Afghanistan’s generation nowhere

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The World

KABUL — They drink alcohol, play snooker and wouldn’t be caught dead in a turban. Most of them have cars, girlfriends and make 20 times the salary of a government employee. Yet Kabul’s relatively gilded youth, which has reaped the benefits of Afghanistan’s new order, is deeply disillusioned with the democratic process.

“Western-style democracy has not really worked here,” said Noor, a 25-year-old finance manager. “It has made things worse over the past seven years, and it contradicts what most Afghans want.”

Noor works for an international organization, where he commands a hefty $2,500 monthly paycheck. In the evenings, he studies business at the prestigious American University of Afghanistan (AUAF). He is late in completing his university degree because he was unable to attend classes during the Taliban years — he was too busy running a shop and trying to support his family.

“My life is better now,” he concedes. “But we expected more.”

When the U.S. authorities talk about the battle for hearts and minds in Afghanistan, they normally focus on the more remote provinces, where the insurgency is growing and the local population is virtually indistinguishable from the Taliban.

But, if Noor and his friends are any indication, that war also is being lost among those who would seem most likely to support the new regime — the young, well-educated men and women who staff the hundreds of new businesses, embassies and aid agencies in the capital.

Asad (not his real name), 26, is a doctor by training. In Afghanistan, only top-echelon students are accepted into medical school; but after completing the grueling seven-year course of study, they often find that the jobs available are not to their liking.

Of Asad’s graduating class of more than 300, he estimates that fewer than 40 percent are actually practicing medicine. The rest are eagerly sought after for high-profile positions in media, government and commerce.

“To be honest, I know that I am benefiting from the presence of the international community,” said Asad, a project manager for a British organization with a salary of almost $2,000 per month. “My physical life is better. I have good clothes, a car, I can travel abroad. But as for my inner life, I think it was better under the Taliban.”

For the 20-somethings, Afghanistan’s seven-year-old flirtation with democracy is just the latest in a long line of disastrous social experiments.

They were born when the Soviet Union was waging war against the mujaheddin and trying to erase the specter of radical Islamism on its southern border. They attended school during the brutal civil war, when rival warlords were tearing apart the Afghan capital and Kabulis began every morning with a desperate series of telephone calls, trying to ascertain who had been killed in overnight shelling.

Some, like Asad, began university under the Taliban, when their sisters and female classmates were forced to stay at home.

“It was just us boys,” said Aziz, another medical school graduate. “It was actually kind of fun.”

Other young people chafed under the dour restrictions imposed by the fundamentalists — no music, no movies, no contact with the opposite sex.

But for many, it was a period of calm.

“It was as if time had stopped,” recalled Asad. “There was nothing to do but read books and study.”

Time began again in a hurry once the Americans came and chased out the Taliban. Teenagers like Noor and Asad quickly mastered English and computers, the twin tickets to prosperity.

Now they have more material wealth than they would ever have thought possible under the Taliban. But it has left a somewhat sour taste in their mouths. While happy to pocket a fat pay packet, they reserve a vast pool of anger toward the international community that, in their view, has not lived up to its promises and persists in treating them as second-class citizens in their own country.

“All of my advantages come at the price of the blood of my countrymen,” Asad said. “I would give it all up — my salary, my car, everything I have — to get the foreign soldiers out of my country.”

Asad, like many hotheaded young Afghans, has a visceral reaction to what he calls the foreign “occupation.” He rails at reports of civilian casualties inflicted by international troops, and uses his exhaustive knowledge of English profanity and rude gestures whenever he meets a group of foreign soldiers on Kabul’s busy streets.

His attitude could easily get him into serious trouble in the tense atmosphere of the Afghan capital.

Noor and a classmate were on their way to their evening classes recently when they encountered a convoy of U.S. military vehicles approaching from a side road. Believing they had the right of way, Noor and his friend proceeded. The convoy cut them off quite sharply, and according the Noor, the soldier in the lead truck mouthed a string of obscenities, and threw a bottle filled with what looked like sand at their car. It dented the hood, but luckily did not shatter the windshield.

“My friend was so angry,” Noor said. “I think if he had had a Kalashnikov, he would have shot them. He told me that we should start a jihad against the foreign forces. I understand him — all Afghans feel this way.”

As Afghanistan heads into what many predict will be the most difficult year since the fall of the Taliban, the generation that should make up the country’s future leaders is sitting back and watching. With presidential elections looming in August, they are opting out in droves.

“The election process is completely fake,” said Abdul, another AUAF student. “The president will be whoever America decides.”

Abdul, in his mid-20s, is a marketing manager for an Afghan telecommunications company. He was enthusiastic about democracy when the first presidential elections were held in 2004, and, like more than 50 percent of his countrymen, he cast his ballot for Hamed Karzai.

“I voted last time, but this year I am not going to bother,” he said. “Why should we waste our time?”

His classmate, Farhad, does intend to vote. In fact, he is planning on voting twice.

“I have two registration cards,” he laughed. “I know that the outcome of the election is not in our hands, but still, I think everybody should vote.”

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