U.S. Ambassador Tours Area Outside Kabul Afghanistan holds presidential elections on Thursday, and the Taliban already has launched a violent campaign of intimidation. There are areas that are safer than others. U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl Eikenberry travels to the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif — a place that offers a vision of a peaceful and prosperous future.
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U.S. Ambassador Tours Area Outside Kabul

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U.S. Ambassador Tours Area Outside Kabul

U.S. Ambassador Tours Area Outside Kabul

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

Afghanistan holds its presidential election this week. The voting comes Thursday, and the campaign of intimidation by the Taliban is underway right now. That included a suicide car bombing in Kabul over the weekend. MORNING EDITION's Renee Montagne has been reporting from Afghanistan for the past month, and she traveled from the capital, Kabul, with U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry. And they went to a place that offers a vision of a different future for Afghanistan, peaceful and prosperous: the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

RENEE MONTAGNE: One thing about arriving with an ambassador, you can count on a big welcome from small children.

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

(Soundbite of clapping)

MONTAGNE: After being serenaded and presented with a bouquet of plastic blue and white flowers, Karl Eikenberry singles out the tallest child, a boy in a silver suit and green shirt: What's your favorite class? Dari, his language.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ambassador KARL EIKENBERRY (U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan): And what you want to be when you grow up?

Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Child: (Foreign language spoken)

(Soundbite of laughter, applause)

Unidentified Man #1: President.

Unidentified Child: President.

Amb. EIKENBERRY: President.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Yes, to a question rarely posed to an Afghan child, the answer is president.

Amb. EIKENBERRY: I have to tell this young man I wish him luck, but as the ambassador of the United States, I can't favor any candidate.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: Karl Eikenberry makes it his business to travel everywhere in Afghanistan. He's come to Mazar-e-Sharif in part because things are going well here. Virtually all of its polling sites are expected to open on election day. City roads are mostly paved. There's electric power, an international airport in the works, factories are being built and its bazaar is packed.

Amb. EIKENBERRY: Is this your donkey here?

Unidentified Man #2: Yes.

MONTAGNE: The ambassador is surrounded by cameras and mikes, dozens of armed guards and local dignitaries. But he's sincere in the idea that getting out of his armored car and in front of Afghans is important.

Amb. EIKENBERRY: How's your business? How is it - how's it compared to last year, say?

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #4: This year.

Amb. EIKENBERRY: This year's better? And you do you know who this is?

Unidentified Man #3: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #4: I know.

Amb. EIKENBERRY: Who is that?

Unidentified Man #4: Hold on. It's the…

Amb. EIKENBERRY: Governor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MONTAGNE: And that would be Governor Atta Mohammad. He's the man who is credited with making this entire province secure enough to prosper after he helped drive out the Taliban. At the market, men pushed passed armed guards to kiss his hand. Here in Afghanistan, Atta Mohammad is one of the most successful examples of a Mujahedeen commander turned warlord, turned politician. An educated man, comfortable with power, striding through the bazaar in a well-tailored suit alongside the American ambassador.

Amb. EIKENBERRY: Are you going to vote in the election on the 20th of August in Tovosh(ph)? Maybe someone discuss?

Unidentified Man #5: (Foreign language spoken)

Amb. EIKENBERRY: (unintelligible)

Unidentified Man #5: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #6: Yes.

Amb. EIKENBERRY: Are you excited about the election?

Unidentified Man #5: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Man #7: (Foreign language spoken)

MONTAGNE: Karl Eikenberry is on his third tour in Afghanistan. Twice before, he came here as an army general. On this day after returning from one of his many ambassadorial trips around the country, he phones President Hamid Karzai to talk about the bombing earlier in the morning. He speaks with Senator John McCain about an upcoming visit. And he speaks with us about his day in Mazar-e-Sharif.

Is Mazar-e-Sharif one possible future for Afghanistan?

Amb. EIKENBERRY: It is. There's prosperity. There's hope. There's order there. And yes, it should give us confidence that if we can get the government up and running in parts of the country where there is insecurity right now, yeah, I'd leaved a place like Mazar-e-Sharif saying that it's possible to get things quite right in this country.

MONTAGNE: So when you make trips as you do - what about once, sometimes twice a week…

Amb. EIKENBERRY: Either once or twice a week I'm up there with my wife Ching.

MONTAGNE: That's right. And oftentimes walk right down through a market with the two of you together…


MONTAGNE: …showing a couple that are partners. Of course, these aren't totally natural visits to market and whatnot. You are surrounded by heavy security, often by the local press. What are you trying to achieve?

Amb. EIKENBERRY: Well, talk about that Ching coming with me. Ching being out there in the provinces and walking through the bazaars is accomplishing something, Renee, I can't accomplish on my own, and that is by her presence, she's putting a spotlight on women's affairs in Afghanistan. I'm a man. I can't do that. If I try to do it, it's going to be misperceived as a Western political agenda. I don't know how Afghanistan can become a modern nation unless women have a more advanced role in the society. So, that's first.

Second, Afghanistan is a country, if you look at their modern history, they've had powers come and powers go. So what're we doing, then, when we get outside of this embassy and taking a lot of Afghan media with us and getting around to every province of this country to walking the bazaars? We're very visibly trying to reassure the Afghan people that we are here for the long haul.

MONTAGNE: You spent the day in the capital of the province that we were in, Mazar-e-Sharif, with the governor. Really popular in his province, but there are allegations of tax skimming, drug smuggling. Where is the balance between accepting someone who actually can provide for his people and worry about corruption?

Amb. EIKENBERRY: Well, ultimately those are decisions, Renee, for the people of Afghanistan to address. You know, Renee, in the year 2002 was my first trip to Mazar-e-Sharif. The progress that's occurred in that city and I believe around Mazar has been extraordinarily impressive. The province had a tremendous amount of poppy production several years ago, and now the province is poppy-free.

If I look at the level of services that are being provided in Mazar-e-Sharif, a city, I think, of about 500,000, things are just working there right now. Look, are there problems in the province? Sure, there's problems of insecurity in some places. There are allegations of corruption. There's allegations of some criminal activities. But for a country that, in 2001, had no institutions of the state, just abject poverty and the brutality of Taliban rule, that's pretty extraordinary right now, what we saw when we went to Mazar-e-Sharif.

MONTAGNE: Ambassador Eikenberry, one hour after your convoy headed out to make the trip to the relatively peaceful north and the city of Mazar-e-Sharif, a car pulled up at checkpoint down the street from the embassy and set off a massive bomb. This area is one of the most heavily guarded places in the capital. Is this a message saying in the - just days before the election, we can get to you?

Amb. EIKENBERRY: Clearly, that's the message that the terrorists were trying to send. You have a balance in this kind of environment between protecting the force, as we say, and protecting the mission. To protect the force, you need to put barriers up everywhere and put more body armor on yourselves.

But at the same time, you've got to be able to protect the mission. And we talked earlier about walking through the bazaars and trying to connect directly with the Afghan people, showing them we have confidence in this mission. That's a challenge for us.

I have confidence, though, in the people of this country. The 20th of August will represent the first election of a president of Afghanistan ever led by the Afghan people in their history. That will not be a perfect election. And yet I have confidence that that election will be a defeat for the enemies that we face together, and that's international terrorism.

MONTAGNE: And Ambassador Eikenberry, thank you for talking with us.

Amb. EIKENBERRY: Thank you, Renee.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: MORNING EDITION's Renee Montagne sat down over the weekend with the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Karl Eikenberry. She's on her way back to the States now, and she'll be sitting down with us again in a couple of days here in our studios in Washington.

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