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Afghanistan Prepares For First-Ever Presidential Election - 2004-09-02

The US government is urging its citizens in Afghanistan to keep a low profile after a bomb attack -- the deadliest in Kabul in more than two years -- shook the city. This violence is the latest challenge as Afghanistan prepares for its first ever-direct presidential election in October. VOA's Brent Hurd reviews the latest struggles of this landlocked nation of central Asia.

More than two years ago, schools in Afghanistan opened their doors to millions of boys and girls who had been denied education under the former Taleban rule. Today, those children are sending a message from the classroom, says Cheryl Benard, a political analyst at the research institute Rand Corporation.

“What happened time and time again, the children would follow me into the hallway, after I had left the classroom and give me notes written by hand, saying, please, don't let the Americans leave Afghanistan," says Ms Benard, a political analyst at the research institute Rand Corporation.

Ms Benard recently completed a three-week study of Afghanistan's reconstruction. She says despite the devastation that remains in the wake of more than two decades of war, the capital city is vibrant: “It is the feeling you get when you are in Manhattan -- the feeling of a lot of people energetically doing things. You see a lot of mini-commerce and mini-enterprise; for instance, you will see apartment buildings where every square inch has some sort of business in it. People are really on board with rebuilding and getting back to normal life.”

Cheryl Benard traveled freely around the country and her trip south took her along the newly constructed road connecting Kabul and Kandahar -- a 6 hour drive that used to take three days. It was in the south that many school children asked her to make sure the international community does not abandon them. This is where she says remnants of the Taleban are whispering in the ears of Afghans that the Americans will betray them.

“The Taleban have pushed a propaganda offensive that we are here forever and these Americans and foreigners will go away,” says Thomas Barfield, professor of anthropology at Boston University. He notes that the Taleban are playing on Afghan fears born out of history: “Unfortunately, the American history at the end of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was that we did leave. The Afghans have a keen sense of history and now we have to show that we are in for the long run.”

Remnants of the Taleban claimed responsibility for the recent attack in Kabul, and Mr. Barfield says they remain a terrorist threat. He describes another challenge: “One of the biggest difficulties that Afghanistan faces is that it has been left in the shadows of Iraq. Both the American interest and the international interest have really put Afghanistan on the back burner. Realizing that the estimated population in Afghanistan is similar to that of Iraq, but only about a tenth of the money per capita has been provided, we can really see that Afghanistan has been on the losing side of reconstruction.”

Mr. Barfield says that while there is still violence in Afghanistan -- over the last year more than one-thousand militants, soldiers, and civilians were killed -- the situation is far different from the fierce war in Iraq. He says in many ways, things are looking up in Afghanistan. More than 300-thousand Afghans have returned home from Pakistan this year and nearly 2.5 million since 2002. Meanwhile, many Afghans are preparing for the upcoming presidential election in October.

Here in Washington, hundreds recently gathered to celebrate Independence Day at the stately Afghan embassy. Afghan Ambassador to the United States, Said Jawad says: “The fact that more than 95% of the eligible voters have registered, and the fact that the Afghan people, despite security challenges, have gone a long way to make sure they have registered to vote, shows the determination of the people to participate in the political process in Afghanistan. Of course, there are terrorists and some elements of warlords who see the election and democracy as a threat. They will try their utmost to derail the situation, but so far they have not been successful.”

Many analysts say the upcoming vote is the latest round in the ongoing power struggle between interim president Hamid Karzai and regional strongmen known as warlords. Many of them hold significant posts in the central government and control much of the country.

But Professor Barfield points out that not all warlords are gun-totting enemies, as they are often portrayed in the West: “One of the difficulties that we have never sorted out is how to determine a warlord who represents a regional interest that is somewhat legitimate and one who represents simply an armed militia that has no popular support.”

With many Afghan citizens favoring President Karzai, Mr. Barfield says warlords feel threatened by an election that might give Mr. Karzai full legitimacy. He believes that an emerging central government should balance power with local leaders -- an approach neglected by previous governments. Perhaps most important of all, Professor Barfield says the international community must convince ordinary Afghans that the changes they have seen so far are indeed permanent.