Powerful tutor trains Afghans for new political reality
US intervention in the young democracy is starting to bear fruit, Maseeh Rahman reports ahead of Afghanistan's polls
There is a striking contrast between the tutor and the pupil - the United States, the world's most powerful democracy, and impoverished Afghanistan, struggling to understand and adopt an alien political culture.
But unlike in Iraq, America's partnership in this landlocked nation that has endured much greater destruction and repression is working.
One place to check this out is a high-walled bungalow near the Intercontinental Hotel in west Kabul, an area that was once the front line in Afghanistan's bloody ethnic civil war.
Under a large tent, a group of polling agents representing several contestants for Sunday's National Assembly and Provincial Council elections are being instructed on how to safeguard the interests of their candidates.
A would-be polling agent asked why warlords are being allowed to contest these polls when they should all have been banned. The Afghan instructor patiently explained that in a democratic country anyone can stand for election unless he has been convicted of a crime.
For good measure, he added that since the warlords are powerful, the authorities are concerned they could create a security problem if they were all outlawed.
'Most of the people who come for training quickly understand their responsibilities. Less than 15 per cent have difficulties,' said Wahid Noori, manager of the Election Training and Information Centre run by the Washington-based National Democratic Institute (NDI). The institute is affiliated to the US Democratic Party.
The NDI first came to Afghanistan in March 2002, but its operation remained small-scale for the first two years until the run-up to last October's presidential election.
That was when it initiated a training programme for polling agents, and for the development of political parties.
'Our courses focused on the basics of democracy - free speech, rule of law, how to manage a political party, how to run an election campaign, how to function as a polling agent, the responsibilities of a legislator, the relationship between the legislature and the executive,' said Kit Spence, NDI's political party development expert.
Today it has a staff of more than 150, all Afghans, led by three foreigners - two Canadians and a Filipino.
'That's just a coincidence,' said Mr Spence about the absence of Americans on the staff. 'When NDI expanded last year, American political experts were already involved in the US presidential election.'
For Sunday's landmark poll, the NDI has trained 66,000 Afghan men and women - 26,000 candidates and party workers and 40,000 polling agents - in the rudiments of democracy at eight centres across the country.
The participants reflect the entire gamut of contemporary Afghan politics - former communists, budding democrats, ethnic parties and Islamic extremists.
The programme has been funded by a US$7 million grant from the US Agency for International Development.
Though excluded from the legislatures, political parties have mushroomed in Afghanistan after the ousting of the Taleban. The NDI's database lists 102 parties, 76 of which are registered.
'The US has been extremely open, allowing all types of leaders to participate in the democratic process,' said Peter Dimitroff, NDI country director. 'There are some very evil people in this election.'
Some of the most notorious were represented at the NDI training centre in Wardak province southwest of Kabul.
These included members of parties headed by notorious Pashtun warlord Abdul Rasul Sayaf, who is supporting President Hamid Karzai, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is heading an armed insurrection against him.
Even Mr Hekmatyar's followers were appreciative of the US role in rebuilding Afghanistan, and were openly critical of their party leader's armed campaign against Mr Karzai and the US forces.
'The war is over,' said Abdul Wahab, a quarry manager. 'We must make peace now.'
Though Afghanistan will soon have its first popularly elected National Assembly, there is a lack of comprehension among leaders of the emerging political system, and even less capacity to use it.
'Even Mr Karzai has little understanding of the dialectic between the executive and the legislature,' said Mr Spence.
Reason enough for some more training. After the election results are declared late next month, the NDI will conduct an orientation course for the newly elected legislators in association with the State University of New York. The initial programme will be converted into a permanent one.
Though it will take years to develop Afghanistan's democratic institutions, US intervention is beginning to get results. 'We need America,' said Mr Wahab.