The Idealists Transforming Afghanistan's Election

Like most Afghans, Noorjahan Akbar has lived through some hard times. She still has nightmares about a vivid and frightening incident she witnessed when she was about 3 years old: a warlord's gunmen kidnapped two of her female playmates right off the street in front of her. Not long afterward, the warlord confiscated her house. Some two years later, the Taliban seized Kabul from those mujahedin warlords in heavy fighting, forcing her secular family to flee to northern Afghanistan and finally to Peshawar in Pakistan.

After spending two years attending high school near Philadelphia, Akbar returned to Afghanistan this summer to visit her family, which had moved back to Kabul, and to study her real passion: Afghan women's folk music. But Akbar, an avid amateur singer herself and a champion of women's rights, quickly got caught up in the country's presidential-election campaign on the side of former finance minister Ashraf Ghani, one of 40 candidates challenging incumbent president Hamid Karzai in Thursday's election. The liberal, urbane, squeaky-clean former World Bank official, who resigned from Karzai's cabinet in 2004 alleging corruption and mismanagement, appealed to Akbar's strong desire for change, gender and ethnic equality, good governance, and practical solutions for war-torn Afghanistan's complex problems. (She loved his 2008 book, Fixing Failed States.)

What's more, Ghani reminds her of her father, an Arab-Afghan intellectual who is a writer and researcher on political, social, and religious affairs. "Ghani is a liberal man," Akbar, 18, told NEWSWEEK as she sat on the floor in the book-lined study of her father's modest mud-brick house on the outskirts of Kabul. "Most powerful and influential Afghans don't think; they just talk without offering any solutions," she says, wearing a pink-and-black-checked frock over black pants with a white headscarf covering her hair. "Dr. Ghani has solutions on how to save Afghanistan from the terrible situation that we live in today, including a 10-year plan to bring peace, jobs, development and equality, even for handicapped people."

If this sounds like the romance of a true believer, it is. Akbar has been so busy organizing 50 other young people to canvas for Ghani—not only in Kabul but in northern Afghanistan as well—that she nearly gave up her study of folk music. The volunteers are part of a growing cadre of young idealists who have fallen behind Ghani's campaign, despite his likely loss to Karzai. Akbar calls them a "youth awareness movement." It's a phenomenon Westerners are used to seeing in their political campaigns, from Tony Blair to Howard Dean. But this is a very new trend in Afghan politics. "Ghani's message has motivated youth like me from around the country," Akbar says. "This is the first time in Afghan history that something like this has happened. It's amazing and admirable."

What's new, she says, is that Ghani's movement has, for the first time, made young Afghans feel like they can bring about change by working for an honest candidate. It's a rebuttal of the patronage politics, nepotism, and horse-trading that always seemed to characterize secular governance here, and a suggestion that warlords with militias and poppy fields (who have killed with impunity and robbed the country blind) needn't run the country.

Which is not to say the youth corps behind Ghani is completely naive; they're resigned to the reality that Ghani can't win. (The latest public-opinion surveys put Karzai ahead as the choice of some 45 percent of the voters, followed by the former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah at 25 percent and Ghani in third place with some 6 percent.) And Akbar knows that a contested election can't sweep away all of the country's pathologies. Abdullah's campaigners, she says, "don't know how to respect women or have any idea about how to talk to women." So she worries about what will happen to her five sisters, who live at home with her father and an ethnic Uzbek mother, when she returns to the United States for her senior year of high school just after the election.

But she and the other volunteers take the long view: "The most important thing isn't winning," Akbar says philosophically. "It's getting people ready through this election for the next election, making people aware of the dangers posed by our present leaders who kill and steal from us." If they end up showing Afghans that their choices—"five more years of Karzai is going to be a disaster," she says—have consequences, then it will have been a worthwhile wake-up call: "If they want change, peace, and better lives, then they can't keep voting for Karzai and his ilk anymore."

Being a liberal, though, doesn't mean unqualified support for President Barack Obama. Akbar is a big fan, but she and her friends strongly disagree with his Afghan policy, which they think props up the entrenched warlords they so despise. "The Afghan situation has gotten worse since Obama took over," she says. "He still supports the people here who destroyed our country." Although she is no friend of the Taliban, whose views—particularly on women—are anathema to her, she wants to see peace talks with its leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar.

Akbar is determined to return to Afghanistan once she completes her education. She wants to attend either Brown University or Macalester College and hopes to get an M.A. before returning to Afghanistan to work full time. In the meantime, she says she will return every summer to continue her work on women's traditional music and to campaign for political and social change. "Most Afghans like the slaves in the [American] Old South have been kept ignorant by their rulers," she says. "Our educational system sucks. It's the worst in the world. . .The way to fight poverty, corruption, and bad leadership is with education. I hope we did a bit of that on the campaign trail."