Muhammad Shafiq Popal is one of Afghan President Hamid Karzai's more formidable opponents yet he isn't a chieftain, a warlord or even a candidate in the Aug. 20 Afghanistan presidential election. Just 30 years old, Popal is a rare individual in the country: a community organizer who heads the Afghanistan Youth National and Social Organization (AYNSO), an NGO that, in a nation marked by division, transcends religion, ethnicity and tribe. AYNSO's broad objective is to promote democracy and human rights. But Popal's current objective is much more specific: mobilizing AYNSO's 32,000 members to unseat Karzai, who he believes has done little to address the needs of Afghanistan's youth. "The present government doesn't understand our value," says Popal. "That has to change." Nearby, at Kabul University, Qudsia Zohab, a freshman studying literature, says her classmates spend more time on the coming election than on their coming exam. "Most of the university students will vote," she says but not for Karzai. "There is a feeling that he doesn't work for young people."
That Afghanistan is even holding an election is practically a miracle. The year is far from over, but it's already the bloodiest since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Large swaths of the southern and eastern regions of the country are under the control of militants, while some security analysts estimate that the Taliban has a permanent presence in at least 70% of the nation. As the election nears, the frequency and ferocity of attacks by insurgents have spiked. The U.N. reports that in the first six months of 2009, civilian casualties from such attacks as well as from friendly fire are 24% higher than in the corresponding period last year. July was the worst month ever for the NATO-led coalition forces: 76 soldiers were killed, more than half of them Americans.
That's why this election is so crucial. Afghanistan last went to the polls in 2004, in what was widely seen as a referendum on Karzai as the interim leader after U.S. forces arrived three years earlier. It was the first time Afghans had ever elected a President, and while many hoped for change, the Karzai government soon reverted to the traditional practices of top-down leadership and relying on personal connections and patronage to run the country. That approach may work with the older generation, but it's left many youths frustrated. More than 70% of the country's 33 million people are under the age of 30, and estimates of registered voters ages 18 to 25 range from 8 million to 10 million, out of a total of 17 million. While today's young Afghans have experienced the ravages of war, they have also witnessed as refugees or through TV and the Internet an alternative: governments accountable to the public. "People assume the elders will tell the young how to vote," says 38-year-old Jahid Mohseni, CEO of the media organization Moby Group. "Young people still respect their elders, but they have developed a capacity to think for themselves. And the candidates that neglect that vote may be in for a surprise."
While security is a daily concern for most Afghans, the young in particular want a government committed to eliminating the corruption plaguing the country and to generating jobs that go to people who deserve them. Many youths feel that Karzai, with his emphasis on building relationships with tribal elders, warlords and other traditional power brokers, is not their man.
Besides the President, there are 40 candidates on the ballot, but only two are contenders: Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, a onetime Foreign Minister, and Ashraf Ghani, Karzai's former Finance Minister, who used to be an analyst with the World Bank. In a recently released poll conducted by U.S. pollsters Glevum Associates in July, Ghani was considered a long shot garnering only a 4% rating, compared with Abdullah's 25% and Karzai's 31%. But in recent weeks, the relentlessly pragmatic Ghani has steadily gained ground, according to private polls conducted by nonpartisan groups. Those polls also indicate that Karzai is unlikely to receive the 50% of votes required to avoid a runoff. Whoever joins Karzai in the second round will largely be the choice of the youth vote. For AYNSO, that individual is Ghani, whose platform includes government hiring based on merit, job creation through financial incentives and the modernizing of school curriculums to help bring the country into the 21st century. "Lots of candidates promise that they support the youth, but with Ghani, he says how he will do it," says Popal.
In Search of Honest Work
Esmatullah Kosar is someone who very much wants to be judged on his merits. A slight, shy 24-year-old, Kosar has just returned from three years of studying in a Bangalore university, on a scholarship from the Indian government. At age 2, Kosar lost his father in the war against the Soviets. His mother, a member of the Hazara ethnic group heavily persecuted by the Taliban regime, saw her sons' education as the family's ticket out of desperation. Kosar thought his fluent English and new bachelor's degree in human resources and management would guarantee him a good job in a country crying out for professionals. When he got an interview as a human-resources assistant in a government ministry, he was confident of getting the job until he encountered the interviewer. "I was more knowledgeable than he was, and I was supposed to be his assistant," says Kosar. He was rejected. The same thing had happened to most of the other graduates in his scholarship program. "Thousands of graduates are coming out every year with talent and skills, but they cannot get jobs because those in higher posts are not professionals, so they are threatened by the younger generations who really know something."