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Younger Generation Poised To Lead Afghanistan's Future


This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne, in Kabul, Afghanistan.


And I'm Steve Inskeep, in Washington, with David Greene.

Renee's been in Afghanistan as the United States prepares to substantially draw down its presence in that country, which puts the focus on the Afghans who will try to run the country next. Renee's been reporting on a generation that's poised to take over: younger political and business leaders, a group we have not heard much about, even though Afghans under 35 make up about 75 percent of the population. It's a very young country.

And, Renee, what marks the younger generation in Afghanistan?

MONTAGNE: This is what marks them, Steve: every one under about the age of 35 was born into war. And they've endured their country's nearly unbroken string of conflicts in their young lives. And they've come of age as Afghanistan struggles to come back as a country. And in the last couple of years, scores of youth groups have sprung up. They're aimed at creating a civil society. And I have to say, it's quite a range of interests.

I mean, there's women's rights, of course. And also something that might that might surprise people, one called Youth in Action: It advocates for a more green Afghanistan. And what they say as they travel around the country actually cleaning up the streets and pushing for a ban on plastic.

INSKEEP: Trying to get past the war and focus on the environment. Now, what else are you hearing?

MONTAGNE: I'll tell you, I'm hearing, in particular, one voice, and that has surprised a lot of people here. That would be the 30-something founder of an election watchdog group. He's the former head of the country's Human Rights Commission. His name is Nader Nadery. And he's just published an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal that extolled Afghanistan's civil society. That's a bit of surprise. He writes that it has blossomed.

Now, Nadery is famous here for, at some risk to himself, taking on the powers that be. He hasn't lost sight of the challenges. But when we sat down at his office here in Kabul, I ask him why the optimism now, just as Afghanistan heads into an uncertain future.

NADER NADERY: Throughout the past 10 years, people like us, like me, were out there pushing and struggling and lobbying, being on the street, being on the - knocking on the parliament's house, the politicians, on the media. And I'm still doing that.

Now, the fear is that by ignoring what we have built, there's a very clear chance of what I call a self-fulfilling prophecy: 2014, Afghanistan is going to fall apart. There's going to be, again, a civil war, and - there was nothing being done, and therefore it's going to be a doomsday.

MONTAGNE: Nader Nadery says that while suicide attacks make the headlines, most Afghans are now focused on jobs, the rule of law and next year's presidential elections. Insecurity, corruption, the well-documented waste of international aid, all that has made it an article of faith for many that the only future for Afghanistan is a dark one.

The fact is, there has been a dramatic opening to the outside world, thanks to a proliferation of media, a flood of cell phones now accessible even to most women, and education.

In the past 10 years, the seeds were planted. This younger generation of Afghanistan, they want an upward mobility and the political life of Afghanistan and the government. Most of them are visionary. They want a different Afghanistan for themselves and for their kids.

Among those young visionaries is Shaharzad Akbar. She's a leader of one of those youth groups poised to play a greater role in Afghanistan's future. A core value of this movement is that these young Afghans have transcended the ethnic and ideological divides that pitted their own parents against each other.

SHAHARZAD AKBAR: We don't sympathize with the battles that our parents had with other.

MONTAGNE: Those battles began with the Soviet invasion in 1979 that propped up Afghanistan's communist government, which was then fighting the Mujahedeen. After the Soviets withdrew, the Mujahedeen turned into warlords and launched a bloody civil war that, by the mid '90s, had reduced Kabul to rubble.

It was during a brief ceasefire that Shaharzad's parents grabbed their little girls and fled.

AKBAR: I remember my mom dragging us through the streets. And for the first time, I saw corpses - like, people dead, lying on the street. And, you know, my siblings were crying, and we were terrified. And I remember I didn't have shoes because we had walked through Kabul city and my shoes had fallen apart.

MONTAGNE: Her family ended up as refugees in Pakistan, returning only after the Taliban government was driven out. Now, at 25, Shaharzad Akbar heads one of the most influential of the youth groups, Afghanistan 1400, named after the new century of the Persian Calendar that dawns in eight years.

A version of her wartime experience is shared by virtually everyone in these groups. But something else they have in common is opportunity. They've seized on the chance for a higher education, thanks to the many scholarships and grants that have flowed in. Shaharzad Akbar has degrees from Smith College and Oxford. Sahmi Sadat, a 28-year-old founder of another group, graduated from the UK Defense Academy, and those opportunities, he says, have brought a new sense of what's possible.

SAHMI SADAT: Afghanistan broke with history post-2001 when the Taliban regime was collapsed. We have accepted each other, the coexistence. All tribes, everyone who was an Afghan, was welcomed back to the country and was given a chance to come and serve their country. And we are actually the result of this one decade of peace. And now we stand for our country, and we work together.

MONTAGNE: It's very interesting that you said these last 10 years of peace, because much of the rest of the world thinks you've all just spent the last 10 or 12 years in the middle of a war.

SADAT: The standards of defining peace may differ from West to Afghanistan. Of course, everything happened in the backdrop of a counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, but we still feel that it was peaceful enough that we could have gone to schools. It was peaceful enough that we had freedom of speech. It was peaceful enough for me to travel to the rest of the world and learn, come back and apply new concepts and make Afghanistan a better place.

MONTAGNE: Each of the youth groups has its own approach. Sahmi Sadat's A3 uses its well-connected membership - which includes a young tribal leader and several top government advisors - to lobby and influence policy. They've also become adept at political theater. A few days ago, they drove a caravan of cars six hours to the border with Pakistan. It was a show of patriotism and a moment to honor the border police who recently lost one of their own in a rare clash with Pakistani forces.

The fallen border officer has since become something of a national hero here, a country where anti-Pakistan feelings run deep.


MONTAGNE: At the border, the A3 activists gave appreciative speeches and handed out tiny Afghan flags. The border police told tales of bravery, defending the nation's honor.


MONTAGNE: Clearly, the bigger challenge for Afghanistan's new generation come 2014 when NATO combat forces pull out, is the insurgency, the Taliban and militant groups linked to it.

Still, of the several wars that have beset these Afghans throughout their lives, many see a civil war between ethnic groups as a thing of the past. Those were the battles that forced Shaharzad Akbar's family to flee Kabul. Now, she says, the warlords who led those ethnic militias are also invested in the new Afghanistan.

AKBAR: None of them will benefit from instability and war. You know, they have businesses here. The Mujahedeen have grown very comfortable in the past 10 years. Their soldiers have also - the militia has also grown very comfortable.

MONTAGNE: So to put it in another way, you're saying that Afghanistan is not a prisoner of its own history. It's not doomed, or even likely to repeat its history, because things are just that different now.

AKBAR: Actually, I think things are just that different.


MONTAGNE: We've been hearing from young leaders of civil society here in Kabul. Tomorrow, a young business man, who, in the last decade, built from scratch a business empire, everything from mining operations to media.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I had a TV, wooden TV set. I'd be in the (unintelligible), and now I own a TV channel. I mean, look at how much things have changed. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Renee Montagne, one of the best-known names in public radio, is a special correspondent and host for NPR News.
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