2014 is an important year for Afghanistan. The NATO troops will make their exit, and elections will take place. Despite signs of progress, people in Kabul are filled with apprehension.

Eight-year-old Ahmed and Hillal hold a weighing scale and stand in the driveway of the House of Jehad, once the headquarters of the Mujahedeen. Located on a hilltop, in the outskirts of Herat, the third largest city in Afghanistan, the building has now been converted into a hotel for foreigners and is also a popular sightseeing spot for locals. The little Afghan boys have never been to school. They earn around $10 dollars (about 530 Afghani) by persuading visitors to weigh themselves. The future of children like Ahmed and Hillal is presently shrouded in uncertainty in an Afghanistan in transition.

This March, I was in the country to attend the first ever International Film Festival to mark International Women’s Day, held at Herat in Western Afghanistan. News of bombings kept pouring in from Herat, Kabul and Northern Afghanistan. I personally heard of three episodes in just 10 days: an explosion near the Governor’s house in Herat on March 7, a suicide bombing outside the Afghan Defence Ministry in Kabul on March 9 (killing 19 people even as the US Defence Secretary was in Kabul holding a press conference), and a suicide attack reported in another northern province (killing 10) on March 13. Afghan children, I am told, dive under the blankets as ‘breaking news’ of the next bombing is announced on the now prolific media channels.

But bombings and doomsday scenarios apart, there is a perceptible air of restlessness and impatience in cities like Kabul and Herat — a change that even I could see. The Kabul I visited in October 2010, on the tenth anniversary of the NATO troops having landed in Afghanistan, was a very different place from the city in March 2013 .The snow had begun to melt from the mountains after a long and harsh winter. Spring was in the air, and along with it a nervous energy about what lies in store for Afghanistan in the next 12months. 2014 marks a very important calendar year for this war-ravaged country. The NATO troops are to make an exit after 11 years. 2014 is also a crucial election year.

The taxi service that ferries me around Kabul is titled Safe Taxi and the 20-year-old driver, Aziz, asks me, “Will I get a scholarship to study in India?” He is doing a four-year course in Business Management in the evenings, and is aware of the 650-700 scholarships that India awards Afghan students every year. Aziz reflects the new educated aspirational youth in Afghanistan today. His music system in the car plays the popular Hindi film song ‘Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hain’ (I feel the urge to live again) from Guide — only, it’s an Afghan singer singing in Dari.

Aziz keeps me educated. “She is Ghazala, a very famous singer from our country. She lives in Canada now.” Like Ghazala, most of Afghanistan’s prominent women singers live in exile from their homeland. Afghans love to listen to 70-year-old Ustad Mahwash, known as Afghanistan’s Lata Mangeshkar, who lives in the U.S. Hangama, Parastoo and Naghma are the other popular women singers in exile. Hindi films and Hindi songs are a lifeline for the Afghan psyche. The famous Cinema Park theatre in Kabul features a poster of the Kareena Kapoor-starrer Fida.

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The Afghan New Year falls in the month of March. In downtown Kabul, posters wishing Afghans “A Happy New Year” have sprung up. There are iconic posters of Ahmed Shah Masood looking down at passers by at almost at every road crossing. “He motivates everyone in Afghanistan,” says my young educated driver. Kabul’s wedding halls have also multiplied since 2010. They are said to be doing brisk business. Many new shopping malls have surfaced. “In the last two years we are doing good business. Let us see what happens in the future,” says Behroze, a young shop owner in a spanking new Kabul mall. There are exclusive women’s malls, selling women’s products which ironically include whitening creams. Modern gymnasiums beckon young Afghans to enrol and get into shape. Billboards advertising energy drinks like Power Cola and Shark have ad lines that read “Bring out the beast”.

At this juncture, people in Afghanistan seem to be in the mood for make or break. Nearly 80 per cent of the country is already under Afghan security forces. The Afghan youth have smelt opportunity with education in the last 10 years and do not want a return to Taliban years. The number of antennas on the TV Mountain in Kabul has gone up substantially in the past 20 months. TV and radio have raised aspirations about a new Afghanistan that is sovereign and free from foreign domination as well as the grip of the Taliban and Pakistan. Debates and programme innovations are getting sharper in the run up to the two major events next year: troop pullout and election.

“Afghanistan has changed,” says A. Rahman Panjshiri, Director of Planning and International Relations at Radio Television Afghanistan (RTA), Afghanistan’s state-owned channel. “It is not the same as it was in 2002. As an Afghan journalist, if you ask me if the Taliban has gone, the answer is ‘no’. But everyone is going to school, and there is deeper awareness of human rights, thanks to free media. No one believes that the Taliban can just walk in now, if Pakistan does not participate in the peace process.” Afghan personnel from the Election Commission of Afghanistan are presently in India undergoing training in the run up to the 2014 polls. Gautam Mukhopadhyay, Indian Ambassador in Kabul, adds, “India is hoping that the security and political transition in Afghanistan goes well. If the elections scheduled for 2014 are a success, it will consolidate the gains of the last 12 years.”

