Sunday, December 28, 2008

Obama logo

What a Barack Obama Presidency Means for Afghans?
by Nemat Sadat

America’s president-elect has a steadfast desire to bring a new dawn to troubled Afghanistan. Mr. Obama’s campaign logo and his first name, Barack, meaning “blessed” in Arabic sheds light on how the multicultural message of change and hope now an American reality can become a universal phenomenon.

November 4, 2008 was a historic moment in American politics as the presidential elections shattered racial barriers in a single progressive leap forward. Barack Obama’s triumph in securing the world’s most powerful position, and the phenomenal global outpouring of support for him, represents a rejection of the status quo and a celebration for all those who have been imperiled by the last eight years.

Re-Focus on Afghanistan

Mr. Obama’s impending presidency offers a unique ray of hope for Afghanistan: the possibility to direct the focus and reinvigorate the optimism that Afghans, both in the homeland and the Diaspora, shared post-September 11. This hope was born when the international community realized that abandoning a devastated state to fragment and fail was no longer an option and promised a better future for beleaguered Afghanistan. Mr. Obama is positioned to do what President Bush has failed to do: to unite Afghans and promote cooperation among rival factions in order to begin repairing this broken country.

The proposed “Marshall Plan for Afghanistan” was envisioned in 2002 after the U.S. and allied forces toppled the Taliban regime—took on a quixotic dream and became an empty promise when attention and resources were diverted to the pre-emptive invasion of Iraq. With America distracted, Afghanistan’s fragile safety net was torn to pieces by a Kabul regime that proved unable or unwilling to contain rampant lawlessness, bribery, unlawful arrests, civilian casualties from air strikes, widespread unemployment, unmitigated narco-trafficking, and a renewed Taliban counter re-insurgency. A majority of Afghans, who once supported the presence of western security forces, have now become jaded and disillusioned. Symbolism in Name Still, Mr. Obama is fortunate to have the general good will and cautious optimism of the Afghan people. A Global Electoral College poll by The Economist prior to the election revealed Afghanistan to be strongly pro-Obama; his ratio of votes over rival John McCain exceeded six to one.

While some Americans thought Obama’s very name would preclude him from winning the presidency, it is captivating to Afghans. Perhaps O-ba-ma, literally and neatly translated into Dari as “He is with us,” serves as an assurance that the incoming American president will help end the seemingly forever war.

Obama’s Afghan Strategy

So far, Mr. Obama has been a vocal supporter of Afghanistan, stating that his foreign policy priority is to defeat terrorism—and to make the country stable and prosperous economically and politically, which is certainly a precursor for lasting peace in this volatile region. During the campaign trail in August 2007, Obama signaled to the world that, if elected, he would withdraw troops from Iraq and re-direct them to the Afghan-Pakistan border in order to defeat Al Qaeda and the Taliban.

With its own policies a failure, the Bush administration has already started implementing Mr. Obama’s ideas. Military brigades initially intended for Iraq are being re-directed to Afghanistan, aerial strikes into Pakistan were launched last July, and a military pact was made with Baghdad in November 2008 for a full withdrawal of American troops from Iraq by 2011. We can expect Mr. Obama to refocus the spotlight on Afghanistan as the “mini-surge” takes full effect—but tough questions remain. Will Mr. Obama negotiate a deal with insurgent Taliban forces, and will Mullah Omar be receptive to any peace deal with remaining foreign troops? If not, will American and NATO forces be willing to fight to protect the fragile Kabul regime until Afghanistan is economically and militarily self-sustaining?

A Model for Afghanistan

Mr. Obama offers tangible hope for the patchwork quilt that makes up the Afghan nation. His ability to transcend the broad spectrum of Afghan society is unusual and particularly important, as Afghanistan lacks a central figure with this sort of appeal. For more religious Afghans, the idea that a person whose patrilineal ancestors are Muslim — and whose middle name is “Hussein” —can become the President of a country that has long been run by a white Judeo-Christian tradition is testimony to the promise and the possibilities of liberal democracy. For urbane and secular Afghans, Mr. Obama, the non-traditional Ivy League graduate who received his undergraduate degree from Columbia and his law degree from Harvard, is also attractive and inspirational. He chose community organizing over the allure of Wall Street and built the most powerful grassroots campaign in history; this symbolizes the axiom that exists for Afghanistan’s nascent democracy as it heads for presidential elections in fall 2009.

Mr. Obama’s scholarly dedication to building his intellectual faculties, pursuit of noble goals such as respect for social ethos, and cultivating his leadership talents has paid big dividends for the communities he has served and the country that beckons him to lead—all the while satisfying his purpose of being a conduit for progress in the world. In the long run, if enough Afghans acquire Obama-like tendencies, the anti-Obama figures in society—those who mock intellect or denigrate progressive values—will find themselves marginalized or obsolete. As the practice of corruption, nepotism, and favoritism for in-groups—such as those within tribal or religious groups—are trumped by the greater commitment to what is best for the Afghan community, this will signal that the “Obama effect,” has taken root in Afghanistan.

