The week I left Kabul, about one month before the elections, the afghani currency rose 10 percent against both the dollar and the euro -- a small signal of confidence. Based on my conversations and interviews, it seemed to me that Afghans were more optimistic about the future than international aid workers and other expatriates.
An international public health worker told me she was taking
a vacation during the run-up to the election because of deteriorating
security. "This place might go to hell again," she said.
Afghan National Army soldiers march in a parade at Ghazi Stadium, celebrating Afghan Independence Day.
But most Afghans stayed put throughout.
Pashtoon, 36, lives in De Mazang on the west side of Kabul, the only area to be nearly leveled during the civil war. On the worst days, the neighborhood was shelled dozens of times in a single day. The mother of four stood in the doorway of her house, relatively rebuilt compared with the crumbling mud-brick buildings surrounding us. Pashtoon, a housewife, chatted with me as a young Afghan man from a neighborhood micro-lending office filled out a form before handing her a small business loan for her husband.
"In all these years, we never left our house here under TV Mountain," Pashtoon told me (TV Mountain is a hill near Kabul where television broadcast towers are located). "Gulbuddin [Hekmatyar, a commander] was hitting us from one side, the Hazara factions were firing rockets from the other. At least Karzai brought peace to our land."
The presidential elections in October 2004 took place with a minimum of violence. Taliban vows to disrupt the voting proved hollow. Most Afghans are ready to give President Karzai another chance, if only because his name is associated with security and a guarantee of international assistance.
But democracy in post-conflict Afghanistan depends on more
than just one man and a single election.
A portrait of President Karzai hangs on a government building in downtown Kabul. Karzai's pictures are featured on billboards and in schools and government offices throughout Afghanistan. His opponents say this gave him an unfair advantage on Election Day.
During the so-called Decade of Democracy starting in the early
1960s, more than 90 percent of Afghans were illiterate. There
was little popular enthusiasm for democratic reforms introduced
from Kabul because they had little relevance to the lives of
the majority of Afghans, who didn't understand how the new system
could benefit their rural lives. And no one tried to explain
it to them.
Today, approximately 70 percent of the population is illiterate and democracy is still not a popular movement, but there was a massive voter turn-out in the presidential election, indicating in part the high expectation Afghans have that elections will keep the peace. However, some international observers and Afghan politicians warn that if elections only reinforce the status quo and do not lead to a real improvement in the lives of ordinary Afghanis, the electoral process itself could be undermined, damaging an international mission to create a stable democracy in the region.
slow progress of a voluntary, $165 million United Nations plan
to demobilize and disarm militias remains the biggest obstacle
to real reforms. International peacekeepers do not venture out
of Kabul much, despite repeated pleas from President Karzai that
their forces be expanded to curb the power of militias. America
armed and funded many of the regional commanders in the war
on terror against the Taliban and al Qaeda. These factions remain
heavily armed and contribute to the current lack of security.
Also, the way the voting system is set up now, people will vote for individual candidates, not parties, in the spring 2005 parliamentary elections. This will keep political parties weak and a future Parliament highly fragmented and ineffective, according to a study by the Afghan Research and Evaluation Unit, an independent Kabul-based institute.
Unemployment also continues to haunt Afghan's fledgling democracy. On my last day I passed down a one-way street in the Bharistan neighborhood of Karte Parwan. By 7 a.m. each day, dozens of men stand on a street corner, waiting for someone to hire them. Among the Afghans, there is a lot of grumbling that construction jobs are going to foreigners, like skilled Pakistanis and Turks.
It's a media cliché to quote taxi drivers, but for me cab
rides represented an opportunity to have conversations with Afghan
men whom I didn't work with and/or who weren't related to me. Sher
Dil, 60, supplemented his small income as a farmer by driving
Sixty-year-old Sher Dil, a farmer and taxi driver, smiles into the camera. Sher Dil said he planned to vote.
I asked him if he was going to vote for president, and he replied, "Sure, why not, sister?" But displaying some of the caution and uncertainty that still exists in Afghanistan, he didn't tell me who he would vote for. "Whoever helps our homeland, then all of us will accept that person," he said, diplomatically.
Then Sher Dil turned up the tape deck a little louder and asked me if I've ever met another reesh safed, "white-beard," who enjoys playing Hindi pop songs in his car. I told him he's the first one.
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