Tearful Karzai warns of youth exodus from Afghanistan. Here's why.

A young judge's woes symbolize a rising generation's dismay over widespread corruption – and their commitment to building Afghanistan.

By , Staff writer

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    Afghan men listen to a speech delivered by Afghan President Hamid Karzai during an event marking International Literacy Day in Kabul, on Sept. 28. Karzai called on Afghans to 'come to their senses' and move faster towards peace or risk seeing the next generation flee abroad and lose their Afghan identity.
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Afghan President Hamid Karzai's tearful speech on Tuesday, in which he expressed concern over an exodus of youths fleeing the country's violence, overlooked what young professionals here say is another major factor causing the next generation to give up on their homeland.

Widespread corruption, for which Mr. Karzai's government is notorious, is also undermining the desire of educated 20-somethings to invest in their country instead of looking abroad for a brighter future.

Mr. Karzai, during a nationally televised address at a Kabul high school, focused on how violence is preventing school-aged youths from getting an education. "Our sons cannot go to school because of bombs and suicide attacks," he said. Referring to his 4-year-old son, he added: "God forbid Mirwais should be forced to leave Afghanistan."

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But for Afghanistan's young minds who have already shown an unprecedented interest in rebuilding a democratic nation, violence alone is not the problem. Interviews here with young Afghans working as public servants and running for government office reveal that a crash course in the hard-knocks school of Afghan corruption has been a wake-up call to many.

“What I was thinking in university was different from what I found in practice,” says 25-year-old Qazi Ahmadi, the nation's youngest judge.

A new political generation

Among the 70 percent of Afghans under the age of 30, Mr. Ahmadi rose through school steeped in the promises of modern democracy. For his generation, the Taliban-led government of the 1990s has remained mostly a childhood memory. The fact that young people, particularly girls, have had greater access to schooling than their parents is a factor making them more open to a Western-style government.

“The youth always have the motivation in Afghanistan to go forward for new trends,” says Waliullah Rahmani, an analyst with the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies. “During the communist era it was the youth who came from universities. When Islamic movements started – the anti-Soviets and jihadis – it was also from universities. During the Taliban it was youth who came from madrasas in Pakistan and Afghanistan.”

Today's newfound interest in democracy played out recently when youth involvement saved parliamentary elections from total failure amid more than 3,000 official complaints of irregularities, say observers. The election saw low turnout, but those who did participate tended to be young. In many polling stations in Kabul, young campaign observers easily outnumbered voters during much of the day. Nearly 1 in 5 candidates in Kabul was younger than 36.

But, in the end, widespread election fraud and government corruption sapped the idealistic energy of young voters, says Haroun Mir, a parliamentary candidate attempting to appeal to the young. He had hoped to represent an estimated 300,000 “relatively liberal, educated Afghans, most [of whom] are under 25 years old." When it came time to actually vote, however, fewer than he had hoped showed up.

Taliban threats

To get a sense of the challenges young professionals face in Afghanistan, consider the situation of Ahmadi, the young judge. He packs a gun, carries no identification in case potential kidnappers try to determine whether he works for the government, and survives on a $400 monthly paycheck. Like many judges, he is sometimes sent from Kabul to hear cases in district courts, but he must take his own car – sometimes through Taliban territory. Pleas for armored vehicles or security have so far fallen on deaf ears, says Ahmadi.

Once when hearing a case in Logar Province, his court was disrupted by gunfire on the nearby governor’s office. People ran out of the courthouse, including Ahmadi, who tried to take shelter in the police chief’s office. A policeman refused him entry, saying it could draw insurgent fire on them. He ran off a couple hundred yards before two rockets slammed into the station, killing the policeman.

Ahmadi’s office has received threatening phone calls and letters from insurgents after hearing cases that put Taliban fighters behind bars. “I’m not scared of anything, except one thing – them cutting my head off,” he says.

Rampant corruption

The young judge has also been awakened to the rampant corruption at all levels of government. He says that powerful Afghans will phone his superiors in the judiciary and ask for leniency for relatives and neighbors. He worries that if he does not comply with messages sent down to him, higher-ups might make good on threats to send him to courts in Taliban towns or fire him.

“You feel disappointed with yourself. The guy who is a poor guy, I couldn’t help him because he didn’t have someone [inside] who helps him. But this guy who has people but looks like he has done a crime, I cannot do anything against him although it’s my job,” says Ahmadi.

He has now set his sights on going abroad for graduate studies. He talks of returning to Afghanistan after that, but the temptations of security and opportunity in the West are great.

Creating a new political culture

Yet in a hopeful sign for this country, some Afghans educated abroad have returned home. These include people such as parliamentary candidate Janan Mosazai, 30, who recently returned from graduate school in Canada.

He says low voter turnout revealed “a deep mistrust of people in this country. I don’t hear anyone disparaging the idea of democracy or elections, but the low participation and the apathy is a slap in the face to the existing political establishment.”

He says he still sees a chance to mobilize young people outside the political process. He'd like to set up local youth councils that would give young people a chance to do volunteer projects and organize sporting events. Such councils could build relationships on something other than patronage and eventually form a base for a peaceful opposition movement, he says.

“Neither the Taliban nor the existing regime are in harmony with the needs and aspirations of this existing generation of young Afghans,” says Mr. Mosazai. “That’s why there is so much despair among young Afghans [and] that’s why they were so active in this election cycle.”

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