Afghans line up for last-minute voter registration
KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghans lined up by the hundreds Tuesday up in a last-minute rush to register for voting cards, a sign that interest in national elections is high despite fears of violence.
The Taliban have vowed to "use all force" to disrupt the balloting and the militants already have staged several high-profile attacks in the Afghan capital of Kabul in recent weeks. But men and women queuing on the last day of registration said they won't let the threats keep them away from the polls on Saturday as Afghanistan experiences its first democratic transfer of power.
President Hamid Karzai, who has ruled the country since shortly after the Taliban were ousted by a U.S.-led invasion in 2001, is constitutionally barred from a third term.
Shopkeeper Ghulam Abbas, 65, said Karzai didn't keep his promises to make the country better and he hopes a new president will give the country a fresh start.
"I hope the corruption is ended and security is improved," he said as he stood in line to get a new voter card, after losing his three years ago when he moved from the province of Bamiyan to Kabul. Women, many holding children and wearing the all-encompassing burqa, also turned out to register.
The stakes are high as Afghans choose a new leader who will guide the country as foreign combat troops prepare to withdraw by the end of this year. Karzai has refused to sign a security pact that would allow thousands of international forces to stay beyond that deadline to help train and advise Afghan forces, leaving the decision to his successor. All three front-runners have said they would sign the deal.
With NATO troops increasingly taking a backseat in the fighting, the number of casualties also has dropped. Last month marked the first time no U.S. deaths were reported in Afghanistan in more than seven years, although a British and a Romanian soldier were killed, according to an Associated Press tally. The last month that had no American fatalities was January 2007.
International officials and other observers have expressed concern that an excess in voting cards stemming from a chaotic registration process in past elections will be a source of fraud. Some estimate there are as many as 20 million voting cards in Afghanistan, although the number of eligible voters is about 12 million.
The Independent Election Commission, which is overseeing the vote, said that as of Thursday, at least 3.8 million new voters had registered since last year and long lines at many of the 41 registration centers nationwide suggested that number would rise above 4 million. However, millions of people are expected to use the cards they received in 2009 and 2010, making it impossible to determine a firm figure.
Abdul Ghafoor Raheemi, 29, from Kandahar, said it would be his first time voting. He didn't want to risk the violence in the last election.
"I am really willing to use my right to vote this time," he said as he collected his voting card in the southern city. "It seems everyone is willing to vote and participate in forming a new government."
The eight presidential candidates, meanwhile, have staged near-daily campaign rallies across the country. Academic and former World Bank official Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's main rival in disputed 2009 elections, and former foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul are considered the main contenders, but none is expected to get the majority needed to avoid a runoff.
Abdul Ghafar Amiri, a 21-year-old university student, said he hoped for unity and improvements in security and the economy.
"This election is a very important one for the Afghans because it is the first democratic transition of power from one president to another," he said.
KABUL, Afghanistan — Mariam Wardak is one of those young Afghans with her feet in two worlds: At 28, she has spent much of her adult life in Afghanistan, but she grew up in the United States after her family fled there. She vividly remembers the culture shock of visits back to her family’s village in rural Wardak Province a decade ago.
“A woman wouldn’t even show her face to her brother-in-law living in the same house for 25 years,” she said. “People would joke that if someone kidnapped our ladies, we would have to find them from their voices. Now women in Wardak show their faces — they see everybody else’s faces.”
Ms. Wardak’s mother, Zakia, is a prime example. She used to wear a burqa in public, but now has had her face printed on thousands of ballot pamphlets for the provincial council in Wardak. She campaigns in person in a district, Saydabad, that is thick with Taliban.
She has plenty of company in this year’s elections, scheduled for Saturday. Another 300 women are running for provincial council seats around the country, more than ever before. And for the first time, a woman — Habiba Sarobi, the former governor of Bamian Province — is running for vice president on a leading national ticket.
There is finally the sense here, after years of international aid and effort geared toward improving Afghan’s women’s lives, that women have become a significant part of Afghan political life, if not a powerful one.
But their celebratory moment is also colored by the worry that those gains could so easily be reversed if extremists come back into power, or if Western aid dwindles. Those concerns have added urgency to this campaign season for women who are fighting to make their leadership more acceptable in a still deeply repressive society.
“It’s an exciting and terrifying point, because the international presence has actually empowered the women here, and when they leave, some of those women will be concerned,” said Mariam Wardak, who is working on Ms. Sarobi’s campaign as well as her mother’s.
