Sunday Oklahoman features Communtary by IRI Election Observer

Ensuring freedom in Afghanistan
The Sunday Oklahoman
By Brett Hamm

He was a short, simple man who stood tall wearing his best suit and a proud smile. Rising early to ensure his first-place spot in line, he heroically held up what the Taliban never intended to see: his voter registration card. Weathering war after war, this was the day Afghans had dreamed of — the day Afghanistan would finally become its own country with a democratically elected president and parliament finally in place.

In October 2001, Operation Enduring Freedom commenced with the full weight of American military forces. Within months, significant results were achieved. More than 3 million children returned to classrooms, a third of them girls for the first time in their lives.

By October 2004, Afghanistan had elected its first president in its 5,000-year history. Last month, Afghans completed this new democracy by electing their first parliament after three decades of violent rule.

Especially historic in these elections was that women, for the first time, would seek public office in the National Assembly and Provincial Councils. Women, who under Taliban rule couldn’t so much as leave their homes without a male relative, go to school or even see a doctor, would participate in creating the laws of their land. In fact, the Afghan constitution requires that women hold one-quarter of the seats in the National Assembly.

The International Republican Institute, based in Washington, D.C., organized the only U.S. delegation to officially observe the elections. I accepted an opportunity to join the 16-member team. The purpose of our mission was to ensure a free, fair and credible election. Interviewing voters, election officials, party leaders and candidates, we watched for signs of fraud, voter abuse and intimidation at more than 1,200 polling stations in 16 provinces.

Despite reports of a rocket-propelled grenade launched at the U.N. compound in Kabul and of several killed in other cities, our day went without harm. There was no doubt though, after talking with so many Afghans passionate about their new democracy, that the freedom they seek today is the surest path to my children’s safety from the terrorists of tomorrow. In Afghanistan’s democracy, there will be no breeding ground for those who look to blame the West. Instead, Afghans I spoke with recognized that freedom puts responsibility where it should be — in their own hands.

Many Afghans carried that responsibility to the polls, handing over their voter registration cards in exchange for a ballot and a new way of life. Our observation mission ultimately found this landmark election to be carried out in a fair, professional manner. We were impressed by how seriously each and every Afghan took their role in the process. Each determined to ensure success; they had seen enough failure.

It is a long road ahead to the Afghanistan they work to achieve, and as our own history has shown, there will be challenges and critics ahead. With this election serving as a testament to the courage and resilience of the Afghan people, their determination to ensure free and fair elections was a clear statement that in the end, where tyranny once stood, freedom will endure.

Hamm is chief of staff for Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett. He previously worked as an aide to former Sen. Don Nickles and was an official with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.


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