US poll pits homeland vs hostland for Afghans

The 300,000-strong Afghan American community has seen little change as a result of US policy in their homeland.

Fremont, California's 'Little Kabul' is home to a strip of Afghan-run businesses [Haroon Latifi/Al Jazeera]
Fremont, California's 'Little Kabul' is home to a strip of Afghan-run businesses [Haroon Latifi/Al Jazeera]

Ahmad Popal was the proud owner of a small restaurant in San Ramon, California, for almost 12 years.

“Almost,” he repeats.

At its height, the business employed 21 people and afforded Popal a relatively comfortable life in the northern California suburb. That all changed with the economic recession.

Like many other small business owners in the US, Popal recently had to close his restaurant. Now, at 34-years-old, he works as an IT and e-Commerce manager at a Ford motor dealership.

While he identifies himself as someone who is “a little bit more on the socially conservative side” and is “120 per cent against gay marriage”, he also cannot see himself voting for Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee for the US presidency.

“I don’t think [Romney] understands the complexity of this economy,” he says.

“He’s going to treat it like a corporation and it’s not. Global and national economics are not the same as company economics. I don’t think he understands that.”

Though Popal cites the loss of his own business as an example of his dissatisfaction with the US economy, his unwillingness to vote for the former business executive is indicative of a dichotomy among a large percentage of Afghans living in the United States.

They may take issue with his some of his policies, but Afghans seem to be willing to give Barack Obama, the incumbent, more time.

Disinterest in Afghanistan

Maryam Ufyani, a 25-year-old Afghan-American active in her local southern California community, too, is voting to re-elect Obama, but with some caveats.

For Ufyani, it is the war in Afghanistan that will weigh on her mind as she casts her vote.

On that issue, she ties Romney to the mistakes of the administration of George W Bush, Obama’s Republican predecessor who first invaded the Central Asian nation in October 2001.

“I think Romney will probably just drive the war effort based off of military needs and not necessarily work with the people and their culture on a more human level,” Uyfani told Al Jazeera.

And it is not just Romney’s foreign policy stances that seem dangerous to many Afghans in the United States.

Nahid Aziz, an associate professor in Washington DC, gave low marks to Romney for his stance on a woman’s right to choose.

Aziz, who immigrated to the US in her twenties, looks at it as one of the defining issues of the election: “I think that it is really critical to me as a woman, especially as a woman coming from Afghanistan who has experience in inequality.”

Like her friend Uyfani, though, Aziz says she wasn’t happy that the war in Afghanistan was largely ignored during the debates.

Nushin Arabzadah, a lecturer at the University of California at Los Angeles, says that though Obama “used Afghanistan a lot in his campaign [in 2008]”, he has come off as largely disinterested in the country she comes from.

As a result, the relationship between Obama and Hamid Karzai, his Afghan counterpart, was particularly strained by the US president’s eagerness to separate himself from the perceived mistakes of his predecessor.

But Arabzadah also casts some of blame for Obama’s apathy towards keeping more troops in Afghanistan and taking a larger role in reconstructing the country on Afghanistan’s foreign affairs ministry and their inability to successfully lobby the White House and US lawmakers for closer relations.

Obama’s apparent disinterest in Afghanistan, however, does not seem to be changing the minds of the younger and more educated Afghans who plan on voting for him.

There’s math behind that claim. Obama won the 2008 election against John McCain, the Republican party’s nominee, by building a coalition composed of women, the youth, minorities and Americans with post-graduate degrees.

Layma Murtaza cites Obamacare as a reason for working to re-elect Barack Obama [Josh Shahryar/Al Jazeera]

It is, then, no surprise that young educated Afghans are looking to repeat that choice. This time, though, some have stepped up their efforts.

Layma Murtaza fits the core Obama constituencies to a tee.

She’s 29, has a masters degree and as part of the 30 per cent of the US minority population, she is doing all she can to re-elect Obama by working as the Executive Director of the United Democratic Campaign in northern California.

Murtaza, born in the United States, comes from a prominent Afghan family and has lived much of her life in Fremont, California, a city that boasts the largest Afghan-American population in the country.

For her, the healthcare overhaul – popularly known as Obamacare – was an important reason to vote for the president.

“I haven’t had insurance for a very long time except when I’m have been in school,” she says, so the choice of voting for the incumbent and working for his campaign could not have been easier for her.

Although religious, she is socially liberal and supports both a woman’s right to choose and gay marriage – issues the Republican Party opposes.

Pockets of Romney support

That’s not to say some Afghans aren’t planning to vote for Romney.

For Wahid Monawar, 38, personal experiences in Afghanistan have left a long-lasting mark.

A former diplomat in the Afghan government, he is one of few Afghan-Americans interviewed who support Mitt Romney. Monawar has even taken to going door-to-door get out the vote for the Romney/Ryan ticket.

For him, it all comes down to ideology.

“My life experience from time in Afghanistan and the political climate of how the leftists created problems there have given me a personal hatred for them,” he told Al Jazeera, referring to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

The repression of the successive Soviet-backed communist leaderships in Afghanistan was what initially led many in the 300,000-strong Afghan community in the US to seek refuge the San Francisco Bay Area and northern Virginia.

Monawar’s hatred of Obama’s ideology is clearly reflected in the Republican policies he does support, including decentralisation and the repeal of Obama’s signature universal healthcare reform bill.

The political experiences Monawar referred to in Afghanistan have gone so far as to leave other Afghans fearful of politics altogether.

As some in the younger generation head to the polls, the older generation’s feelings towards the election is typified by the response of one shop-owner in Fremont, California’s “Little Kabul” shopping district.

When approached for an interview, the gray-haired man smiled and firmly said no.

“I have no interest in politics. Please don’t bother me.”

Source : Al Jazeera


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