One notable change is simply that there have been more women speaking from the dais during rallies, including the wives of two of the more prominent national candidates. That is a novelty that has drawn crowds in a country where most male public figures keep their wives in traditional seclusion — including President Hamid Karzai, despite his promises to women’s groups years ago that she would be a visible part of Afghan life.
Afghans have been particularly intrigued by Ms. Sarobi’s emergence as a running mate for the presidential candidate Zalmay Rassoul. She is not just a token name on a presidential ticket, but a campaign draw in her own right, as her stirring speeches have added a much-needed shot of crowd appeal to Mr. Rassoul’s otherwise staid and low-energy campaign.
Last Thursday, thousands of men and a few hundred women in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif cheered wildly for Ms. Sarobi, after only polite applause for the presidential candidate.
“She pretty much rocked the show,” said Haseeb Hamayoon, a Rassoul campaign aide.
Ms. Sarobi explained, “People want some change, and a woman on the ticket is a change for them.”
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Fawzia Koofi, a politician and rights advocate, at one point said she would be running as a presidential candidate in this election, but she missed by a year the minimum age of 40 when candidates were registered. She recalled the days when politically active Afghan women were relegated to chanting slogans from behind privacy screens. “A woman for vice president? Eleven years ago, even dreaming about this was impossible,” Ms. Koofi said.
On the campaign trail, all of the eight presidential candidates still in the race have at least paid some lip service to supporting causes important to women — even Abdul Rab Rassoul Sayyaf, an extremely traditionalist Pashtun candidate and warlord who as a member of Parliament was a bitter opponent of a law intended to criminalize violence against women.
For his part, Mr. Sayyaf said he would “reconsider his past actions in view of respect for women’s rights.”
Most of the candidates have appeared at women’s groups to answer questions, and participated in debates on women’s issues. “This time from the beginning all of them have been talking about women’s rights,” said Hasina Safi, head of the Afghanistan Women’s Network, a coalition of women’s groups. “They have really figured out that women count.”
Partly that is because women have become particularly well-organized in recent years, nurtured by generous international funding for their organizations and causes, and requirements by donors that projects should be gender sensitive, with such measures as equal opportunity units, gender equality training and guaranteed employment of a percentage of women.
That has helped improve their political clout, despite disappointing results in voter registration drives. The actual percentage of women registered to vote has not changed appreciably, about 35 percent of the total, since previous elections. But tougher controls on voting will make illegal proxy voting — where men especially in conservative areas cast the votes allotted to the adult women in their households — harder to get away with.
And with years of set-asides for women running for Parliament and provincial council seats, women have become accustomed to some share of the power. Provincial councils are also being contested in the vote on Saturday, with 20 percent of the seats set aside for women.
About 300 women are running for such seats nationwide, which the Independent Election Commission says is the highest number ever. Even in conservative Kandahar Province, a tenth of the candidates are women.
“Today, you can now say that a woman’s vote is going for a woman,” Ms. Sarobi told a crowd of more than 1,000 women in Kabul on Monday.
Many women are quick to caution that they still have a long way to go. “Where are their first ladies?” said Zahra Mosawi, a rights advocate. “We have only seen one of the presidential candidates’ wives so far.”
She was talking about Ashraf Ghani, one of the front-runners, who had his wife, Rula, join him to make a campaign speech, another Afghan campaign first. His running mate, the Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, also brought his wife, Zabaida, along to talk to a group of women at one campaign meeting.
One disappointment among women’s advocates has been Mr. Karzai’s refusal to allow his wife, Zeenat, to make public appearances. Although she is one of Afghanistan’s most famous women, so few Afghans have ever seen their country’s first lady that it is said she can go shopping without bodyguards.
Before her husband became president, Mrs. Karzai was a practicing gynecologist, and activists felt she would make a powerful role model for a generation of girls who were finally allowed full schooling in Afghanistan. Instead, she has remained in seclusion over the past decade, and some feel that has reinforced the traditional view of Afghan women as subservient, forbidden to go out without their husbands’ permission. When Mrs. Karzai registered to vote for the first time, in 2004, it was done in private.
“He promised so many times to bring his wife out and he never did,” said Mariam Nabizada, a Kabul political activist for Mr. Rassoul’s campaign and for Ms. Sarobi. Now that issue no longer looms so large, she said: “With a female running mate, it has encouraged more women than ever to participate.”
