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Last Updated: Monday, 19 September 2005, 12:05 GMT 13:05 UK
Afghans glimpse a normal life
John Simpson
By John Simpson
BBC world affairs editor, Afghanistan

It was not perfect, certainly but then nothing has been here for a very long time.

Polling centre in Kabul
An Afghan policeman frisks a voter at the entrance of a polling centre in Kabul

And most of the Afghans you speak to, in the streets and teahouses of Kabul and out in the countryside, were delighted that the election went off as well as it did.

The newspapers here - dozens of them, as though all the pent-up, secret opinions of three decades have suddenly spilled out onto paper - are full of speculation why the turnout was so much lower than at the presidential election a year ago.

Some say that people were scared of suicide bombings at the polling-stations though the Taleban's inability to match their blood-curdling threats with action was clearly demonstrated at last year's poll.

Others say it is because so many of the names on the 5,800-long ballot paper belonged to criminals and warlords yet everyone knows that criminals and warlords are still around in force.

Maybe the reason was a lot simpler: that people were bewildered at having so many candidates, and that President Hamid Karzai should have done more to encourage the growth of political parties, to simplify things.

But even though this election was not quite the spectacular success last year's was, it was still a pretty impressive achievement.

Air of optimism

Compare what happened here with the election in Iraq at the end of January. That, too, was a remarkable act of courage on the part of ordinary voters.

Now people have real grounds for hope that the future will be better than their past

But the Sunni minority, angered by the triumphalism of the Shia majority and the actions of the US forces in Falluja and elsewhere, stayed away from the polls in such numbers that Iraqi politics have been seriously damaged ever since.

What happened here last weekend was much more successful. Now people have real grounds for hope that the future will be better than their past.

That would not be difficult. Afghanistan has not been fortunate over the years.

When the British ruled India, they preferred fighting the Afghans to sorting out the ethnic problems of the unresolved border area.

These colonial-era problems, which were essentially the fault of the British, still remain. Even now Osama bin Laden and the Taleban benefit from the lack of law enforcement in the tribal area between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Russia, after a century of pressure, invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and tried to impose Marxism-Leninism on the country at an enormous cost in blood. It was an exercise in naked aggression.

To counter the Soviet presence, the Reagan administration in the United States supported the most extreme Islamist opposition groups, with no thought of the likely consequences.

Afghan woman casts ballot
An Afghan woman casts her ballot at a polling station in Mazar-i-sharif

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of the most violently anti-Western of all the mujaheddin groups, received large amounts of American money and weaponry. Even the Taleban received US support.

Pakistan, whose intelligence service, the ISI, was often strongly Islamist, encouraged the Americans to aid the fundamentalists in Afghanistan at the expense of moderate, pro-Western groups like the one headed by Ahmad Shah Massoud. For years the Americans obliged.

During the 1980s it sometimes seemed as though they were determined to undermine Massoud, the one leader who really could deliver.

But Pakistan was fiercely opposed to him. Sometimes governments in Islamabad seemed to want to install a fundamentalist Islamic regime in Afghanistan. At other times, they merely encouraged instability there, in order to divert the attention of the Islamic fundamentalists inside Pakistan itself.

Long journey towards stability

And then in 1989, chiefly because of Massoud's resistance, the Russians pulled out. The US, Britain, and the other Western countries which had proclaimed their loud support for the freedom-loving people of Afghanistan, suddenly lost interest. It had not been about the Afghans after all - it had just been about humiliating the Russians.

Afghanistan is a nation of shopkeepers once again
John Simpson

Afghanistan was left to its own devices. The government in which Massoud played the main role collapsed under its own corruption, and the Taleban chased it out. They, with Pakistani support, proceeded to create the most extreme and wilfully backward regime on earth. And in the black hole which Afghanistan became, Osama bin Laden set up al-Qaeda: the Base.

The rest of the story is familiar. Two months after 11 September 2001 the Taleban were chased out of power and Western leaders like Tony Blair were promising never to ignore Afghanistan again.

The promise has pretty much been kept. German, French, Danish and other soldiers patrol the roads and keep the peace, with the backing of the British and Americans.

There was a time when the Taleban seemed to be finished. Then the relative success of the resistance movement in Iraq gave them new heart. But although they can cause trouble, they will not return to power.

Slowly, Afghanistan is getting back on its feet. Roads are being built to link the towns and cities and improve the jolting, dusty journeys of the past. Schools and clinics are opening. Something has been done about the menace of land-mines, though you still see men and women on crutches or in wheelchairs everywhere.

And there is something else you see: merchants, operating out of converted containers which are jammed into every available space along the roadside, selling anything from heaped-up fruit to pirated DVDs.

Afghanistan is a nation of shopkeepers once again. It is a good sign.


Your comments:

Amongst all the bad news coming from Iraq, it is nice to hear that Afghanistan is finally going towards the right path. Even though it is being said that the turnout was low, but this election was the first right step. Before this, the Taliban had truly ruined the Afghanistan. If stability is being kept, Afghanis will prove to the world that democracy can grow in Afghanistan. People don't want the Taliban, they were imposed on them. The future of the Taliban in Afghanistan is dead. These peaceful elections have given the Taliban their final death warrant, and they are never to come again.
Umar Tosheeb, USA

This story actually shocked me. Although this website is usually one sided against the West, I was impressed with this success story. The thing that disappointed me was that everything negative was shared in regards to the US past with the resistance of Russia, etc but nothing positive for ousting the Taliban for 5 years with our blood. As an American, what did we get from this land that I have never seen or its people, poppy seeds? When it comes to helping in Africa and everywhere else when there is a crisis, the US is frowned upon for not stepping in our giving enough money. Back to the one sided reporting.
Jay, Atlanta, US

"...nothing has been here for a very long time." And so are the elections. Well, Mr Simpson, unfortunately I see no reason to be so optimistic with the changes you mentioned so far confined only to cities. It is the same situation, and even worse, in the countryside like it was under the Taliban who still rule there. On other parts of your piece: "Massoud, the one leader who really could deliver...", I don't know why are you so impressed by his role. In the whole historic background of Afghanistan's long-way road from its independence war against Britain to today's democracy, you overstayed on Massoud's character on the recent developments of the country which led up to the weekend's polls. OK, a personal message of mine after compliments is that I would be lucky to meet you here in Kabul.
Borhan Younus, Kabul, Afghanistan




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