A proud moment for Afghanistan

We were a generation that had never known happiness, spending most of our lives on the run, knocking on door after door. Our shoes were hand-outs from our neighbours, our dreams secondhand. We watched others support their presidential candidates, and then vote for them in terrifying excitement. But we didn't know what it felt like to elect your own president. We had become used to envying others for what they had. We had never owned anything.

Written in Dari, these were the words of the poet Reza Mohammadi, summing up the feelings of an entire generation about the forthcoming elections in Afghanistan. But today, Afghans had reason to be proud. The independent TV station Tolo aired live the country's first presidential debate. It ran smoothly. Regardless of the outcome, the debate marked a historic moment in the democratisation of Afghanistan.

Links and information were shared rapidly via Facebook, allowing expatriates and locals alike to watch and listen no matter how far they were from Kabul. Comments rained in, but the common feeling was one of achievement. "I wished President Karzai had attended the debate; he could have had a share in our success," said observer Qasim Akhgar in a follow-up discussion programme aired by Tolo TV and its sister stations Lemar TV and Arman radio.

Twenty-four hours before the broadcast, President Karzai had pulled out of the debate. His campaign team came up with a contradictory set of explanations. The invitation had arrived too late; the TV station has violated media laws. And then the recently banned Kabulpress website quoted Karzai's own characteristically bloke-in-the-bazaar words: "Brothers, first I need to know whether the guy who I'll be up against and debating with is an Afghan or not? I mean, is he really an Afghan or has he been sent from abroad just to put me under pressure? Is he just some guy who's kept his foreign passport safe with the US embassy and so he can do a disappearing act if he doesn't beat me?"

The jibe was intended for Ashraf Ghani, a World Bank economist and one of Karzai's two main rivals. Bearing in mind that Karzai himself for many years boasted of US support as his main asset, the comment was somewhat ironic. Eager to downplay these old associations, Karzai has banned a website for displaying a photograph of him looking dishevelled and surrounded by a group of US special forces.

The photograph was taken in Urozgan during the early days of his career as Afghanistan's US-backed interim president. To be fair to Karzai, he is not the first Afghan leader to land in Afghanistan in a foreign helicopter and surrounded by foreign soldiers. The mujahedin leaders landed at Bagram air base in a Pakistani helicopter in the 1990s and before them, the Soviets flew in their candidate, President Babrak Karmal, in their Sikorsky.

Even if Karzai pulled out at the last minute, what did Afghans make of this first presidential debate which, in the absence of the president himself, was held between the two other candidates, Ashraf Ghani and former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah? Ghani stood out for his clear and specific economic policies but his understanding of Afghan politics was generally viewed as unsatisfactory. Abdullah, by contrast, was vague on economic questions but displayed a superior grasp of the working of Afghan politics and society. The candidates were civil to each other and shared a common criticism of Karzai's administration, even though both had a role in shaping it early on. Some Karzai opponents believe that the two rivals should join hands and campaign against Karzai as a team.

Their skills complement each other and their belonging to the two main ethnic groups, Abdullah a Tajik and Ghani a Pashtun, is seen as an added electoral asset. But there's one problem: their egos. Afghan leaders are famous for their reluctance to share power. They would rather preside over a smaller faction than abdicate power for the cause of the greater good and by doing so, become a mere deputy. As the Afghan saying has it, no one wants to be a dime; everyone wants to be a dollar. But Ghani and Abdullah might yet surprise everyone. In any case, Karzai was the clear loser in this first presidential debate. His opponents accused him of cowardice while his supporters wished he had joined in even if only to prove his rivals wrong about this.

Be that as it may and despite the initial enthusiasm, not all Afghans are hopeful about this election. For some critics, the race between Karzai and Ghani is no mark of progress and only a continuation of the old tribal rivalry of Durrani versus Ghilzai Pashtuns for the leadership of Afghanistan. Karzai is a Durrani; Ghani, like Mullah Omar, is a Ghilzai which is why Ghani has reportedly claimed that unlike Karzai, he is capable of persuading the Taliban to negotiate peace. Accusations of ethnic nationalism and discrimination against non-Pashtuns have been levelled against Ghani though his main weakness appears to be his short fuse and his over-reliance on Western support. His choice of an American campaign advisor, James Carville, has not helped his cause.

By contrast to Ghani, Abdullah has been accused of keeping his head down for the sake of political expediency and not speaking up for any clear policy so as to keep his options open. Abdullah's critics claim his term as foreign minister from 2001 to 2006 allowed corruption to thrive, pointing out that his staff turned the Afghan embassy in the crucial neighbouring capital of Tehran into a lucrative business, trading national assets such as precious stones and historical artefacts. A document recently posted on Kabulpress, provides evidence of considerable financial abuse on the part of a senior Afghan diplomat working under Abdullah during his tenure as foreign minister.

But then again, hardly any Afghan politician is free of such accusations, whether of corruption, racism or even espionage. Afghans have no choice but to make do with who is on offer and even those who were unimpressed by the candidates, couldn't help but be impressed by the debate itself. Karzai or no Karzai, with the studio lights, debates and make-up, Afghan politics has come a long way from the Loya Jirga held in a borrowed Bavarian beer tent in 2001.

Nushin Arbabzadah, who was brought up in Kabul during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.