Still, Afghan women are suspicious about what is to come after Western officials turn away from Afghanistan, and about what agenda the country’s political power players are truly pursuing.
Particularly worrisome, to Ms. Mosawi and other women, has been the refrain from many of the presidential candidates of the need to make peace with the Taliban, whose government famously confined women to their homes and banned them from most work.
“They’re all talking about peace with the Taliban, which is a big danger for us,” she said. “We’re not hearing assurances about preserving all the achievements of women in these years.”
Many women are quick to note that little has changed outside of the cities; in rural Afghanistan, where most women live, women are still little more than the property of their brothers, fathers and husbands.
A victory for Ms. Sarobi and other candidates would certainly help, Ms. Wardak said, “If women do as well as they hope in this election, it will be a huge self-esteem boost.”
Afghanistan's also-ran who turned election into a three-way race
After losing badly in 2009, technocrat Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai learned lessons and gained an influential ally
Helmand's dusty towns, poppy fields and insurgent hideouts are a difficult place for government officials, so dangerous and marginal that during Afghanistan's last presidential election five years ago, not a single candidate bothered to visit.
So when Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai chose Lashkar Gah's fading stadium to launch his series of nationwide rallies this spring, it was an bold statement of ambition and intent in his search for votes from every corner of his diverse country. "I am coming to the most troubled province to demonstrate that Helmand has a different face. This is about the rebranding of Afghanistan," he said, after addressing a crowd of more than 2,000 people, surrounded by local politicians and tribal leaders.
But the rally was also a triumphant celebration of the former World Bank technocrat's unlikely journey from embarrassed also-ran in the 2009 election to one of three serious contenders to lead the country when President Hamid Karzai steps down this year.
Ghani's transformation has electrified an election campaign that many had expected to be a two-way race between a Karzai-backed candidate and the president's main rival from 2009, Abdullah Abdullah. Instead it is now a fierce, and wide open, competition.
"He has learned to be a politician," one campaign aide admitted, as Ghani met Helmand powerbrokers behind closed doors to barter for support.
Although he is from the Pashtun ethnic group that dominates south Afghanistan, Ghani's tribe has traditionally had more clout in the east. But in Lashkar Gah he attracted local leaders whose loyalties might once have been with rival Pashtun campaigns, including Haji Abdullah Khan, from nearby Kandahar.
The 37-year-old said he had backed Karzai in the past two elections, like most of his Achakzai tribe, but was considering switching allegiances and had driven over that morning to meet Ghani. "President Karzai didn't pass his test, development programmes never happened, there is no electricity. Even if he was running again we wouldn't vote for him," he said. "In [Ghani's] character we see peace and the development of Afghanistan."
When Ghani announced his first run in 2009, it was as a modernising moderate whom many westerners saw as a perfect candidate. A university chancellor and ex-finance minister, he was a public intellectual nominated for secretary general of the UN, untainted by corruption rumours that swirl round many powerful Afghans.
Bill Clinton's master strategist James Carville signed up to run his campaign for free, complete with theme tune that could be downloaded as a mobile ring-tone. But his team forgot to check his appeal to the voters. Most Afghans are still illiterate farmers, with a tradition of voting in ethnic blocks, and where civil-war-era warlords are as loved by their followers as they are hated by the people who suffered at their hands.
He won barely 3% of the ballots cast, and many assumed it was the end of his political career. Instead, it became a lesson in electioneering at home, after two decades living overseas and even taking US citizenship, though he renounced his American passport in 2009.
In 2011 he got a position as co-ordinator of the security handover from Nato to Afghan forces, which demanded travel to every province, talks with local military and political leaders, and the redistribution of shrinking resources. He denies campaigning on the job, but his trips involved rousing speeches to parade grounds packed with soldiers, and in-depth discussions about each area's challenges and strengths that made him seem very much like an aspiring politician. He started adding his tribal name, Ahmadzai, to "Ashraf Ghani", emphasising his roots in a province south of Kabul, and mostly ditched western suits for traditional loose trousers and shirt.
Still his campaign plans were widely dismissed in Kabul as a second quixotic bid for an office beyond his reach, until he revealed his main running mate would be Abdul Rashid Dostum. An Uzbek warlord who made his name during the civil war and then fighting the Taliban, he is a controversial but powerful figure who commands a large block of votes.
