What's next after Afghanistan's presidential election? Young Afghans speak on the future

No one has more at stake in Afghanistan’s presidential elections than its legions of young people, who have come of age in a post-Taliban nation. Their expectations are high – for education, for jobs, for personal lives – in a country that has seen tens of billions in donor aid but remains plagued by a violent insurgency and a weak economy.  

It was young people who manned many polling stations yesterday as candidate observers and sometimes even as officials, wearing the blue bibs of the Independent Election Commission. Conversations with them yield hope, but also fear that Afghanistan remains but one step away from disaster and perhaps renewed civil war.  

Afghans turned out to vote in record numbers yesterday, defying Taliban threats of retribution. The presidential election results are not yet known; neither is the impact that the withdrawal of US and Western combat forces will have at the end of this year.

But while much is uncertain, there's a striking optimism among many young Afghans that better days lie ahead. A group of young Afghans in Kabul spoke with the Monitor about what lies ahead for them, and their country.

1. Afghanistan's Mitra Hemmat: Retail entrepreneur

Massoud Hossaini/AP
Retail for the masses. An Afghan laborer pulls a cart carrying mattresses on a street in Kabul, Afghanistan, Sunday, Oct. 12, 2014.

Mitra Hemmat has occupied rarefied air since returning from Iran to Afghanistan in 2005, where she quickly achieved status as the nation’s top student, and won a scholarship to study in India. 

A doctor who wears a black headscarf with a faux diamond broach, at 28 she accepts few limits, and dreams of giving back to her country “to help my people.” She plans to serve through medicine and one day win election to parliament.

“We just want peace; we don’t want to have to think about who is the president,” says Ms. Hemmat. “If it is bad, if things change [for the worse], I will go to another country,” says Hemmat. “My passport is always in my pocket. I would not stay.”   

But when asked if she is optimistic, she does not hesitate: “Yes!”  

Hemmat now runs a high-end shop in a central Kabul mall, which has the exclusive franchise to sell a line of organic Swedish body lotions, oils, cleansers and cosmetics. The bottles are immaculately lined up on the shelves; a flat screen TV shows promotional videos; and Hemmat’s brother – an electrical engineer with gelled hair and one extra button of his lean-cut white shirt undone – talks to customers from behind the counter.

The shop was a substantial investment, and opened one month ago. But so far customers are coming and two other Kabul branches are planned. Several smart phones are plugged in, sitting on the glass counter.  

“When you see other countries, life is very easy and work is good,” says Hemmat. “When you come back to my country it is very different: there is no money, and it is very difficult for women. The Taliban is very bad; they just want to kill women, I don’t know why.”

She says Afghanistan’s next president should sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the US, which outgoing President Hamid Karzai has refused to sign. The BSA would allow some US forces to remain in the country beyond the end of the year to focus on training Afghan security forces and assist in counterterrorism operations.

“America does many good things here… America will not leave here because they spent a lot here,” says Hemmat. She hopes to get US funding for a project to employ uneducated women.

But all plans depend on security and reductions in violence. Before the vote, the Taliban conducted a string of attacks in Kabul that targeted foreigners and election offices, using suicide and car bombs to instill terror. But election day passed with no significant incidents.

“I’m waiting for the election [results],” says Hemmat. “If it’s good, I will do everything.”

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