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Many in troubled Afghanistan find hope in Obama.
KABUL — In the early morning hours of Nov. 5, 2008, in the cool, dark reaches of the Gandamack Pub, a ragged group of journalists, diplomats and NGO workers watched as the results of the U.S. presidential election rolled in.
Shortly after 8:30 a.m. local time, CNN announced that Barack Obama would become the 44th president of the United States.
A cheer erupted in the pub, a watering hole for expats that has all the trappings of the former British Colonial presence in Afghanistan, from the Enfield rifles lining the walls to the velvety Guinness on tap. Champagne flowed freely, despite the early hour, and the predominantly American crowd solicited hugs from the more reserved Europeans.
Just beyond the gated wall of the Gandamack, the city of Kabul was also reacting and, in some circles, even celebrating the news, though perhaps with a little less jubilance.
This is, after all, a country that measures time in centuries and has seen foreign occupiers come and go: the Americans, the Soviets before them, the British before that, all the way back to Genghis Khan.
At the same time, Obama's victory, which prompted celebrations in many parts of the world, has electrified Afghanistan — with the probable exception of the Taliban — with hope.
Over the past two years, Afghanistan has become a deepening quagmire, and in the lead-up to the U.S. election, there seemed little confidence among Afghan political and military officials in Kabul that John McCain's strategies could lead the way forward.
Post-election, on that same day as the Gandamack erupted in euphoria, a more restrained affair was underway hosted by the U.S. Embassy and bringing together nearly 80 Afghan dignitaries, invited to participate in a mock ballot for the American presidency.
In a landslide, more than 70 of the Afghans voted for Obama.
Many Afghans followed the campaign with as much interest as the average American, and most felt that they had just as big a stake in the results. The fate of their country will depend largely on the decisions made by the occupant of the Oval Office.
While the new American “empire” may lack the rough-and-tumble elan of the former British hegemony, embodied in the rowdy pub across town, Afghans are under no illusions about who is in charge.
The question remains, what exactly is it about the incoming president that has so inspired this tragic, war-ravaged country half a planet away from Washington?
Obama's appeal to Afghans goes far beyond their mistaken yet widespread belief here that he shares their religion. Still, in Kabul, Obama's middle name, Hussein, is an unalloyed blessing.
Nor is it the nuts and bolts of Obama's stated policy on Afghanistan that has the inhabitants of its remote mountains and deserts cheering for him. While they may welcome the increased focus on their country, many Afghans are uneasy with the idea of more boots on the ground. Civilian casualties have increasingly angered the population and buoyed support for the insurgency.
Even less popular is the idea of arming tribal militias against the Taliban, in an Afghan version of Iraq's "Anbar Awakening." While Gen. David Petraeus, now chief of Central Command and the architect of what is widely viewed as the successful Iraq strategy, is universally respected in Afghanistan, the prospect of giving weapons and power to local warlords makes many Afghans fearful.
What Afghans want and expect from Obama is, at once, less tangible and more important than any policy initiative: They want to be seen and understood.
For the first time, they have an American leader who has some real knowledge of their world. Obama's Muslim father, his childhood experience in the largest Muslim country in the world, Indonesia, and the color of his skin all endear him to Afghans.
"He is a black man, and I am a black man," smiled one man, a generously bearded, dark-skinned Pashtun named Hafiz. "He will know what to do."
This is a radical change in attitude. For the past seven years, many Afghans have felt like second-class citizens in their own country. Viewed as potential threats by the foreign military, employed by international organizations for a fraction of what expatriates receive, told that their culture and traditions must be replaced by a Western-style democracy, Afghans have become increasingly disenchanted with the world's often-clumsy efforts to help them rebuild their shattered society.
One of the central problems of the recent Afghanistan strategies, from the Bonn process to the London conference to the Paris declaration, seems to be that those most deeply affected — the Afghans themselves — are the ones who are least consulted. Instead, international panels are set up to oversee everything from the parliament to the armed forces, with less than stellar results.
Seven years on, the Taliban insurgency is stronger than ever, corruption and crime have exploded, there is still no reliable source of electricity even in the capital, and the few roads that have been built are almost empty because of the Taliban threat. The one undeniable achievement of the post-Taliban years — growing numbers of children in school — is also under threat because of the deteriorating security situation.
But the excitement over the new American president and the change he represents has opened a window of opportunity. For a short honeymoon period, Afghans will suspend their anger and disappointment over the course of the war and get behind Obama as he brings Afghanistan to the center of the political stage.
The challenge will be to listen to the Afghans, to understand their concerns, and not to dismiss them as tribal thugs or terrorists-in-waiting.
As Obama prepares to tackle the problem of Afghanistan, he would do well to keep in mind the lessons of history. Invaders do not fare well here, and Afghans have proved notoriously resistant to attempts to remake their country in the image of another.
Just as well Obama's ability to instill hope — the same that propelled him to the presidency — will help him in any quest to bring peace to this violent, troubled land.