In a 2009 letter to the Times, after Dostum backed Karzai's campaign that year, Ghani denounced the commander as a "known killer". But now he has decided the support Dostum can muster among Uzbeks and Turkmen voters in the north, where he is revered by hundreds of thousands, is more important than his past. "Had General Dostum gone to another ticket, my winning would have become theoretical," Ghani said in the conservatory of his understated home in west Kabul, shortly before the Helmand gathering.
He has wrung a near apology for past crimes out of Dostum, who said in a message on Facebook: "We apologise to all who have suffered on both sides of the wars." Although low-key and somewhat reluctant, it is the closest any civil war commander has come to saying sorry, and Ghani presents it as proof of Dostum's commitment to his reformist plans. "It's a ticket that is going to win in order to bring out an agenda of transformation. Without putting together an electoral ticket that can win, all these ideas remain just that," he added.
The alliance shocked Kabul's political elite and cost Ghani voters among the educated urban professionals attracted by his clean past and pragmatic programme, but the losses seem to have been more than balanced – as Ghani anticipated – by the gains from Dostum supporters.
Afghanistan has had few opinion polls, but most published so far put him in the runoff or within reach of it. He insists, though, that political compromises he has made will not change how he rules, sticking to the campaign promise of "change and continuity". "Power is not an end, I have no need for power," he said. "But if I am going to fulfil my desire as an Afghan citizen, then I need to be able to shape policy directly, and that requires winning, and this is a winning ticket."
Afghanistan election candidates raise fears over widespread fraud
Concerns there will be a repeat of the cheating that marred the 2009 poll, when more than 1m votes were disqualified
There are still days to go and no one has cast a ballot yet. But leading candidates in Afghanistan's presidential election are warning that fraud will play a big role in the vote, raising fears of bitter antagonism following Saturday's crucial poll.
Abdullah Abdullah, one of the frontrunners in the race to replace Hamid Karzai as Afghan president, has reiterated his concerns about "industrial-scale fraud" in the vote. His rival, the former finance minister Ashraf Ghani, recently told the Guardian his team was trying to pre-empt the kind of fraud that riddled the 2009 voting, adding: "People will not be deprived of their right to good governance."
Large-scale cheating has marred every Afghan election since the Taliban's fall. Prospects of a repeat performance have loomed over the 5 April poll long before the candidates launched their campaigns.
Only a quarter of Afghans expect the vote to be clean, a recent survey by the Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan (Fefa) found. Election organisers, monitors and diplomats all agree that ballot-stuffing, vote buying, intimidation and impersonation are likely to be a problem again.
However, many fear that candidates are focusing on fraud in an unscrupulous attempt to set the ground for complaints if they lose, and risk discouraging voters and discrediting the entire election process along the way.
"Some of the candidates are issuing statements in their public rallies that my only rival is corruption. That means he thinks he has won already, and the election is days away," said Yusuf Nuristani, chairman of the Independent Election Commission.
"We hear on the news that if there is corruption people will rise up – it's scaring people with the threat of potential agitation.
"This mistrust is not going to help, instead they should tell their followers: 'Stay away from fraud and don't let others commit fraud, be vigilant, open your eyes, come out in large numbers for voting.'"
Afghanistan's election is a watershed moment – the third since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, but the first to herald the country's peaceful democratic transfer of power. Huge questions remain over just how peaceful it will be following a volley of Taliban attacks on soft targets in Kabul.
In the five years since 2009, when more than 1m votes were disqualified, a raft of measures have been introduced to make cheating harder. The result, many hope, will be an election tainted but not entirely discredited by cheating.
"Most of the candidates have confided that they don't expect an absolutely fraud-free election, what they want to know is that the results reflect the will of the people," said Nicholas Haysom, deputy head of the UN in Afghanistan. "So the question will focus on how extensive is that fraud, whether it impacts the result and is it capable of being excised. That is what we need to reassure them, but we want to have an election that is manifestly better than the last election, which means less fraud."
One powerbroker interviewed by the Guardianadmitted he had stockpiled voter registration cards needed to cast a ballot; another promised to bring his district to the polls in return for tens of thousands of dollars.
Elections chief Nuristani has reported one candidate for abusing government resources on the campaign trail and fined another for the same thing. Yet neither these problems nor a campaign of Taliban violence have diminished enthusiasm, with would-be voters queuing for hours in the freezing pre-dawn dark to secure the voter registration cards they need to cast a ballot.
The same poll that found most Afghans expect fraud also found that four in five plan to vote anyway, said Fefa chairman Ahmad Nader Nadery, because after more than three decades of fighting they prefer a flawed election to the alternatives. "They have seen that those who were fighting with each other are now trying to participate in the elections and not use their guns," he said.
