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Afghanistan Update
Alex Steffen, 26 Sep 04

In about two weeks, Afghans will go to the polls in an effort to elect their first democratic government in, well, basically ever.

Here's a great piece on efforts by the people of Afghanistan to put their country back together:

"The early summer sun beats down on a remote village in the hills of Panjao, a district in the central highlands of Afghanistan, and a swirling wind flings gusts of dust into the faces of people in the street. Many of the adults in the area - around 500 in all - are attending a concert in the local school. But this is not simply entertainment - it could be democracy in the making. Mixed in with the drama, comedy and singing is a 20-minute traditional Hazaragi music presentation in which the songs focus on how ordinary Afghan people can register to take part in the upcoming national elections.

"After nearly a quarter of a century of conflict, the people of Afghanistan are gearing up to elect their own Parliament and President this Autumn. But western style democracy is a curiosity to this fiercely independent people, proud of their culture and history. In a very short space of time a (largely illiterate) electorate will have to get their heads around the notion of secret ballots and a single transferable vote. Not least of the hurdles the country faces is registering the 11 million adults who are eligible to vote when war has blown identity documentation to bits.

"In Kabul, the signs of change are evident on roadside billboards promoting mobile phones and other 21st century technologies. ... [Yet away from the capital,] armed groups and private armies are a real concern, [says] Fahim Hakim of the Afghan Human Rights Commission. So too is the explosion of a plethora of ‘mafias’. 'There’s a drug mafia, a wood mafia, an oil mafia, a land mafia, there is even an elite mafia, small groups of the elite who are in charge of too many things from the supply of fuel to the awarding of contracts.'"

Indeed the DDR -- disarmament, demobilization and reintegration -- process continues to stagger along, making no one entirely happy and leaving doubts about the future in the minds of many, like this young militiaman:

"We have our freedom, so I won't miss this gun," he said, patting the steel barrel. "They said the army will protect us now. They said the government will find us jobs, but we'll see. I have some land, but there's no water, and now they're cutting down all the poppy. What will happen to men like me, I really don't know."

Afghanistan has been through the mill, having seen nearly its entire infrastructure destroyed, hundreds of thousands killed or scarred by war, and decades of opportunities for education, advancement and development lost -- not to mention the destruction of their national seedbanks (which somehow seems all too fitting a metaphor). The recent series of murders of aid workers and returning expats hasn't made anything better.

But there are also promising signs: the introduction of an innovative program of microcredit, for instance, or work to introduce better agricultural methods. Still, if we can't do better by countries like Afghanistan, which at least has the advantage of being on the international media radar, few of our hopes for the larger, forgotten quarters of the world have much chance of coming true.

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