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Afghanistan's first ever direct presidential election with violence and deteriorating security in the country
Neal Conan: Talk of the Nation
National Public Radio (NPR)
08/05/2004

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

As Afghanistan prepares for its first presidential election, the country continues to suffer from violence and terrorism, from poverty and from political and ethnic divisions. After 25 years of almost constant war, much of Afghanistan's infrastructure lies in ruins and the central government's authority sometimes seems limited to the capital, Kabul. Yet, across the country, millions have turned out to register to vote in the looming election. Twenty candidates have emerged to challenge the apparent favorite, interim President Hamid Karzai who took office in 2002 with strong American support. Often overshadowed by events in Iraqf, Afghanistan is at a crucial crossroads. A successful election this October could help legitimize and stabilize the government. The consequences of failure are ominous.

Today on TALK OF THE NATION Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States joins us and we'll speak with journalist Peter Bergen. He's just back from three weeks in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And we welcome your questions about the upcoming election, security, the role of women, the power of warlords and the Taliban. If you've been to Afghanistan recently or served in the military there, we'd especially like to hear from you.

Our phone number is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

And let's begin with Peter Bergen who's with us here in Studio 3A. He's the author of "Holy War, Inc.: Inside The Secret World of Osama bin Laden."

Just back last night after your visit to Afghanistan. We appreciate you coming in today, Peter.

Mr. PETER BERGEN (New America Foundation; Author, "Holy War, Inc."): Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Everybody says the biggest problem in Afghanistan is security. How did you find the situation there?

Mr. BERGEN: Well, personally, I found the situation reasonably good. Obviously it's just my personal experience, but I drove by cab up from Kandahar to Kabul, local cab. The main commercial artery of the country, which has had problems in the past, that was fine. I also drove from Kabul to the eastern border with Pakistan. I found the security situation to be OK. Now while I was there, five people were killed by a bomb in Herat. A woman was killed in Kabul because somebody tried to attack a Western compound. I mean, there are things happening on a fairly constant basis, but I think that they are--not to be Pollyannish about this, but I think the total number of people killed by the sort of militant activity in the last year or so is about 600 people.

We're sitting here in Washington--the murder rate in Washington, which is a city of 500,000 people, 300 people were killed last year, approximately. So countries--Afghanistan is a country of 22, 25 million people. I think some perspective is needed. Certainly, there are problems, but I don't think this is going to threaten the incremental steps that Afghanistan is making towards stability.

CONAN: Yet we also, while you were in Afghanistan, Medecins Sans Frontieres, the Doctors Without Borders, a group which has been in Afghanistan for quite some time through some very difficult period, has said, 'Security's too bad, we can't operate, we're pulling out.'

Mr. BERGEN: Indeed. But I think that's a very specific thing. Obviously, 32 aid workers have been killed in the past year which is obviously not a good number, five of them from Medecins Sans Frontieres, but they think that the Afghan government is not investigating in an aggressive enough way the death of these five people, that's why they're pulling out. Overall, the security situation, if you're an aid worker, obviously you're not defended or if you're an election worker, it's problematic. I won't deny that. But I--having gone there thinking that, you know, Afghanistan was in really pretty bad shape, just judging by all the press reports, it's clear that the electoral registration is going incredibly well. We're looking at 60 percent registering in Kandahar, the former stronghold of the Taliban; 45 percent in Oruzgan, which is Mullah Omar's own province. Those figures are based on a 1980s census. Obviously, the population is larger now. But nonetheless, you're looking at a pretty successful electoral registration drive.

CONAN: What about the infrastructure, that cab ride? What was the road like?

Mr. BERGEN: Well, the road was, you know, I traveled down that road under the Taliban in December of '99. It was a spine-jarring, 17-hour journey, kind of a--now it's a seven-hour journey. I won't pretend it's the Autobahn, but it's very different. And that's important because these roads that go from Kandahar to Kabul and also Kabul to the Pakistani border, this is the lifeblood of the Afghan economy this kind of transport. So that is going, you know--obviously, that is better.

