On a balmy morning in war-ravaged Kabul, a group of blue-veiled women wait quietly outside a mud-brick bakery where they work. A Toyota pick-up pulls up and a woman in an overcoat and scarf steps out gingerly and walks towards the building. The women whisper in hushed tones, flock together and clap quietly as Masooda Jalal makes her way up to a foyer, from where she will speak to them.
Afghanistan's first election campaign is under way and Masooda, the only woman among the 18 presidential candidates in the fray, is first off the mark. What she lacks by way of a power base, the 41-year-old paediatrician makes up with pluck. Using medical metaphors, Masooda promises to "put an ointment to heal the wounds" of Afghanistan if she wins the election. "Our people are tired of strife and war. They want to get rid of the warlords. They want a civil democratic government," she says.
Masooda is quite right. Though democracy is alien to over 10 million war-weary voters who are eligible to cast their ballots in the country's 34 provinces on October 9, there's a yearning for a participative, elected government which gives them security, jobs and homes. From an itinerant photographer in downtown Kabul to a grizzled highway security guard in the craggy mountains on the road to Jalalabad to a harried returnee in a fetid refugee camp to a feisty young girl in Kandahar who has fudged her age only to be able to cast her vote, most people are very enthusiastic about the polls.
"Enough blood has been spilled. Either we have fought among ourselves, or foreigners have fought proxy wars and destroyed us. The elections should bring in peace and prosperity," says Abdul Qader, 25, a soldier with the fledgling national army.
It's an uphill task all right. A quarter of a century of war has left Afghanistan devastated, impoverished and with some grim statistics. Some 3,00,000 people lost their lives in the fighting; over half-a-million children have lost a parent. Over 70 per cent of the people are malnourished. One in five Afghan children will die before their fifth birthday. An Afghan woman is not expected to live beyond 42 years.
Three years after the US-led invasion freed the country from the clutches of the Taliban, security is perilous, poppy production is rampant, and most Afghans outside the ersatz world of posh donor-money-driven, high-walled enclaves of Kabul with boutique hotels, $100-a-day guesthouses, pizzerias and bars live in abject poverty. There has been a spike in violence over the last year—more than 1,000 people have died—and in the run-up to October 9, a dozen poll workers have been killed, thanks to a rag-tag resurgent Taliban and groups opposed to elections. The United Nations suspects that the country's mercurial warlords will intimidate voters in remote provinces on voting day.
Behind the tired smiles, Afghanistan is on the edge and struggling to exorcise its old ghosts. There are 26,000 international troops—including 18,000 American soldiers—and 14,000 soldiers of the Afghan army, but nobody feels secure enough. Even Kabul has seen a major bomb explosion and intermittent rocket attacks recently. There are 'no weapons' stickers stuck on almost every building. At the Afghan army training centre on the Kabul-Jalalabad Road, the commander of training, Ghulam Sakhi Asifi, tells my translator half in jest as I whip out my camera to take his picture, "Hope I am not going to meet Masood's fate." He is alluding to the assassination of the charismatic Northern Alliance leader—a group of Arabs posing as journalists blew up a video camera in his face three years ago. Afghanistan easily remains one of the most heavily armed countries in the world: in a government office, employees check out a new Chinese pistol gleefully, and pick-ups carrying heavily-armed men zip through the maddening maelstrom of Kabul traffic.
Though Hamid Karzai, the country's dapper 46-year-old US-backed president from the majority Pashtun community, is still the frontrunner to win, analysts say he has been singularly unsuccessful in taking on the warlords and disarming factional militias which remain the key impediment to a united, cohesive Afghanistan under a central rule. (There are some 50,000 armed warlord-sponsored militiamen who still prowl the country, according to one estimate.) When Karzai took out Ismail Khan, the legendary "emir" of the western province of Herat recently, riots erupted, aid centres were looted and panicky UN employees pulled out. It will not be easy to introduce democracy in the tangled skein of the fiercely ethnic and intensely tribal politics of Afghanistan.
But all this is possibly not deterring the candidates and the people in taking the plunge into Afghanistan's imperfect experiment with democracy. When Masooda broke the news of her decision to contest the polls to her family, they resisted fiercely. "My husband said he did not want to lose the mother of his children. My parents said the family's reputation would be tainted if I lost," says Masooda, sitting in her modest election office in a shrapnel-pocked Soviet-era housing block in Kabul. "But I had made up my mind."
Far away in the mountains near Jalalabad, 43-year-old highway securityman Ghulam Nabi says he is determined to vote despite losing his policeman brother to militants' bullets recently. His brother was accompanying a team of poll officials to register voters in Mazhar-e-Sharif. "I will vote because I don't want any more brothers killed. I will vote because I don't want my people to be hungry and homeless any more," says Nabi, sitting in his crumbling bunker where the wind chills him to the bone during the bitter winters. On the wall is a poster of a smiling Hamid Karzai. "He's my man to lead my country out of chaos," says Nabi.
But it may not be a cakewalk for Karzai. There's Yunus Qanooni, the president's former education minister and the key candidate of the powerful Northern Alliance militia who battled the Taliban and assisted the Americans in their war on Afghanistan. The 47-year-old Qanooni is a Tajik—the country's second-largest ethnic group—and has substantial support in the north. There's also Abdul Rashid Dostum, the controversial 50-year-old Uzbek warlord whose chameleon-like abilities of changing sides and a reputation for ruthlessness are legendary. But the thirst for democracy is rising in this parched land.
Twenty-nine-year-old university student Gauhar did a survey for her university project in Kabul recently and found that the "beggars and the dispossessed were more interested in the elections than the well-to-do". That does not deter Ajmal Jalal Zai, 26, a journalism student. "These elections are a watershed. It's all about our freedom of expression. It's all about my future as a journalist." When you consider the fact that there are some 280 publications—mostly struggling news sheets—in Kabul alone, you realise the quest for democracy is for real in a country trying to forget its grim past and praying for a rosier future. The coming month will be decisive.
(The writer is deputy editor, BBC News Online, India; www.bbcnews.com/southasia.)