Diane in Afghanistan

This is a historic time for the people of Afghanistan. I am reminded of the timeless truths that have guided our nation through the past two centuries, and how those same profound words now hold such hope and promise for the new democractic nation of Afghanistan. "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal... that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights... of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

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Location: Bellevue, Washington

Friday, September 16, 2005

...And There are No Provisional Ballots

For a comprehensive list of news stories related to the Historic Elections being held in Afghanistan Click Here

It's back to visions of fingers in black ink.

We have just finished our first briefing from numerous organizations regarding the elections on Sunday. The Joint Electoral Management Body (JEMB), operating under the auspices of the United Nations, is running Sunday's parliamentary elections. The JEMB has 13 members - nine are Afghans and four are members of the international community. These include individuals from Australia, Sweden, Britain and India -- one from each country.

As Americans, we have seen hanging chads and heard about the numerous issues surrounding voter roles and provisional ballots. But here, the JEMB has had to deal with numerous issues that officials would never face during an election in the United States.

For example, nearly 80% of the women and more than 50% of the men are illiterate. As a result, the majority of the population cannot even read a ballot. The JEMB has developed a system that allows for voters to pick their candidates using pictures and symbols. The ballot system uses a picture of each candidate and assigns a "symbol" to that individual candidate. For instance, one candidate's symbol is a donkey; another's symbol is a camel. The JEMB identified about 250 symbols that were easily recognizable by all Afghans. Because there are more than 400 candidates for the Nangarhar province alone, there were not enough symbols to go around. As a result, candidate 1 may have (1) camel as a symbol and candidate 2 has (2) camels as a symbol. It makes for a unique ballot. A copy of the ballot was given to us today and it is over seven pages long. And we thought we had a lot of items on our ballots in Washington State!!!!

To ensure that no one votes twice, each voter will be asked to dip his or her finger into black ink before the ballot is given to that voter. Afghanistan used this system in 2004 for the presidential elections, but unfortunately, the ink did not stay. We have been given guarantees that this year, they are using a better ink. The voters will be instructed to let the ink dry before they mark their ballots.

Voters in Washington State will not be surprised to hear that there will be NO provisional ballots. If a voter turns up at the wrong polling place, the election official will not allow that voter to cast a ballot.

There are more briefings to come, and the excitement is building for Sunday's elections.

Sincerely for freedom,

Diane

Thursday, September 15, 2005

30 Minutes From Half-Way Around the World

We finally arrived in Kabul his afternoon around 3:30 Kabul time. Interestingly, Kabul is 11.5 hours ahead of Seattle - why the half-hour difference instead of the 11 hours like Dubai? No one knows. Some say it is because Afghanistan is in several time zones and they split the difference. India also has the same system, but others say it is because the Afghans wanted to be different. Whatever the reason, I have left my watch on Seattle time then I subtract 30 minutes and change to PM or AM and I easily get Kabul time.

This city is very damaged from the 30 years of war suffered at the hands of the Russians, Afghanistan's communist government, and the Taliban. That having been said, the city is alive -- bustling with activity. There are people everywhere, and businesses operating on every street. It is apparent that these are industrious, and enterprising people, and democracy will bring huge economic change to this country. During the Taliban reign, not only were women required to cover themselves entirely by wearing the burqa, but they could not leave their houses without a male escort. As a result, women were not seen on the streets.

But the world is different now. Women walk along the streets with their children, or even by themselves, or with other women and men. Although many still wear the burqa, at least they are not beaten if they only wear head scarves. I bought a black scarf in Seattle and have been wearing it, as have all the women in the delegation. This is a sign of respect for this country and it's culture.

As far as businesses, I was pleased to see the large number of small businesses operating. Each street seems to have a different retail "theme." For example, one street is filled with rug stores; one street is food vendors; one street consists of stores for car parts; and another street is filed with businesses who sell small tools - like drills, etc. The rugs are amazing -- and I have a "thing" for the color red. And yes, red is the color of choice for all the rugs. The colors are brilliant, the rugs are soft and luxurious, but they won't fit in my carry-on baggage.

Dinner is a much different experience than what we experience in the U.S. You have a choice to sit in chairs, or simply cross your legs and sit on the rugs. I chose the latter, as did most everyone who is with the delegation -- we're an adventurous group.

Kabul is in a desert region and although it is hot in the sun, the shade is cool and the air is clear. At night it cools down, but there are plenty of mosquitoes.

Due to security concerns, there are police with serious weapons everywhere on street corners, at hotels and at some businesses. I do not take this as a sign of chaos. Instead, this is part of the continued need to retain security while remnants of the Taliban seek to disrupt the election on Sunday.

Tomorrow is Friday and that is the day of rest for Muslims. I understand that people generally stay home and don't get in their cars. That is probably a good thing, since the driving over here can get a little rough.

The top three concerns of the citizens of Afghanistan are roads; security and economic opportunity. Sounds similar to the citizens of Washington State, but by comparison, we have excellent roads even with traffic jams.

Everyone, from airport personnel to hotel staff, to election staff has been absolutely wonderful, and I've experienced the true warmth of hospitality.

Sincerely for freedom,

Diane

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Huge Field Stumps for Afghan Votes

I'm currently on the ground in Frankfurt, Germany and waiting for my next flight. While taking a few minutes to check in on e-mail and news, I came across this story on the elections I'm going to be observing. I thought it important that you be aware of the conditions that those running for office in Afghanistan must face. It's a good reminder that there is more than one way for democracy to work and that there are often many unforeseen roadblocks and hurdles which must be overcome to accomplish it. The work isn't easy but the end result is worth it. The title of this article provides a link to the Chicago Tribune article (free registration may be req'd to read).

Sincerely for freedom,

Diane

Monday, September 12, 2005

In Support of Democracy in Afghanistan

It was Ronald Reagan that initiated the idea that spreading freedom and democracy had a very practical side to it. He believed to his core being, that without democracy, nations could not experience economic prosperity and the cultural vibrancy that only freedom can foster. But like the old adage; "give a man a fish, and he eats for a day. But teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime," the yearnings of peoples around the world to be free, also means providing them with the tools of civic life, and the blueprints to build democratic institutions.

In 1983, Congress created the National Endowment for Democracy to help fund efforts to provide the "building blocks" of democracy in those nations emerging from dictatoriships and oppressive regimes. The International Republican Institute (IRI) is one of four nonprofit groups that provides that vital support and independent election observers.

Tomorrow I leave for Afghanistan as a member of the U.S. delegation sponsored by IRI. It is a nation that has experienced great oppression and tyranny through the Soviet occupation of the 1980's, tribal warfare, and the Taliban regime. But today in Afghanistan -- a mere three-and-one-half years after the U.S. led liberation -- that nation is poised to make history. On September 18, the people of Afghanistan will freely elect a national parliament, and mark the first time in their 5,000-year history, that women can run for elected office. Afghanistan remains a powerful example of success in fighting the war on terrorism. Where once the Taliban provided safe haven and training for the terrorists of the 9-11 attacks, now democracy and individual freedoms are being celebrated and promoted throughout that nation.

I will serve as an election observer, and it is exciting and humbling to witness history on such a scale as this. I hope you will join me, as I share my experiences through this blog site. Many men and women of our military have given their lives to make this day possible for the Afghan people. Please join me in remembering their sacrifice, and pray that the Afghan people will know an enduring peace.

Sincerely for freedom,

Diane