CONAN: We hear a lot about the bustle and construction under way in Kabul. What do we know about the rest of the country?

Mr. BERGEN: Well, in Kandahar, obviously, things are very different than they were under the Taliban. I was there under the Taliban. You're also seeing a lot of construction. Kabul is now one of the world's fastest-growing cities. I think a statistic that sort of speaks for itself is that since the fall of the Taliban, something like three million Afghans have returned to their home country from either Pakistan or Iran. And they're voting with their feet, and if there was such a major security problem that life was untenable, this wouldn't be happening.

CONAN: What about the upcoming elections? What do Afghans tell you about their--you know, obviously they're registering to vote. Are they excited about this?

Mr. BERGEN: I think their registering to vote is a symptom of that excitement. Obviously it's difficult to vote. People are walking long distances and it's also potentially dangerous to register to vote. But I think there's some very good polling data, by the way, Neal, now. Hamid Karzai, the president, is getting substantial or even overwhelming support in every province of the country, including Kandahar. And we're also seeing 82 percent of Afghans saying that life is better now that it was two years ago.

So these kinds of polls--this is some pretty powerful evidence that Afghans are feeling better about their lives. There's so much more to be done, but the--I think there are grounds for optimism.

CONAN: Well, let's take a phone call, and then we'll introduce the ambassador. Our number, by the way, if you'd like to join us is (800) 989-8255. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org. Marty joins us on the line from Washington.

MARTY (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Marty.

MARTY: How are you?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

MARTY: Well, thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

MARTY: I just feel like perhaps being a little overoptimistic in terms of (unintelligible) in Kandahar.

CONAN: Have you been there?

MARTY: Pardon?

CONAN: Have you been there?

MARTY: Yeah. I was there in Kandahar province doing some documentary work for USAID on the day that the war began in Iraq, and I can tell you that then there was a 48-hour lockdown for all the ...(unintelligible) workers doing relief and reconstruction efforts. And I've spoken to a few colleagues of mine--you know, well, that was just over a year ago. I've spoken to a few colleagues since who've been on contracts and they've said that--I don't know, according to a lot of the people that I've spoken with, it seems like it's gotten a lot worse.

CONAN: Well, Peter, you were there recently.

Mr. BERGEN: Well, you know, mine is just one experience. You know, one thing that's interesting--and one of the US military officers I spoke to in Kandahar, saying, 'You know, we're going into areas of Zabul province which is above Oruzgan. It is a very remote area where people still think we're the Russians.' I mean, it's so...

MARTY: Yeah.

Mr. BERGEN: See, one thing that's happening is people are going into areas which are--they've never gone into before and obviously that comes with some threat from former Taliban or present Taliban units. But I've got to say, it didn't feel to me like the security situation was sort of desperate or even particularly bad. Maybe I'm just willfully positive about things, I don't know.

MARTY: Oh, I wouldn't say desperate. But I think, you know, just based on what I've heard, it's gotten a lot worse since then. I'll give you one example, the greatest concern that I felt in the six weeks that I was there was going out with a couple of fellows from the State Department to look for poppy fields. They were doing poppy eradication projects. And we actually had to hire a couple of arms guys to go with because--well, for obvious reasons. But I've since heard that you wouldn't even venture just outside Kandahar, outside the base now with or without, or particularly without, an arms guard or two. Would you...

Mr. BERGEN: Well, I mean, I ventured outside the base and I went by myself and I took a local cab. Obviously, it's one person's experience. But...

MARTY: Hmm.

CONAN: All right, Marty, thanks very much.

MARTY: Well, thanks. Good luck if you go back.

Mr. BERGEN: OK.

MARTY: Stay safe.

CONAN: With us here in Studio 3 is Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States. Said Tayeb Jawad, we appreciate your time today. Thanks very much for coming in.

