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U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Sees Hope Amid Violence


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

Voters in Afghanistan head to the polls this Sunday to elect a national parliament and provincial assembly. After decades of fighting between political and religious factions, many Afghans are wary of party politics. So the thousands of candidates on the ballot are represented by their own photographs instead of political parties. Some former Mujahadeen known as warlords are on the ballot and that has some wondering how free and fair this vote can be. Ronald Neumann is US ambassador to Afghanistan and he joined us from his office in Kabul.

Ambassador Neumann, welcome.

Ambassador RONALD NEUMANN (US Ambassador to Afghanistan): Thank you.

MONTAGNE: In the provinces outside the capital, Kabul, power has been in the hands of warlords for the most part, some of whom, since the Taliban were driven out, have turned into drug lords. How is this election contending with that?

Amb.NEUMANN: There are two ways that it's contending with it. One has been this process of disqualifying people who had armed militias. It has made both some progress in disqualifying people and also put pressure on others to disarm. The second and probably more important operation is the fact that the ballots are not being counted in the polling place. They're being counted in district centers, and this was a decision made deliberately so that in any given rotation, a warlord or drug lord ill not know how the village voted, and he can't take collective reprisal action. But ultimately Afghans are going to walk into the privacy of a voting booth and decide whether they want to vote for the guy with the gun or the poppies.

MONTAGNE: Yeah. Of course, some concern is that this election will legitimize warlords who were at least illegitimate up until now.

Amb.NEUMANN: That's there, but I would say if they are really illegitimate, then I don't think people will vote for them. And if people do vote for them, they are legitimating. They are indicating that that really is their choice, that you really can't have it both ways.

MONTAGNE: You have just come to Kabul from Baghdad. You were there for Iraq's election last January. How different is it there in Afghanistan?

Amb. NEUMANN: It's very different. There is violence. I don't want to underplay this. We could have an incident or some incidents on election day, but it is nothing like what we faced in Iraq in January. And that election came off as a resounding success for much of the Iraqi population, and maybe that's one reason that I'm so optimistic about this one.

MONTAGNE: Candidates, though, have been killed in the run-up to this election there in Afghanistan.

Amb. NEUMANN: Well, so far, six candidates out of 6,000 have been killed. That's .001 percent, and it's not at all clear that all of those cases involved the election. So yes, there has been violence and it still is a violent country, and I'm not trying to say that it's not, but I don't think it is anything like Iraq. It is also not like Iraq in the ease that people have had campaigning. There's a heck of a lot of campaigning going on.

MONTAGNE: So people are not put off by the news that some candidates have been killed?

Amb. NEUMANN: There's 6,000 candidates. It appears that a lot of campaigning is going on. Now there are some provinces where they are more violent and where there are more threats and people are more cautious. And there are large parts of the country in which there's been no violence at all. There are also issues between candidates and their clan violence. This is not a totally settled place yet.

MONTAGNE: You know, I wonder, have you ever thought you might possibly be underestimating the problems in Afghanistan simply because you're coming from a place that was so much worse?

Amb. NEUMANN: I think about that constantly. I do not want to discount problems or violence here because it seems lighter, but it is something that I do consciously raise and talk about with my staff. So it's not one person's judgment.

MONTAGNE: Ronald Neumann is the US ambassador to Afghanistan. Ambassador Neumann, thanks for talking with us.

Amb. NEUMANN: You're most welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.