Some nay-sayers may claim that this type of wishful thinking is naïve or Pollyannish, in light of Afghanistan’s current position. This is exactly what a great many people thought about the prospects of a black man with Muslim ancestry being elected President of the United States. Far too many self-proclaimed pundits—in private life and in the media—were convinced that there was far too much bigotry in America for Mr. Obama even to make it past the primaries. These and other faulty, pessimistic assumptions vaporized with Mr. Obama’s resounding win on Election Day. Miracles—or hard work—happen, and as the forces of civil order prevail over warlords and the Taliban, they can happen in Afghanistan too.

Afghanistan in the Progressive Era

But there is far greater meaning in Mr. Obama’s victory than the beginning of the end of American racism. Mr. Obama’s win represents a divergent effect, a progressive way of thinking that replaces the entrenched narrow-minded norm. As in America, in future Afghan elections, it will not matter whether a candidate belongs to the dominant Pashtun majority or not. If a qualified and talented Afghan who happens to be of Hazara, Tajik, Uzbek, or whatever hodgepodge (ethnic-group-in-the-making) lineage offers good ideas and a promising vision, then Pashtuns, like white Americans, will have Mr. Obama as a reference point. And the provocative image of love of country will prevail when they cast their votes.

America’s true prowess rests in its soft “cultural” power that intrigues and amazes people and this became evident with the gleeful elation and tearful crowds of jubilance ascended onto the streets as news of Mr. Obama’s victory became universally known. No form of hard power—military intervention can win the “hearts and minds” in Afghanistan or elsewhere as this approach exacerbates the problem and reinforces the resistance. Mr. Obama’s triumph is a more palatable brand of Pax Americana than permanent occupation. If he prevails, then it offers a new lens through which Afghans can perceive themselves, their nation, and define their roles as global citizenry. Whether Mr. Obama succeeds in bringing genuine change to America in his first or even in his second term, he has already mobilized a vast army of foot soldiers whose efforts will re-invent America and send ripples into every nation on earth. Simply put, America’s vote for change provides the impetus for Afghanistan’s vote for change.

The Role of Afghan-Americans

Where do Afghan-Americans fit into this picture? Many of us Afghan-Americans have struggled to define ourselves by trying to integrate and assimilate into American society. Afghan-Americans who left the homeland and not witnessing the destruction of their land or misery of their people, feel a sense of survivor’s guilt—the idea of having the unearned privilege of safely escaping and living in relative comfort while their countrymen endure disease, hunger, opium addiction, refugee camps, terrorism, war, and poverty.

Many Afghan-Americans who have returned home post September 11, to volunteer in the building of the nation or visit, have experienced a country far different that bears little resemblance to the one that existed in the nostalgic memories of Afghanistan that they had while living abroad. Some Afghan-Americans have experienced resentment or hostility from the local population; as having returned from years of exile they are viewed as neo-imperialists who accept political appointments in the Afghan government or international organizations or return to the homeland to procure or sell vestiges of real estate. While to some Afghans, Americans of Afghan heritage, are labeled as “sell-outs” to the hated kafirs (infidels). At this critical juncture, Afghan-Americans are poised to work with the President-elect to help Afghanistan in a meaningful way and possibly reverse their homeland’s “brain drain” by participating in political affairs in the United States and their homeland.

Bi-Racial Ties

Mr. Obama understands the journey of all immigrants. Afghan-Americans can identify with his middle-class roots, his bi-racial heritage, and his personal struggle to fit into black or white America. In their adolescent years, Afghan immigrants, like other recent immigrants of the greater Middle East, feeling rejected or unable to relate to white America, often affect elements of black culture—absorbing “Ebonics” into their lingo, listening to rap music, or dressing in baggy jeans, and corn-rowing their hair. All the while their parents cringe and worry whether the Afghan rumor mills will tarnish their reputation in the community. Many parents scold or ridicule their children for “acting black,” thinking it insulting to Afghan culture, but not quite understanding that their children’s behavior is more socially acceptable than becoming “white washed.” So it should be to no surprise for an Afghan-American to attest as having a strong affinity or emotional connection with the person that is Mr. Obama.

Afghan is the New Black

The irony behind this dichotomy is that the American government’s census reports classify Afghans, a people from the heart of Asia, as Caucasian. This only intensifies the identity crisis and makes Afghans wonder why they have been excluded from the affirmative-action benefits extended to other minority groups, yet they don’t receive any of the privileges afforded the white community. One way Afghan-Americans can resolve this dilemma is to jumpstart the push initiated by Iranian-Americans in 2000 who lobbied the Census to include a fill-in “other” column. In 2010, if a large number of Afghan-Americans accurately identify themselves as such, then the US government will recognize us a substantial group and fund projects for the community.