"They do understand there is a level of fraud, but they are very much of the view that if the election is not there, the same brutality and violence to fight for power will return."
He said the organisation was "cautiously impressed" by efforts to rein in the rampant ballot-box stuffing that was the most serious problem in 2009 – when incumbent Hamid Karzai lost about a third of his votes to fraud reviews – and is also seen as the biggest threat this year.
There is a strict barcode-labelling system tracing the ballots from the individual polling station, each of which only get 600 voting papers.
If the station is closed by violence but someone tries to use the votes elsewhere, as happened five years ago, they can be identified and discarded.
Votes will be tallied on site and copies of the results sheet posted outside the ballot station, in the ballot box and sent to Kabul. Vote-counting will be done twice by two separate teams; where results differ they will be rechecked.
More than 22,000 monitors from the different campaign teams have registered to watch the voting at more than 6,000 polling centres around the country, as well as more than 1,500 independent observers. Both numbers are expected to rise rapidly before voting day.
All three men believed to have a serious chance of becoming Afghanistan's next president mistrust each other, although the greatest public suspicion has fallen on the campaign of Zalmai Rassoul, whose campaign was the one reported to Karzai for abuse of government resources.
A former foreign minister who is believed to have the president's private backing, he planned retirement on the golf course just a year ago, so has a network far smaller than the other two frontrunners, and has lagged noticeably behind in the few opinion polls published during the race.
But diplomats frustrated by the pre-emptive fraud accusations being batted around say the claims are damaging but also unnecessary, because reforms mean that anyone trying to cheat on a large scale will be caught.
"I don't think it's a particularly helpful line of argument to set the assumption that [fraud] is going to happen," said US ambassador James Cunningham.
"If there is any significant fraud, we will have – and the Afghans will have – sufficient transparency that we will know, which is another reason not to engage in it."
Afghanistan: Hamid Karzai is giving up his power – but not his influence
Outgoing president will take up residence near the palace, suggesting that he will continue to play a role in Afghan politics
A stone's throw from the palace where President Hamid Karzai has spent 13 years, a newly renovated home awaits him and his family. Karzai is due to step down after Saturday's presidential election. Under the constitution he cannot stand again, so the vote is setting the stage for Afghanistan's first ever peaceful, democratic transfer of power.
Simply by leaving his job voluntarily, something no other leader of the country has done, Karzai will be creating an important legacy for himself, diplomats and senior Afghan officials say. "The more important part of Karzai's legacy will be the successful achievement of a political transfer of authority to a new president," said the US ambassador to Afghanistan, James Cunningham, adding that it will be both an achievement and indicator of the country's future.
But Karzai's new home is a reminder that after 13 years at the helm, his influence is unlikely to end when he leaves office. The 56-year-old insists that after he hands over the reins, he wants a break. He has had barely a day away from his job since he came to power, and little time to spend with his wife and three young children. "If God gives me a life to go around, visit the country and enjoy myself and go to cafes, visit London during Christmas, and see the lights, visit places, work on Afghan education and be with the Afghan people," he said recently.
But few people expect a man who has so skilfully juggled competing factions, and outmanoeuvred his foreign financial and military backers, to slip into a simple retirement with his family.
Karzai will be relatively young for a former leader, and admits he would like a political role if his successor permits it. His new home would allow him to reach the seat of power in minutes; its garden backs on to the palace grounds.
"The president will be a happy citizen of the country, and if asked by the next president to advise him on issues, he will be happy to advise," said spokesman Aimal Faizi, who added that Karzai had turned down tempting job offers overseas. "He will be in the country and in the service of the people."
The three frontrunners for the top job, all of whom served as ministers under Karzai, have at least civil relationships with him and are unlikely to exile him completely. While his lingering power may be a threat, he could also be extremely useful to the new ruler as a powerful orator and master of alliances adept at balancing the country's ethnic and regional needs.
Karzai is believed to favour Zalmai Rassoul, a former foreign minister who emerged from relative obscurity to run for the top office and has the backing of Karzai's brothers Qayum and Mahmoud. Rassoul denies Karzai would be the power behind the throne, but said if he won, he would try to tempt his predecessor back into public life. "He will play a role, he's a young man who has played a key role in Afghan history and still has a lot of support," Rassoul said in an interview on his campaign plane. "It depends on him, and when I talk to him about it he says he wants some rest."
