The pivotal presidential elections in Afghanistan next April will rest more than ever before on a new generation, as the proportion of the country’s population under the age of 25 reaches 68 percent.

Young Afghans listen to Kabul Dreams, Afghanistan's best known rock band, at an Afghan Youth Voices Festival event allowing men and women to socialize together in Kabul, Afghanistan, June 27, 2013. Though they have embraced western fashion, technology, and music over the last decade, the Afghan youth still appear to be a generation bound to their society's conservative ways, especially when it comes to women's rights. (Christoph Bangert/The New York Times)
Young Afghans listen to Kabul Dreams, Afghanistan's best known rock band, at an Afghan Youth Voices Festival event allowing men and women to socialize together in Kabul, Afghanistan, June 27, 2013. Photo Credit: NYT/Christoph Bangert

To gauge the potential influence of youth on the elections as well as their attitudes and their degree of political activism, USIP has commissioned two studies that will interview more than 270 young leaders across the most populous provinces. 

“The old guard, which has prevented reform, is not ready to relinquish power, and forward-looking youth groups don’t seem to be ready to challenge them,” said Scott Smith, USIP’s deputy director of Afghanistan programs. “The key questions for this election, and therefore for the future of Afghanistan, is whether the ballot box will matter, and if it does, whether the youth vote will be decisive.”

Young Afghan leaders have conducted human rights education in their communities, tracked the national budget to hold elected leaders to account, worked in newly established government ministries, and run for parliament. Take, for example, 29-year-old Naheed Farid, the youngest member of Afghanistan’s lower house of parliament, who is considered an outspoken supporter of young Afghans becoming more involved in the political processes.

At the same time, some have been frustrated by the concentration of power in the hands of older, established leaders both at home and abroad who often take what the youth see as outmoded, intransigent positions that keep Afghanistan mired in the past.

“Afghanistan has transformed, and both our leaders at home as well as our allies in the U.S. or elsewhere need to start adopting a new set of optics towards the country,” said Haseeb Humayoon, the founding partner and director of QARA Consulting Inc., the first Afghan-owned public relations and political risk consulting firm. Humayoon, who spoke at a June 28 panel discussion at USIP on youth in Afghanistan, previously worked at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, conducting research and briefing members of Congress.

Humayoon is a council member for Afghanistan 1400, a civil-political movement founded in December that aims to establish a political platform for the country’s new generation. Another leading youth-established policy group in Afghanistan is Afghanistan Analysis and Awareness (A3), said Rachel Reid, director of the Regional Policy Initiative on Afghanistan and Pakistan, who moderated the panel.

The generation gap in Afghanistan is becoming more acute, as is the divide between Afghanistan’s burgeoning urban population and those left behind in rural areas. Still, militant radicalization among the youth isn’t limited to rural areas anymore either, as more move to urban centers. The advancement of women in society also chafes in some quarters.

Afghanistan 1400’s name reflects the impending Afghan century (it’s now 1392 according to the traditional calendar). The group wanted to signal its desire to look forward and move past the blame-game politics of the past, said Shaharzad Akbar, the chairperson of Afghanistan 1400, at the USIP panel discussion.

The next generation is “more willing to work with each other, past their differences, for a shared future,” she said. “They have strong political values – democratic values.”

During the visit to Washington, the group’s leaders urged American officials to set aside what they saw as distractions such as talks with the Taliban and concentrate what U.S. leverage still exists on helping ensure that Afghanistan’s presidential election, scheduled for April 5, will be free and fair. That balloting will lay the foundation for a new Afghan government as the NATO-led alliance prepares to withdraw most of its troops at the end of 2014.

“We believe, if we have a smooth transition of power for the first time from one elected leader to another, that we will continue on a stable path,” Akbar said.

Maiwand Rahyab, a founding member of Afghanistan 1400, said he sees young women working full-time during the day and paying for night school to get a university education. When he got his law degree under Taliban rule, no females were even allowed in primary school, much less further education or work.

“The new generation is trying to take charge, trying to feel responsible,” said Rahyab, who is deputy director of Counterpart International in Afghanistan but said he was speaking in his role with Afghanistan 1400.  “There’s this growing sense of civic activism and responsibility among Afghans in general, particularly the younger generation.”

Still, the advantages that allow some of Afghanistan’s urban youth to think about and work on those kinds of issues don’t extend to those in more rural areas, where young people first need jobs to support their families, said Hossai Wardak, who was a senior Afghanistan expert at USIP until July. Unemployment among Afghan youth runs at 35 percent, she said.

Afghanistan 1400 is trying to bridge the urban-rural divide too. Members from Kabul went to the western province of Farah in the aftermath of a suicide bombing recently that left more than 50 dead. The group’s goal was to offer sympathy, donate blood, and send “a message of defiance and of strength,” Akbar said.

Andrew Wilder, USIP’s director of Afghanistan and Pakistan programs and the former director of Save the Children in Afghanistan in the 1990s, said the country’s youth bulge creates challenges in ensuring adequate education, health care and employment, despite the marked advances in all those fields in the past decade.

“It’s incumbent on all of us who are interested and concerned about Afghanistan to do our utmost to see what we can do to preserve those gains,” Wilder said at the June 28 forum.

Viola Gienger is a senior writer at USIP.

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