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Last Updated: Monday, 24 November, 2003, 11:11 GMT
Many Afghans see bright future
By Crispin Thorold
BBC correspondent in Kabul

Afghans living in relatively safe areas are overwhelmingly optimistic about the future.

Afghan kids
A majority of Afghans in 'safer' areas are optimistic
This is the finding of a recent three-month-long survey carried out among 1,479 Afghans by a group of 12 Afghan and international non-governmental organisations working in the country.

However, large areas of the south and south-east Afghanistan were considered too dangerous to visit.

In Gardez and Kandahar, the least secure areas where people were questioned, locals had much less confidence in the political process and feared for their security.

'Very encouraging'

The survey canvassed opinion in eight locations across the country.

The respondents, both men and women, were asked about their physical security, political participation and the local economy.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has described the finding that 83% of people in safer areas of the country feel more secure, than they did three years ago, as "very encouraging".

However, Abdul Razique Samadi, the director of the Afghan Development Association, one of the groups that carried out the survey, warns against over-optimism.

"Even in the relatively safe areas, life is not easy. It's still not that secure," he says.

Afghans aspire to democracy, they believe in the possibility. People in the smallest of villages hold core democratic values
Leslie Wilson, Save the Children USA
"This is a comparison with their previous life. There is a lot more economic activity now, but people want more security."

The survey makes it clear that progress is being made in some places.

The vast majority of the Afghans questioned want political reforms, like a new constitution, to succeed.

A draft constitution is due to be debated next month by a loya jirga or tribal gathering.

Some 87% of the respondents surveyed plan to vote in the national elections scheduled for next June.

This is a chance that must be seized now, say the humanitarian organisations.

Doubts about peace

Leslie Wilson, deputy director of communication for Save the Children USA in Afghanistan, warns there is a "fear that the window of opportunity is closing".

"People need confidence that democratic change can mean real change."

In interviews Afghans repeatedly talked of their suspicion about many local leaders, often military commanders.

Kandahar militia
Kandahar is still insecure and peace is elusive
Few, even in the relatively secure areas, believe there will be stability in the long run if the men, who have terrorised communities for years, are integral to the political process.

The outlook is worse in Gardez and Kandahar where residents feel less secure than they did three years ago.

They were doubtful about the long-term prospects for peace.

The survey did not investigate directly the increasing alienation of the majority Pashtun community.

But analysts have been warning for months that many Pashtuns believe that other ethnic groups, especially the Tajiks, hold the real power in the central government.

Aid workers have long reported that in insecure provinces like Helmand in the south, locals feel that they have been "sidestepped by the centre".

In the south and east, there has been a resurgence of support for the Taleban.

There have been unconfirmed reports of whole districts falling to the former regime.

Our experiences in the least secure areas of the country is no-one will invest, warlords are fighting, and NGOs are being replaced by remnants of the Taleban
Abdul Razique Samadi, Afghan Development Association
One thing that is clear is that in many rural areas the central government is fast becoming irrelevant.

Free elections

It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that the survey found that in the heartland of the Taleban, Kandahar, 91% of the population believe the forthcoming elections will bring positive change, the highest in the country.

So, say the aid workers, great opportunities remain.

The south hasn't yet been "lost".

However, the message is clear to the central government and the international community.

The elections next year must be free, fair and inclusive.

the Afghan army is still seen as an unreliable force
The Afghan army is still seen as an unreliable force
The survey found that people across the country, in the words of Leslie Wilson from Save the Children USA, "aspire to democracy".

"People in the smallest of villages hold core democratic values."

But, as always in Afghanistan, all of this is dependent on the security situation being radically improved.

The group that produced the report called for an "urgent focus on increasing security, so that real progress can be made throughout the country".

This can be best achieved, the NGOs say, by disarming militias and strengthening an "accountable national police and army".

The police and the army should, critically, have "the will and capacity to enforce the law".

The urgency cannot be overstated.

As Abdul Razique Samadi, the director of the Afghan Development Association, warns: "Our experiences in the least secure areas of the country are clear, no-one will invest, warlords are fighting, and NGOs are being replaced by remnants of the Taleban."

Most in the country agree. Afghanistan is at a crossroad.

Political reforms may be continuing apace, but they are in danger of being rendered irrelevant by deteriorating security.

That "window of opportunity" must be seized before it is too late.

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