EAST AND WESTAfghanistanKeeping sight of the goal [Archives:2004/708/Opinion]

February 2 2004

By Jamil Abdul Karim
[email protected]

A car is sprayed with gun fire. Several men in the bullet-ridden vehicle are left slumped over, bloodied, quite dead. A scene from the film The Godfather? No, just Yemen.
The slain – you'll recall from a news report in The Times late last year – were police who chased a suspect in a tribal murder. Their killers ran free. Ho hum, life in Marib goes on. Such are the ways of a country trying to poke its head into modernity.
Indeed, a tribal sheikh said the cops had it coming. “This loss of life is merely the result of the government's interference. We have our own rules, our own lifestyle, our own ways to deal with things, and we want the government to stay out of trouble.”
This, after the Yanks have given tens of millions of dollars, and training, to help secure Yemen. One wonders if Yemen can guard its own coastline without sticking American chewing gum on its boats. The Marib incident even came after thousands of new security officers were put on the beat.

Now to Afghanistan, that backwater that's been forgotten in the terrible crash called Iraq. About 5,000 international troops are trying to keep the peace there. Critics say they're unwittingly protecting drug lords, as Afghanistan apparently now produces 75 per cent of the world's opium. (The Taliban would cut your nose off if your beard wasn't the right length, but it did curtail opium farming.)
Still, you can bet that troops stationed mainly in the capital Kabul, are appreciated by security-starved Afghanis. And those peacekeepers deserve our thoughts as Afghanis now try to leave 20 years of ugly war. Community leaders have finished with their magic markers and easels, and have a draft constitution in hand.
It enshrines rights, like the freedom to mark an X beside the electoral candidate of your choice, rather than the guy with the biggest gun. If the document isn't torn up before the summer, there's hope. Afghanistan may be able to build a new society. Free elections, maybe, in June.

Bumpy ride
If Yemen is any indication, however, theirs will be a bumpy ride. Owner of the only multi-party parliament in the Gulf region, in one generation Yemen has moved from medieval, feudal state under Imam rule, to democratic republic. And for that, it can very proud. Still, democracy Yemeni-style is running a bit like a wobbly jalopy.
It's a good thing that its parliament has been headed for 12 years now by former military chief Ali Abdullah Saleh. He's a moderate and that's been good for the country. And it truly is an amazing feat that he garnered 96 per cent of the tally during the last presidential election.
Not that the opposition is burning up the track with strong candidates. Yemen's second party may have 46 seats, but it still feels it's not quite the right time yet to field its first female candidate. Hey, to each, his (or her) own.
And we know that elections at all levels do tend to get a bit rough amid all those charges and countercharges of poll-rigging, not to mention backroom deals cooked up over a mish-mash of bread and honey. And those kidnapping games, taking hostages to gain leverage in anti-terror pacts with tribes? Isn't that what the former Imam did?
Okay, enough about the nobility and bourgeois. Most Afghanis, like Yemenis, live in the sticks, where you're lucky to have a change of clothes for the kids. They want water and electricity and health clinics. A paved road to get there before dying would be nice too. They care less about elections than safety so they can send their kids to school.
So while the best form of counterterrorism may be democracy, even the Magna Carta (remember that great Charter of English Liberty from 1215) carved in gold won't help folks who are drowning in poverty, ignorance and danger.

Freedom for Afghanis, with their historic divides and six million widows, it seems afraid, will be a slow journey to a hazy destination: like in Yemen, a trying game of three steps forward and two back.
Still, at the end of the day, when all is said, the effort is really is worth it, is it not? If it wasn't, chances are, you wouldn't be reading this. Go Yemen. Go Afghanistan. Keep your eyes on the goal.

Jamil Abdul Karim is an editor at The Yemen Times.