Beyond that, Mr. Obama, a self-proclaimed “mutt,” stands as an inspirational figure whose self-empowerment can serve as a role model to all immigrants dealing with similar questions of identity. If Bill Clinton was the first “black” American president because of his bonds with the African-American community, then Barack Obama will become the first “Afghan” American president. He can unleash the dreams and possibilities of the nascent community of Afghan immigrants as they re-invent their identities and involve themselves in American politics.

Most Afghan-Americans who settled in the United States in the 1980s and early 1990s were drawn to the Republican Party. After all, it was Ronald Reagan who supported our “freedom fighting” mujahedeen in fending off the Soviets.

Conservative to Progressive Shift

Mr. Obama’s victory has shown that the American political landscape has shifted from the center-right towards the left. There has also been steady shift in party loyalties among the 300,000 Afghan-Americans, an estimate of the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington D.C. In the past, it made sense for Afghan-Americans to vote Republican because those who immigrated during the Cold War brought with them entrepreneurial ideals that made free-market economic views more appealing. It also helped that the socially conservative values of the GOP were compatible with traditional Afghan and Islamic values. Like other Muslim-American communities, however, Afghan-Americans turned against the George W. Bush’s second term. By 2004, with the curtailment of civil liberties and all the foreign policy disasters affecting their homeland, many Afghans had become Democrats or Independents. They voted en masse for the Democratic candidate John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election.

The 2008 election solidified the Afghan-American political realignment. Whether young or old, secular or religious, entrepreneur or bureaucrat, conservative or progressive, the overwhelming majority went to the polls for Mr. Obama. The substantial Afghan population along with the burgeoning Asian immigrant communities of northern Virginia may have given Mr. Obama the needed boost to paint that state in the blue column for years to come. According to an independent poll conducted online and tabulated by Mister Poll an astounding 91 percent of Afghan-Americans voted for Mr. Obama, making the community on par with African-Americans, who according to CNN Exit polls voted 93 percent for Mr. Obama—making these two groups as the most reliably pro-Obama voting bloc.

Pioneering the Afghanistan Brand

One of the most important lessons to be learned from Obama relates to the power of the formidable and provocative brand that he created with his aura of confidence and his ability to project himself as a transformational leader, ready to lead in a perilous time. His efforts were a good deal more than just marketing—despite being named Advertising Age’s 2008 marketer of the year a few weeks before the election. Obama’s talent for marketing could be instructive to Afghanistan, with its geostrategic location, to become an incubator for technological innovation and an engine for economic growth.

Afghanistan previously had a unique branding opportunity in President Hamid Karzai, whose eloquent speech and flair for blending Afghan attire with posh western suits earned him Gucci’s title “chicest man on the planet” followed by a showering of rose petals during a tour of European capitals. But Karzai’s coziness with George W. Bush tarnished his luster as American foreign policy headed towards disaster—or at least disappointment—and all the problems within and beyond Kabul became worse.

Envisioning a Promised Land

What Afghanistan needs now is to rebrand itself, and a few lessons from Obama are probably the best place to start. By showing that the “made in Afghanistan” brand no longer means opium, refugees, and terrorism but rather pomegranates, saffron, and world-class rugs, Afghanistan can become self-sufficient again. It can become a cosmopolitan hub as the free-flow of information and expansive trade networks criss-cross through the heart of the continent.

As Afghanistan reclaims its previous title as the “Switzerland of the East,” the Afghanistan passport will be well-received as Afghans travel abroad and Afghanistan will experience a reverse migration, as people from around the world, students and workers trickle into the country. Tourists will flock to ski slopes and visit ancient ruins, and well-heeled investors will be attracted to profiting from the country’s abundant gemstones and other natural resources like copper, iron, and natural gas among many others.

Perhaps then Afghans can cultivate a set of Obama-like leaders to reclaim Afghanistan’s glorious past as the crossroads of the Silk Road and the Eurasian center of culture and commerce. Afghanistan’s unparalleled hospitality and gourmet cuisine, majestic scenery, and unique fusion of cultures can even edge out Dubai as a destination of choice. The desire to be connected to Afghanistan will intensify as the Afghan brand comes to represent progressivism, creativity, ingenuity, and prosperity. The suffering of the Afghan people will recede into history. As the famous African-American intellectual, W.E.B DuBois once professed, “there is in this world no such force as the force of a person determined to rise. The human soul cannot be permanently chained." Certainly, If Obama can, then yes, Afghans can rise too.

Nemat Sadat is a master's degree candidate in Journalism at Harvard University Extension School. He can be reached at sadat@fas.harvard.edu.

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