To Protect Foreigners, Afghanistan Shuts Down Their Hangouts
KABUL, Afghanistan — The Afghan government, battered by a series of pre-election attacks aimed at foreigners in Kabul, the capital, has come up with a novel way of protecting them: Close their hangouts.
Afghan uniformed police and plainclothes agents circulated through central Kabul neighborhoods on Tuesday and ordered at least 11 restaurants and several guesthouses closed until after the presidential election on Saturday.
The Gandamack Lodge, a guesthouse and restaurant popular with journalists, was among the most prominent closings. Officials of the National Directorate of Security, the Afghan intelligence agency, arrived Tuesday morning and told the manager, Nasrullah Nazari, to close the premises and tell his guests to leave.
Among those evicted was Renee Montagne of NPR, who has always stayed at the Gandamack when here. “I just said, ‘Well, welcome to Afghanistan,’ ” she said.
Mr. Nazari said, “They said it was an order from the president,” adding that he was shown a list of about a dozen other guesthouses and restaurants to be closed.
One expatriate, who did not want to be quoted by name, said, “They just don’t want another dead foreigner.”
Other restaurants said they had been visited by members of the intelligence agency or the Afghan police and told that their security was deemed inadequate and that they would not be allowed to open to the public until after the election. Some were also told of intelligence suggesting a coming attack on foreign guesthouses.
Afghan officials seemed to struggle to get their stories straight about the closings, perhaps sensitive to suggestions they had been unable to protect establishments catering to foreigners, in what had been a busy social scene until recent attacks.
One of the spokesmen for President Hamid Karzai, Fayeq Wahedi, declined to say whether the president had ordered the measures. “I do not want to comment on this issue, and whatever officials of the M.O.I. and N.D.S. say about this issue is our formal stance,” he said, referring to the Interior Ministry and the intelligence agency.
Sediq Seddiqi, the spokesman for the Interior Ministry, which is in charge of the police, flatly denied there had been any such closings, and he said the authorities had merely offered advice to restaurants and guesthouses on improving their security.
“We have not closed any restaurants or guesthouses,” Mr. Seddiqi said. “Any claim by the owners that we have made them close their restaurants is a baseless accusation.”
An intelligence agency official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity as a matter of official policy, confirmed that an unspecified number of guesthouses had been ordered closed. “It is done for their safety, and after our assessments of them, we decided to request a shutdown for some of these guesthouses which did not have good security and enough guards,” he said.
Since January, there has been a series of attacks targeting foreigners and places they frequent. In January, a suicide attack on the restaurant Taverna du Liban killed 21 people, 13 of them foreigners. In March, not far from the restaurant, a Swedish journalist was shot execution-style; nine people were killed by gunmen who sneaked into the luxury Serena Hotel; and, in what could have been a blood bath of about two dozen Americans and their children, an attack apparently aimed at a Christian-run day care center in Kabul narrowly missed.
“The Afghan government is not capable of providing security to expats,” said Peter Jouvenal, the Gandamack’s British founder and owner. “They had no concern as to where our guests would go — they insisted we throw them out on the streets. They were not interested in the safety of our foreign guests.”
Managers or workers at 11 central Kabul restaurants confirmed that the police had ordered them to close. L’Atmosphere, a restaurant and nightclub popular with foreigners and famous for its decibel level, had closed on its own in anticipation of such an order after the Serena Hotel was attacked.
“After the Serena attack, N.D.S. and Afghan police came to our restaurant and told us to close down until after the election,” said Parwiz Sharifi, manager of the Sufi Restaurant, which served Afghan food and was popular with both Afghans and foreigners. “They told us that we should stop serving people, especially foreigners, because of security threats to their lives.”
Like Mr. Sharifi, Mr. Nazari of the Gandamack said he believed the security was adequate, although the authorities apparently disagreed.
Some journalists evicted from the Gandamack moved to the Serena Hotel — one of few places other than the Gandamack that Western security advisers had previously viewed as safe. “I just find it ironic,” said Ms. Montagne, who noted that the Gandamack had never been attacked, unlike the Serena, and that during her week there the staff members had briefed guests on how to find the armored safe room and what to do in the event of an attack.
Even before the ordered closings, many restaurants in Kabul were having a difficult time because of security precautions and curfews imposed by many organizations employing foreigners here. Even on Thursday nights, the eve of the Afghan weekend, many establishments lately had only one or two customers.
“I am not sure when we will be able to reopen the restaurant,” Mr. Sharifi said. “But I think it will be difficult for us to attract customers anytime soon.”
