Reporter's Notebook: Ballots, Bullets, Barflies
KABUL, Afghanistan – For the first time in months, Afghanistan (search) was grabbing headlines from Iraq last week, a significant sign for this country approaching a historic span of time that will determine its future.
During his travels to the United States last week Afghan President Hamid Karzai (search) joined President Bush in a Rose Garden press conference in which the two leaders were beaming over the progress in Afghanistan, touted as the first War on Terror success story.
What might be equally important for this country, now carrying the title "success story" and facing its first free elections in decades, is the example set by 39-year-old school teacher and mother of six Azima Nabi: She has decided to vote.
Like millions of other Afghans, she and her family moved back to Kabul after they fled to Pakistan during the oppressive Taliban (search) rule. They returned with the hope of seeing their homeland return to glory it has not enjoyed for decades.
Azima’s family lives in the western part of Kabul, where the majority of buildings still lie in ruins after years of shelling from militia fighting for control of the city in the post-Soviet occupation days of the mid-1990’s.
Kabul is now safe compared to the rest of the country that’s facing increasing violence designed to scare off Afghans from voting and target those organizations trying to help the Afghan people.
But to Azima, those with the guns don’t represent the true Afghan spirit. “They do not speak for the real Afghan people as most want the election to take place. What the people of Afghanistan want from a president is a good life and security.”
She admits that if the election takes place in September, her country won’t change over night. What’s important to her is that it will mark a crucial milestone on the road to a better Afghanistan.
Security around the elections is so important to Karzai that at his first press conference in Kabul after his trip to the United States he focused on election-time violence, not the "success story."
"Those people who do not want Afghanistan to be tranquil and do not want the nation to choose its leadership and destiny, will do whatever they can to block (the elections)," Karzai said at the news conference on Sunday, Reuters reported.
He heads to a NATO (search) summit in Istanbul at the end of the month to ask for more troops added to the NATO-lead International Security Assistance Force, an unfulfilled promise that would provide needed security for the elections.
Inside the security bubble of Kabul, this city busting at the seams with an estimated one million people, signs of an international destination for the adventurous or those who are reporting and working on Afghanistan’s reconstruction are sprouting.
There’s the newly opened Elbow Room nestled between a U.N. compound and the Chinese Embassy. It has an expansive dining room reminiscent of a hip grill in California and taking orders behind the lounge bar is none other than “Vegas” the bartender. And yes, he did live in Las Vegas.
The Elbow Room is the latest addition to the Kabul international social circuit that includes an American-style steakhouse, a Thai restaurant and an Indian place managed by a woman from Uzbekistan.
And adding to the ever-growing empire of an Afghan-American entrepreneur, who currently owns a rug/furniture store and an Indian-Thai fusion restaurant, is a guesthouse furnished with items for sale. Not to worry if one of his Kabul outlets fails, he has two rug galleries in New York City.
We can’t forget the famous Gandamak Lodge (search), the hip hangout for journalists that’s rumored to be the former home of one of Usama Bin Laden’s wives.
There is even a newly established Afghan Foreign Press Club that holds meetings once a month and is a resource for journalists coming here for the first time or back on assignment after a lapse. It’s an exchange for ideas, contacts, translators and of course where the next party will be.
Other than the fairly predictable conversations like, "Did you hear about what happened down south?" or "I can’t believe I did not get on that embed," there are few reminders that you are in a country in major transition. Of course, one-third of the people bolt out of the party or bar at 9:25 p.m. sharp. The United Nations has a strict "be on the road home at 9:30" curfew.
No worries though. There’s more room at the bar for those of us with no curfew and need to get Vegas’ attention.