Ambassador SAID TAYEB JAWAD (Afghanistan): You're welcome.

CONAN: The picture of the security situation that we've heard from Peter Bergen has been sounding improved. Is your country ready for democratic elections?

Amb. JAWAD: Certainly, the country is ready for democratic elections. Afghanistan have come a long way in short two years, in addition of the return of the refugees. Some other indicator shows that Afghanistan have made a significant achievement. We have experienced a 30 percent growth rate last year; continued at 20 percent this year. And five million kids are going back to school in Afghanistan.

Out of nine million people who were registered to vote, 41 percent are women, and some provinces in central Afghanistan, the percentage of women participating in the registration is 55 percent. The national average is 41 percent. We have introduced a new currency in the past two years, replacing a number of currencies that were in Afghanistan. We wanted a national currency. The process of building the national institutions is under way. Two years ago, we didn't have any--even a single National Army soldier. Today we have about 13,000 army--Afghan National Army soldiers in the process of building the Afghan national police as well under way. We have 20,000 strong force of national police force. The country...

CONAN: And that sounds very encouraging, yet we continually hear that the Afghan government's forces would be outmanned and outgunned by the forces of any number of the warlords who control parts of the country.

Amb. JAWAD: This is a process of building national institutions. Elements who are now considered as warlords were people who were part of the political process for quite some time in Afghanistan. They fought along the coalition forces against the Taliban and other elements. And some of them actually took the opportunity of being reintegrated into the political process. Others who are involved in drug trafficking and would like to continue to rule in Afghanistan by gun will be gradually pushed aside.

CONAN: The drug problem, again, we had mention of it earlier. I think there are some estimates from the UN that Afghanistan may be supplying as much as 75 percent of the opium in the world today. What's to be done about this? What does President Karzai and, for that matter, his American allies doing about this?

Amb. JAWAD: We see a clear connection between narcotics, terrorism and warlordism in Afghanistan. President Karzai is very much determined to move against narcotics and the drug problem in Afghanistan. We are asking the international community to mobilize all available resources in Afghanistan, being military or otherwise, in the fight against narcotics. We would like to see the fight against narcotics being a part of the fight against terrorism because the proceeds of the narcotics do actually feed into the terrorism.

Afghanistan has adopted a national strategy on fighting the narcotics and we are working on building the national institutions. The Afghan national police force that's being trained right now, will have a special unit to fight narcotics. But this is a very complicated problem internationally and in many other countries. We are fighting this war for many, many years. And it will take some time.

We have to give other opportunities for the farmers to get busy with. We have to provide for alternative livelihood. And continue with the process of the DDR, which is the demobilization, disarmament and reintegration of the militias into the civil life. As I mentioned, warlordism, drugs and terrorism feed each other in Afghanistan.

Mr. BERGEN: You know, Mr. Ambassador, one thing that I heard in Afghanistan was, you know--well, you've separated the elections, the presidential election is October and now the parliamentary election in April of next year. People were concerned that the parliamentary elections were actually going to be much more problematic than the presidential because at the end of the day this is all about local power and that is something that there are a lot of interests that are going to be on either side of that.

Amb. JAWAD: That's absolutely right. While it's difficult to intimidate people when they are electing our presidents because one person has one vote, it is much easier to prevent good candidates from running in the local elections. So the concern that the future parliament of Afghanistan may include elements who will be working against the democracy in Afghanistan and against building a civil society in Afghanistan is a legitimate concern. And that's why it's important that the government and President Karzai takes more bold step against warlords and against the elements who may actually derail the process of the progress in Afghanistan.

CONAN: Well, Peter Bergen, we have to let you go and continue to recover from your jet lag. We appreciate it. Peter Bergen just returned last night from three weeks in Afghanistan and returned last night from Pakistan. We appreciate your time today. Thanks very much.

Mr. BERGEN: Thank you.

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