Archive for August, 2009

Afghanistan’s Economy Blooms

Thursday, August 27th, 2009

Afghanistan’s Economy Blooms


Except for the clothes, Amiri Park could be any park in the United States: kids jostling for positions on swings and seesaws or chasing each other over the grass and gravel paths. One boy makes long arcs with his inline skates; teenage girls parade new clothes. Families picnic on the grass, and others dine al fresco at a Turkish restaurant. The air is fresh and cool, while in the city, it’s dusty and hot.

This is Mazar-i-Sharif, the capital of Balkh Province in northern Afghanistan. Mazar is an eight-hour drive from Kabul and a different cultural region, dominated by Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turkmen and Hazaras. Amiri Park occupies one-sixth of a “new town” of 648 acres planned to accommodate 30,000 people. It’s an Afghan version of a gated community, though anyone well off enough to own a car or hire a taxi to get here can use the park without charge.

Its creator, Khaled Amiri, an unassuming man of 49, has never lived outside Afghanistan and speaks no foreign languages. But through private enterprise, he is showing Afghans a new way to live, which represents just about everything the U.S. would like to see in Afghanistan.


Elections Can Change Afghanistan – but Slowly

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

Elections Can Change Afghanistan–But Slowly
Ann Marlowe 08.19.09, 2:07 PM ET


It’s hard to parse an election in a country where even in their most private choices, like voting, individuals have internalized the norms of the group, the importance of going with the consensus. In elections this means that Afghans will try to figure out what everyone else is going to do, and then converge on this choice. Yes, the notion of an individual trying to figure out which candidate approximates his values and his vision for his country does exist. The problem is, “being popular with the rest of my family or tribe” is one of these values.

Does this mean that democracy in Afghanistan is a sham? It’s not as though Afghans have very much of it. Under the 2004 Constitution, they vote only for president and members of the lower house of parliament, and for members of provincial councils who have only advisory powers.

Karzai’s strongest opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, is running on a platform of extending direct elections to mayors and governors, who are currently appointed by the president. Many foreign experts on governance agree: Appointed officials try to please the person who appointed them, and have little accountability to the people they govern.

But Abdullah’s most articulate opponent, Ashraf Ghani, opposes this extension of elections on the grounds that Afghans aren’t ready for it. It will mean, Ghani says, that 30% to 40% of the governors will be corrupt power brokers, just as 30% to 40% of the parliament are now. (“So what,” one wag told me, “almost all of the governors are corrupt now.”)

The Afghans Have a Referendum on Democracy

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

Hamid Karzai’s main challenger has had enough of governance by patronage.


Kabul, Afghanistan

It was midnight this past Sunday when I left the house of Abdullah Abdullah, Hamid Karzai’s leading challenger for the presidency of Afghanistan. Twenty or so men were still waiting to see the candidate, some sitting cross-legged in the grassy courtyard.

When I arrived at 10:30 p.m., one dignitary after another filed into the meeting room: a finance executive, a counter-narcotics official, a former ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, and a female professor at Kabul University. Lesser notables spilled out into the courtyard of the concrete villa, some in Western garb, some in traditional dress. Earlier, the diplomat brother of the slain Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud came to pay his respects.

These Afghans don’t believe the line the foreign press is pushing—that Mr. Karzai has the election sewn up. With 10 days until the vote, they’ve come to offer help or cut deals, believing that they’re backing the winner.

Dr. Abdullah, 49 years old, is an ophthalmologist and a former foreign minister of Afghanistan who entered politics by organizing medical care for the Afghan resistance after the Soviet invasion in 1979. He’s running on a platform of overhauling the 2002 Afghan Constitution. He advocates a parliamentary system, political parties, and direct elections of mayors and provincial governors. (They’re currently appointed by the president.)

Dr. Abdullah has single-handedly turned this election into a much-needed referendum on governance. How much direct democracy is enough? When is a people “mature” enough to elect its leaders? Is legitimacy derived from an election, from performance, or from the power of the gun? These are questions that resonate in Afghanistan as much as they do for Americans considering the merits of democracy promotion overseas.