Habib Zahori contributed reporting.
Afghan Illiteracy Can't Be Solved by Simply Slapping Up More Schools
The Afghan mother looked her Canadian visitor in the eye. "You can move around, come here and see us," she said. "I am also a human, why shouldn't I be able to do these things? When I see an educated woman like you, I think: I want to be that too."
Around the room, other women nodded. For months they'd come to that small house in Bagrami, Afghanistan, to learn to finally read. That day they shared their scholarly successes -- unthinkable accomplishments when the Taliban ruled their land. As the Canadian visitor, Lauryn Oates, listened to dreams realized through education, she thought of a UNICEF survey she'd helped conduct a few years earlier. One thousand Afghan women, aged 15 to 24, were asked to read a sentence aloud. Although they all had a primary school education, an astonishing 71 per cent could not the read simple words.
On Tuesday, March 18, the last Canadian troops returned home from that country -- 12 years after they first arrived. In that time, with the support of nations like Canada, Afghan women have achieved some remarkable successes, including dramatically reduced infant mortality rates and increased presence in political life. Yet, despite the triumphs shared between those four walls in Bagrami, educating the illiterate, especially girls, remains a huge challenge in Afghanistan.
Since 2006, Canada alone has pumped more than $180 million into education in Afghanistan, according to the Canadian Foreign Affairs project browser. Thousands of schools have been rebuilt or rehabilitated by western nations. Afghan government statistics show more than two million girls are reportedly now enrolled in school -- up from just 5000 in 2001.
So why is it that, despite this decade of massive investment, the literacy rate for women is still only 22 per cent according to UNICEF?
It's the same problem we've seen so many other places: failing to realize that building a school is not the same thing as providing an education.
As Program Director of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan -- a Canadian volunteer organization supporting education and rights for Afghan women -- Oates has spent more than a decade working with Afghan women. She said it's impossible to overstate the improvement in the lives of women there.
The maternal mortality rate has fallen to 460 mothers' deaths per 100,000 births in 2013 from 2,200 mothers' deaths in 2001.
When the first post-Taliban Afghan Parliament opened in 2005 with 68 women legislators, male parliamentarians were "up in arms." They refused to work with women in their midst. "That's completely changed now," Oates said.
"Unlike before, now you see women everywhere: on billboards, on TV, in parliament," said Oates.
There is one key to securing these gains, and improving on them: education. The success of a family -- their health, education and income -- can be predicted by the education level of mother.
However, Oates told us that, in a rush to show results, donor nations like Canada chose quantity over quality. Through private contractors and the Provincial Reconstruction Teams, western governments erected as many school buildings as quickly as they could. They failed to plan where the teachers or school supplies would come from, or how schools would be maintained.
A UNESCO report in 2011 found that, of 5,000 schools built or rehabilitated since 2003, 50 per cent were unusable.
"I've seen schools built five years ago that look like they were built fifty years ago, with mould on the walls and broken light fixtures hanging from the ceilings," Oates said.
In some cases, the schools were built too far from communities, making them inaccessible for Afghan girls whose only means of transportation is on foot.
A 2011 report on girls' education by CARE, Oxfam and Afghan non-governmental organizations found a serious teacher shortfall--especially women teachers. Oates told us the teacher training schools are turning out unqualified teachers. "No one knows what's going on in the teachers' colleges," said Oates.
Canada still funds a number of Afghan education initiatives, but most are set to expire within the next two years. We must make a long-term commitment to funding Afghan girls' education. Canada must also ensure that investment is used wisely.
Are we just slapping up more schools, or are we creating sustainable institutions with the supplies, qualified teachers, and community support they need to survive? The U.S. government development agency USAID and other organizations have in the past few years raised the alarm about corruption in the Afghan Ministry of Education. We need a strong monitoring system to ensure our investments in schools and teacher colleges deliver results.
Like people everywhere, the women of Afghanistan have dreams. The key to realizing them is education. As long as those dreams remain unfulfilled, our duty in Afghanistan remains equally unfulfilled.
Craig and Marc Kielburger are co-founders of international charity and educational partner, Free The Children. Its youth empowerment event, We Day, is in 11 cities across North America this year, inspiring more than 160,000 attendees from over 4,000 schools.
