Locals observe Afghan election from afar

August 19, 2009 8:33:29 PM PDT
It's Thursday morning in Kabul. The sun is rising as Afghans get ready to go the polls to choose their next president. It is a country slightly smaller than Texas, but the election is drawing international attention including the Bay Area, especially in Fremont where more Afghans live than anywhere outside of Afghanistan.

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U.S. Marines raided Taliban strongholds just days before Afghanistan's second presidential election to help stop militants from threatening voters. But, a recent suicide bombing in the heart of Afghanistan is just one deadly message from Taliban terrorists.

Still, the candidates appeared in the first televised debates. Ballot boxes have been delivered to the 34 provinces. Security will be tight at the polls, especially in the Taliban strongholds in southern Afghanistan.

In 2004, during the very first direct Afghan presidential election, voters lined up in the hot sun for hours to cast their historic ballots. The men and women were separated for cultural reasons. Their thumbs were marked with ink to prove they voted.

But now, Taliban militants are warning that they will cut off those ink-stained thumbs.

President Hamid Karzai is leading the pack of 40 contenders. He's a Pashtun and 40 percent of Afghanistan's population is Pashtun, as well as most of the Taliban. Karzai supports reconciling with the Taliban, but he needs to get more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff. Ironically, the violence by the Pashtun Taliban could stop Pashtun voters from going to the polls.

One of his most vocal presidential opponents is Dr. Ashraf Ghani, also a pashtun, who promises to restore faith in the government. And he could split the vote. Ghani is promoting a plan to create a million jobs, and says the Afghan people want more from their government.

"Legitimacy... a goverment that can enjoy the trust of the people. This government has lost it," Dr. Ghani said.

Supporter Sohalia Murtaza calls Ghani the "Gandhi of Afghanistan."

Murtaza is running an Obama-style online campaign for Dr. Ghani from her home in Sacramento. He was Afghanistan's finance minister in 2002, but split with Karzai's administration.

Murtaza points out, "He did not accept any money from Afghan government when he was a finance minister."

Ghani was educated in the West and wrote the book "Fixing Failed States."

Abdullah Abdullah, M.D., is President Karzai's most powerful rival. He is legendary in Afghanistan as an advisor to the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, "The Lion of Panjshir," a national hero for leading the resistance against the soviets in the 80s. He was assassinated by Al Qaeda two days before the September 11th attacks on America.

Dr. Abdullah, is an ophthalmologist. His father was Pashtun, but his mother was Tajik, which is the dominant ethnic group in the north that makes up 25 per cent of the population.

Abdullah campaigned against corruption and turned down a job offer from Karzai.

"When President Karzai, sometime back a year and a half ago, suggested that I could be his vice president, I told him that this country needs a change," he recalled.

Shala Ata is one of two women running for president. She wants to advance women's rights in an Islamic society so conservative most women keep their faces and their thoughts hidden.

"They have money. I don't have money. I'm challenging because all people is behind me," she said.

Bay Area Afghan-Americans at the Salang Pass Restaurant in Fremont are looking closely at the candidates.

"I wish somebody become president who understand the pain of the people," Zarmina Wahid, owner of the Salang Pass restaurant, told ABC7.

They know their fellow Afghans are suffering from three decades of war and the corruption that comes with growing poppies for heroin. Some of that money is funding the Taliban, creating conditions ripe for Taliban recruiters and terrorists.

"If you look back at 1979, if a child was 5-years-old, today that person is 35-years-old person, and the only skill that person has is just holding guns," says Gasim Tarin, founder of the Afghan Business Network.

Marjon Ajami wants the new president to "Just bring the belief system back in Afghanistan, get rid of the Taliban, educate the children." She told ABC7, "When my parents left in the 70s it was one of the most beautiful places in the world. We can bring it back."

"We do not need to give them fish. We need to teach them how to fish," Tarin says. "That's how as a leader of the Afghan Business Network in the U.S., I am really a firm believer in that, and that's how we need to go back and create jobs."

Related Links:
Afghan Business Network
Afghan Coalition
Roots of Peace
Embassy of Afghanistan

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