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By J.H. Freeman

Aug 20, 2009

Afghans celebrate 90 years of independence

WASHINGTON - In Afghanistan’s election on Thursday, thousands of voters defied the Taliban’s violent threats by exiting polling stations with ink-stained index fingers. On the night before, at the country’s embassy in Washington, hundreds of Afghan ex-pats defied the humidity to celebrate another historic milestone: 90 years of independence.

A country whose unwelcome guests have included Alexander the Great in the 4th century B.C., emerged from decades of direct British control on Aug. 19, 1919.

Citizens aren’t usually forced to divide their attention between a groundbreaking election and nine decades of self-determination. But we are talking about Afghanistan here.

“It’s one of the 90 in the past,” said Ambassador Said T. Jawad, 51, implying that while there have been many independence day celebrations in the last century, Thursday’s election will be only the second time in history that Afghans get to go to the polls and vote for a president.

Standing at the top of a small flight of stairs leading to the embassy’s second floor, Jawad shook hands and exchanged pleasantries with the fashionably attired arriving guests. He was diplomatically dressed in a black suit and pink tie, and went through the fluid ambassadorial motions which his six years at the post has surely assisted him in performing.

“I think that it’s a step looking toward the future,” said Jawad, apropos of the election.

“ Although our past is significant, the new Afghanistan is about where we are going,” Jawad said.

Even though Afghans in the U.S. weren’t permitted to cast absentee ballots, no one said they couldn’t air absentee opinions at the embassy. Most who attended the event were decidedly in the corner of the incumbent, President Hamid Karzai.

Though Karzai was favored in the election, he had to compete with his former colleagues who have shored up their own bases of their own. Namely, Abdullah Abdullah, his former foreign minister, and Ashraf Ghani, the former finance minister.

“I love Karzai,” said Fahima Zahir, 30, who works in contracts management for Accenture Inc., a U.S. government consulting firm.

“But I think it’s a good opportunity to let the people vote for who they want,” Zahir said.

Engineer Khalid Ahmad, 34, also backing Karzai, countered allegations of corruption with the response that good things come to those who wait.

“It’s a young state. I don’t think my expectations were very high, and if your expectations are set low, he’s done great in office.” Ahmad also expressed admiration for the other candidates, but believes they aren’t ready for the challenge

“They have great ideas but I don’t think they are statesmen. We haven’t seen them in that position so it will be a risky move.”

The second floor of the embassy gave out to a wide stone veranda. At dusk, guests trickled out onto it and lined up for beverages at a small tabletop bar. In keeping with the Islamic character of Afghanistan, bartenders brooked no booze, serving an assortment of sodas, juices and ice waters.

Waiting for a glass of water, Mohamad Zia Jahed, 72, said he really didn’t favor any of the candidates.
Jahed came to Washington with his family over 25 years ago, fleeing the Soviets. Now retired, he worked as a radio and TV journalist when he lived in Afghanistan.

Jahed wore a white turban and a matching white robe, and said he didn’t have much faith in the results of the democratic process.

“This election, I believe, cannot solve the problems in Afghanistan, because there are so many factors,” Jahed said.
When asked whom he wanted to win, he declared all of the candidates unfit for office.

“At the moment I don’t see anyone to support.”

The veranda led to a trim green lawn encircled with tikki torches, propped up and ablaze, menacing the mosquitoes. A group of older Afghan women with thick black hair, multicolored shawls draped on their shoulders, sat smoking and conversing on white folding chairs around one of the many tables.

A spread of Afghan food was served at the event, including Qaubuli Palau (yellow rice with raisins, carrots and lamb), Mantu (meat dumplings), Firnee (corn starch pudding), and Gosh Feel (a thin fried pastry). Musicians pummeled rhythms on the traditional Afghan hand drum called the Tabla.

Two young women scrunched together on one of the chairs inside said they were also in the Karzai club. Not wishing to be identified, one of them justified her reasons for supporting him.

“Cause he’s my Daddy!” she declaimed, before qualifying the statement.

“Not really, but I just like him a lot.”

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