Alliances realign as latest superpower pulls out of Afghanistan
The presidential election and US withdrawal are lilkely to have complex repercussions for the region's web of invisible networks
Afghan watchers in the chancelleries of a dozen different states in south and west Asia know they are in for a long, tough weekend. Alongside them are spies, soldiers and business people, all keen for clues as to how the result of the presidential elections will affect the vast web of invisible regional networks that run through Kabul and across a vast swath of south and west Asia, from the Levant to the Himalayas.
"Everybody always says each year is key in Afghanistan. But we are now in a period when everything is very much up in the air. A lot of people have an awful lot at stake," said one western official based in the region. The key local players are Pakistan and Iran, with India, China, the Gulf states, the "-stans" of central Asia, and Russia playing lesser roles. Then there are informal "non-state" actors, extremist groups such as al-Qaida, Lashkar-e-Toiba or the Pakistan Taliban, as well as criminal trafficking gangs who have a strong interest in what happens in Afghanistan.
All protagonists are very conscious of the last time a superpower pulled out of Afghanistan after a decade or more of conflict. Following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, India, Pakistan and Iran fought a bitter proxy war, each funding and arming local factions fighting for power in Kabul. The conflict had ethnic, religious and linguistic elements. Shia Iran backed Shia and other minority groups who spoke Dari, which is closely related to Persian. The Sunni Taliban, composed of Pashto speakers from Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, received support from Pakistan, the Gulf and informal regional networks of Islamic extremists. Many of those allegiances, decades or even centuries old, lie beneath positions taken today.
Publicly, Afghanistan's immediate neighbours all now insist they want to avoid the anarchy of the early 1990s. Pakistan's official position is that it "remains committed to supporting all efforts for a free and fair electoral process in Afghanistan … as it would strengthen the prospects of stability". This is challenged by Afghan officials, and some in Washington, who blame the tenacity of the insurgency, the failure of negotiations with the Taliban and a series of bloody attacks on their neighbours. There are fears that a win for Abdullah Abdullah, a candidate who played a key role in a faction sponsored by India in the 1990s, could prompt Pakistan to ramp up "interference".
But Mushahid Hussain, a Pakistani senator and government loyalist, said this would not happen. "Our main interest is in the process not the person. All of the candidates are part of the same system that spawned Mr Karzai post-9/11. It is not like they are coming from a different planet. We know them, we have dealt with them," Hussain said.
Officials in India are watching Pakistan's moves closely. Delhi has spent billions in Afghanistan since 2001 to build goodwill and has steered away from any security assistance that could provoke Islamabad. Salman Kurshid, the foreign minister, recently flew to Kandahar to open one project - an agricultural university set up in a former collective farm built by the Soviets and later used as a base by Osama bin Laden. Others involve power lines to central Asia, a road to Iran which would break Afghanistan's dependence on Pakistani ports, and a new parliament building.
Indian intelligence services have nonetheless made a significant effort to build up networks of contacts in strategic areas such as the south and south-west, one informed expert said. "Maybe someone would like to come to Delhi for medical treatment, or send a relative to an Indian university. That can be arranged. It's just about making friends," he explained.
Then there is Tehran, for long deeply involved in its neighbour Afghanistan, if only because of a perceived need to counter efforts of its own great rival, Saudi Arabia, as well as Pakistan, to build influence there. Senior Iranian officials have recently visited India, with which Tehran has a warm relationship, rooted in Delhi's need for cheap oil and mutual antipathy towards Pakistan and Kabul.
Mohammed Javad Zarif, Iranian foreign minister, said in Delhi last month: "The occupation [of Afghanistan] by foreign forces is inherently destabilising but if the vacuum is filled by the Taliban all of us will lose." Iran's cultural influence in the west of Afghanistan, supported by an aid effort, is immense.
Moscow, an active backer of anti-Taliban factions in the 1990s, has been less involved recently but China is increasingly prominent. Five years ago it was Afghanistan's resources that interested Beijing. Now, it is also the security threat posed by radical Islamic groups and separatists from the Muslim southwest of China, of whom a handful have made their way to Afghanistan to train.
Chaos in Afghanistan would help narcotics smugglers but a total breakdown in law and order might make opium cultivation and processing more difficult, say analysts. The nightmare scenario of post-election, post-US pull out political collapse would be an unequivocal boost for militant groups basedalong the Afghan-Pakistani frontier, easing movement across the already porous border and then on to elsewhere in the region. Violence in Pakistan, and possibly in the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir, would surge. There have been recent reports of militants who have fought and trained in Afghanistan in Syria and in Nepal, deserts and mountains more than 3,000 miles apart.