, we can really start to make national unity strong."

It may seem simplistic, but it's a smart idea. In rural areas, many young men took up arms because there are few jobs or other activities. In Kabul, and other cities, men and women are joining a growing number of martial arts clubs and gyms.

Kids in the street

Boys working for a shop owner try to sell men's dress shirts to passersby. Half of Kabul's population is under the age of 20, and many children work on the streets, begging or selling small goods.
The National Youth Solidarity of Afghanistan operates a few sports club for men and women, promotes cultural programs, and publishes a party newspaper, party co-founder Wali Ahmadzai said. Party members have been encouraging Afghans, especially those from the south, to take part in parliamentary and local elections in spring 2005. They have also been scouting for potential party candidates, a tough task because political traditions favor older candidates.

The loya jirga, an ancient form of direct democracy, has been a patriarchal institution dominated by the reesh safed, or white beards, who have traditionally picked national representatives from among themselves. Ahmadzai said that by meeting with tribal and religious leaders repeatedly, the party has been able to earn some recognition.

"We respect our elders, but young women and men should be given a chance to take part in government," he said. "And we tell them that voting has a lot of advantages. It's your right. Anytime you elect a government, then you have a right to petition that government, we say." They also try to show respect for the rural leaders, for example, by wearing traditional Afghan clothes, instead of T-shirts and jeans, when they travel to the provinces.

People entering data

In the data entry center of the Joint Electoral Management Body Secretariat, a United Nations compound in Kabul, 300 Afghan men and women work in shifts to enter voter registration card information into a computer database.
When they went to meet with a group of elders in Khost, Karzai said many of the men told him that they believed democracy was un-Islamic and refused to support the election.

"When we talked to them, we told the clergy that elections took place from the time the Prophet Muhammed passed away, with the election of the first caliph of Islam," Karzai said. "We told them about the loya jirga process that we've had for 300 years. These are all democratic ways of electing someone."

The party also wants to try to bridge a gap between rural and urban Afghans. This seemed to me a critical effort in building national unity. Historically, most rural Afghans have been disconnected from the central government, which they perceive as unconcerned about their day-to-day problems.

"When I travel to the villages, people complain that they don't have school," Ahmadzai said. "It is not the job of political parties to build schools, but I tell them we will talk to government officials on their behalf."

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