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In Kabul, Obama Fans Ready to Party

First in a series of US '08 dispatches from around the world.

Terry Glavin 4 Nov

Terry Glavin is a widely published B.C. author and a columnist for The Tyee. Go to The Hook to find more dispatches from around the world, as our correspondents react to U.S. election results.

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Obama volunteers in Kabul.

Among the things you'd least expect to find in this teeming, heartbreaking, war-ravaged city is the prompt pizza delivery service, the great Italian restaurant called Bocaccio's that's run by a family of Tajiks, and you can bring your AK47 to the bank with you. You just check your gun with the door clerk and pick it up on your way out. Just the other night I met a young American magician named Zack, who manages a local circus and roars around town on a motorcycle.

But one of the oddest things about Kabul is that it's home to some of the most hardcore Barack Obama supporters in the world. Susan Marx, the organizer of the Afghanistan chapter of Americans Abroad for Obama, thinks it's all a bit strange, too.

"I'm just as surprised as you are," Marx told me. "It's difficult to say why we've done so well. I didn't even know there were that many Americans in town. I'm really surprised."

Obama rally in downtown Kabul

The first sign that things were going to really take off for Kabul's Obama supporters came back in August, during the Democratic Party primaries, when the young Illinois senator was squared off against Hillary Clinton. Marx organized an Obama rally in downtown Kabul, in a tent, and about 90 Americans showed up. Then came the Democratic Party Convention in Denver, when Kabul's Obama supporters gathered on Aug. 29 at Marx's house -- which has come to be called Casa Obama -- to watch the convention live on television.

Ever since, Marx has been run ragged. Outside of office hours, it's been all Obama, all the time. The 31-year-old human rights worker -- born in South Africa, but a Californian by way of Connecticut -- has been busy mainly with showing Kabul's Democrats how to vote from here, and how to get their ballots back to the U.S.

While it's surprising that Obama supporters here are so fervent and active, it should be a surprise to no one that he's got fans. The Illinois senator has pledged to beef up American forces in Afghanistan and reconfigure U.S. counterinsurgency efforts with a more multilateralist, hearts-and-minds approach. Obama's Republican opponent, John McCain, has been badly handicapped by his close association with the Bush administration, which was against "nation-building" in Afghanistan from the start, and it was that hands-off approach that contributed so much to this country's downhill slide.

In Kabul, if there is a pro-McCain counterpart to Marx's Americans Abroad for Obama, nobody's heard about it.

Obama's stance on Afghanistan

Obama has taken pains to understand Afghanistan and its torments. He's promised a refreshingly tough stance with Pakistan, and he's put together a team of impressive advisors who understand the geopolitical forces preying upon the country. Obama has stressed the critical importance of protecting Afghan civilians during combat operations, and he appears serious about bringing the war directly to the militant Taliban leadership.

"He gets it," Marx said.

There's probably no group of foreigners in Afghanistan who "get it" better than those who work outside the cloistered military and diplomatic enclaves of this city. These are mostly second-tier human rights workers, aid-agency staff and private-foundation consultants, and among them are perhaps 1,000 Americans. It's in them that Marx is finding Obama's most enthusiastic supporters.

"The company I keep could have something to do with it," Marx said. But she was quick to add that she's finding Obama enthusiasts among even the most senior American officials here.

There are at least 40,000 American soldiers, military employees and contractors, U.S. embassy and State Department staff in Afghanistan. To its credit, the U.S. military has made an unprecedented effort to ensure that soldiers and staff get a chance to vote in U.S. elections this year. But Afghanistan's postal and courier systems range from preposterously lousy to non-existent. This has meant that Americans with no direct association with a military base have had a hard time getting access to ballots. The overwhelming majority of the Americans "outside the wire" missed the first round absentee-voting opportunity entirely.

So, Marx and her fellow activists have been focused on guiding Obama supporters through the more complex fallback system of federal write-in absentee ballots. And now, the suspense is almost over.

Televisions as magnets

Marx and the rest of Kabul's Democrats will wrap up their feverish campaigning by gathering around a television at a local watering hole, which I can't name for security reasons. Unarmed foreigners have lately become the favoured "soft targets" for the Taliban's assassins and kidnappers.

The Democrats will then gather at another watering hole that I can't name for security reasons to watch the count come in, and there will be great joy, or much weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Either way, the Americans for Obama, here in Kabul, are planning a bonfire.

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