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Afghan Elections

A Complex Electorate Casts Its Ballots

Afghans in U.S., Unable to Vote in Presidential Election, Campaign From Afar

Mir Farid Hashimi, left, manager of Afghan Restaurant in Alexandria, with Asif Abbasi, says he has called family in Afghanistan urging them to support Hamid Karzai in Thursday's election.
Mir Farid Hashimi, left, manager of Afghan Restaurant in Alexandria, with Asif Abbasi, says he has called family in Afghanistan urging them to support Hamid Karzai in Thursday's election. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
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By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 17, 2009

Late at night, after he gets home from his job managing an Afghan restaurant in Alexandria, Mir Farid Hashimi makes long-distance calls, trying to convince relatives in Afghanistan that despite the hard times there, Hamid Karzai should keep leading the country.

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Humira Noorestani, who runs an Afghan economic development organization in Centreville, has used e-mail, Facebook and phone calls to lobby voters in Afghanistan, including her mother's 500 cousins, to vote for one of Karzai's rivals.

Hashimi and Noorestani are among an estimated 250,000 Afghans in the United States who, because they live outside Afghanistan, will not be able to cast ballots in Thursday's presidential election. But although they can't vote in the second election since the Taliban's defeat eight years ago, they can campaign, even from 7,000 miles away. This summer they have organized fundraising events, held meetings in support of candidates and spoken on U.S.-based Afghan television, which is beamed to Afghanistan. Some have traveled there to help educate people about voting, and others are working the phones and social networking sites to push for a candidate.

"Most Afghans in the U.S. are upset because they're not able to vote," said Ajmal Ghani, an Afghan American who lives in Springfield and is a representative for his cousin, presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani.

Afghans who live abroad couldn't vote in the last presidential election either. The polling infrastructure isn't in place to allow voting outside Afghanistan, although it is something the government would like to set up, said a spokesman for the Afghan Embassy here.

More than most expatriates, many Afghans in the diaspora, including about 35,000 in the Washington area, have deeply personal connections with the politics of their homeland. This is partly because most of the country's political and economic elite fled during the war-torn 1980s. People who in calmer times might have been leading the country found themselves driving taxis in Northern Virginia or selling hip-hop clothing in Northern California -- two of the biggest U.S. Afghan enclaves.

After the rout of the Taliban, many returned to Afghanistan to enter politics or business but retained close ties to the United States. Among those who remained here, plenty have family members who returned or have spent time themselves in Afghanistan, aiding in its reconstruction or seeking investment opportunities. Afghans from the United States have invested almost $500 million in the country's infrastructure since 2002, according to the embassy.

For this election, Ghani supporters held a fundraiser this month at the Afghan Restaurant (where Hashimi, the Karzai supporter, works). Ghani, a candidate U.S. officials have promoted as a possible chief executive for the country, lived for many years in Bethesda, taught at Johns Hopkins University and worked for the World Bank. James Carville is advising his campaign.

Local supporters of Abdullah Abdullah, an ophthalmologist and former foreign minister, held an event this month at George Mason University during which the candidate addressed attendees live remotely via speakerphone; they say they have raised about $30,000.

It is hard to know how much clout Afghans in the diaspora have with voters. At times, those who live in Afghanistan have resented Afghans coming in from abroad and trying to direct things. But many in Afghanistan also receive financial support from relatives in the United States.

A call from the United States can carry weight, said Said Tayeb Jawad, Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States. "It's received well, because [the recipient] thinks, 'Maybe he knows something we don't.' " Sometimes the callers abuse that power, he added, claiming that their recommendations are "the United States' position." The U.S. government has not endorsed a candidate.

Candidates, too, like to feature their American backgrounds. "Any kind of association or affiliation with the U.S. is regarded as an asset," Jawad said. "So if they have it, they use it prominently."

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