Return of the Taliban

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from The TIME Magazine,

These women want to vote the Taliban wants to stop them. What America leaves behind in Afghanistan.

It was March 20, and Seddiqi, a member of Afghanistan’s parliament, was looking forward to a quiet evening with his family. Seddiqi’s group went for the buffet dinner[at Serena, Kabul’s finest hotel] in the restaurant upstairs.

One of his friends picked up a vegetable from a plate, saying, “Is this a cucumber or a pickle?” Suddenly another friend yelled at the adjacent table, “Don’t shoot!” By the time the attack was over, nine of Seddiqi’s fellow guests had been shot dead by the four young men, who had slipped past the Serena’s layers of security with small guns in their shoes (and who were eventually themselves killed by hotel guards).

The Taliban claimed responsibility for the Serena attack, part of their bloody campaign to disrupt presidential and provincial elections that start April 5. The hotel was chosen for its high profile–it is a highly guarded haven for well-heeled Afghans and foreigners, including, that day, international election observers–and for its symbolic value. If the guests of a five-star fortress in the heart of the capital aren’t safe, who is?

March marked the first month in over a decade when no U.S. service personnel were killed in Afghanistan. But it was a deadly month for Afghans–and especially for the millions of residents of Kabul. After the bloodbath at the Serena, the Taliban launched three suicide attacks in the capital, two on offices of the Afghan election commission and the third on a house used by Roots of Peace, an American NGO that works on agricultural development.

For many in the capital, the uptick in violence is a foreshadowing of what is to come at the next landmark awaiting Afghanistan: the withdrawal, by the end of this year, of most of the approximately 53,000 troops in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF.

Under the constitution, outgoing President Hamid Karzai cannot run again; the front runners for his job are veteran politician Ashraf Ghani and former Foreign Ministers Abdullah Abdullah and Zalmai Rassoul. The Taliban are not especially interested in who wins: bullets and bombs, not ballots, are their ticket to power.

Afghanistan has been here before. In 1989, after the Soviet Union ended a decadelong occupation, the country went into a period of unstable and weak national governments that were unable to halt a civil war fought mostly along ethnic lines. Seven years later, the Taliban–an alliance of Islamic clerics, students and former fighters against Soviet occupation–rolled into Kabul.

While few believe that the Taliban have the muscle to seize Kabul, there’s little doubt the violence will persist, even escalate.

Afghanistan has changed since the Taliban were in power, and most Afghans are happy with the changes. As messy as their democracy is, it is popular. It’s 10:30 in the morning a week before the elections, and the voter-registration station at a girls’ school on Shah Shaheed Street in Kabul is packed.

Inside the school, on the other side of a gray cloth serving as a partition from the men, women surge toward the door of the registration room. Mohammad Musa, who moved to Kabul from nearby Logar province for work, will be a first-time voter. He sits patiently on a bench in the registration office to get his card. “I’m going to vote for somebody who is a good person and who can lead the country,” says Musa. “When I was living in Logar, things were safe. But it’s worse now. It’s getting worse all over.”

Despite the escalating violence, or perhaps because of it, a palpable streak of determination has been building in the run-up to the vote. In a recent survey by the Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan, or FEFA, 92% of respondents said they supported the idea of elections; among those who didn’t plan to vote, most said it was because they weren’t registered, not because they feared the Taliban. Women, perhaps mindful of the consequences of the Taliban’s return, are especially invested in the vote: 81% said they would pick a candidate based on their qualities and programs, vs. 12% who said they would vote for the person suggested to them. During the candidate registration period, more than 300 women signed up to run in provincial-council elections. “We’ve always been ignored,” Habiba Sarabi, who is running for second vice president on Rassoul’s ticket, tells TIME. “This is the opportunity to show that women can be in a position of power.” Says Waliullah Rahmani, director of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies: “A month ago, no one even thought there would be elections. Now you can see the momentum.”

When the next government takes office, the list of its challenges will be long. Afghanistan is one of the world’s poorest countries. While ever more people are moving to the cities, the vast majority of its 31 million inhabitants still live in villages. Endemic corruption, an aid-dependent economy, high unemployment, weak rule of law, poor public services–they all remain to be tackled. (Education for girls is one of a few areas where Karzai can boast significant success: nearly 40% of the country’s 8 million–plus students are now girls, according to the U.N.) Security concerns trump everything else, though. Some 73% of potential voters surveyed by FEFA named peace as a top issue for them. Infrastructure and health care were lower priorities at 22% and 18%, respectively.

The three presidential front runners all say they will sign the bilateral agreement if they come to power. “From one side, I’d say that Afghans would like their country to be secured by their own men and women rather than foreign troops,” says Abdullah Abdullah. But, he says, “Those who know and care about the country know it is out of necessity that we say we need [them].”

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