The economic transition in Afghanistan after the NATO troops depart is also on everyone’s mind. Mukhopadhyay says, “The transition slump is causing apprehension here. There is going to be severe decline in money once the troops leave and although the international community has pledged aid, there are conditions attached to the elimination of corruption.” Undoubtedly, employment remains a major issue. With thousands of young men and women passing out of Afghan universities and others taking computer and other management courses in the evenings, the main concern is whether this education will yield jobs post 2014.

Judge Najla Ayubi, lawyer, human rights activist and Afghanistan Country Director for Open Society Foundation, says, “65 to 70 per cent of our people are under the age of 25 and one of the major concerns after the withdrawal of the international community is that there may be massive unemployment, as 80 to 90 per cent of the economy is dependent on aid. It’s a huge concern here for us.” According to her, of the 125,000 that pass out from schools in Afghanistan, the government can accommodate only around 45,000-47,000 students. The rest are forced to opt out of higher education and may even remain unemployed. “It is this group that then becomes vulnerable to forces that want to misuse them.”

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The Indian government is trying to help Afghanistan tide over this economic slump by hoping to generate work in small and medium industries, education, healthcare, mining, agricultural and agro-products. SAIL, which has won mining bids, is planning to set up a steel plant. In November 2011, India eliminated customs duties for products of least developed countries in SAARC, which has been a help to Afghanistan. At a Delhi investment summit for Afghan industry in June 2012, nearly 300 delegates attended the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) session, and on March 16, 2013, a 20-member CII delegation visited Kabul to chalk out mutually beneficial proposals.

Politically, neither Afghanistan nor India have taken seriously the recent remark from the US Defence Secretary nominee Chuck Hagel, who embarrassed even the White House by saying that India has “financed problems” for Pakistan in Afghanistan, or even Pakistan’s reported condition to Afghanistan that it should sever links with India for Afghan-Pak peace talks to proceed. The main discussion on the streets of Kabul and Herat and in the Presidential Palace are how Pakistan continues to stoke the Taliban to cause mayhem in Afghanistan, and the continuing flip-flop of the U.S. in tackling Pakistan and Taliban.

The participation of women in the transition is another crucial aspect for Afghanistan. Both in Herat and Kabul, I found many more girls going to school. Afghanistan, I thought, was full of Mallala Yusufzais, as I watched these determined little schoolgirls march to school donning their head scarves. There are public service billboards everywhere urging girls to go to school. “Today 38 per cent of new enrolled students in Afghanistan are girls,” says Najla Ayubi. “There are 6-7 million children in school today; before the civil war there was just one million.”

“If you look at the last 10 years, you will see the participation of women going up in politics, health, media and sports,” says Amina Mayar, Editor-in-chief of a weekly women’s magazine run by Killid Media, one of Afghanistan’s bold new media outfits. Mursal Weekly started exactly 10 years ago, in 2003, and has not missed a single issue despite threats to staff. Today it has a circulation of 15,000 in 32 provinces. “Today we have 25 per cent women in the Parliament — not a bad number for Afghanistan.”

But reports of rape, forced marriages, self-immolation by women, practices like Baad (where a daughter is given in marriage to the enemy as compensation) and lack of women teachers continue to cause huge concern. “In 2002, 30 per cent civil servants were women. Today it is down to 16 per cent,” says Najla Ayubi. “Women are not getting the equal opportunities they deserve both in government and the private sector.” She points out the disturbing events of end-January, where women prisoners in Mazhar and Herat were sent for virginity tests. “If women are not the target from the development point of view in the transition era, it will be a huge setback for the country as a whole.”

On March 8, International Women’s Day, women and men at the 83-year-old Literary Society of Herat, which functioned in secrecy through the Taliban years, paid tribute to the trials, tribulations and aspirations of Afghan women through an evening of poetry reading. Sepideh Akbar Zadeh, a 10-year-old schoolgirl, read out a powerful and moving poem she wrote, on discrimination against the girl child.

The impression I come away with this time is that glass is half full in Afghanistan. How the 2014 election plays out, as most pointed out, will be utterly crucial. If it manages to have some semblance of being free and fair and democratic, even if the verdict is fractured, Afghanistan may indeed script a new era for a country where every single family has lost at least one member to the long war.

Flying over the snow-clad mountains, I think of the pink shugufa flowers in bloom on the hillsides of Herat where I met little Ahmed and Hillal with their weighing scales. I reflect on the writing of Maulana Abdul Rehman Jami, known as Afghanistan’s Shakespeare, on his gravestone in a 900-year-old shrine in Herat: “Days are passing...weeks are passing...no one comes to my grave and prays for me.” Surely the opportunism of the world, with regard to Afghanistan, will end one day soon?

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