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Bereuter Brings Afghan Election Exhibit to Capitol Hill

With national attention focused last week on the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina and the impending arrival of Rita, it may have been easy to miss the good news coming out of Afghanistan. But the Asia Foundation wants Capitol Hill denizens to know all about the war-torn nation’s elections.

On Sept. 18, despite interminable threats of violence, a largely illiterate population and illusory roads and infrastructure, more than 6 million Afghans — 41 percent of them women — turned out to vote for more than 5,800 candidates in the country’s first national assembly elections since 1969. While the elections were by no means perfect, they marked the completion of a four-year trial in democracy that many considered nearly impossible from the outset.

In order to detail this challenging process and highlight their contributions, the Asia Foundation today will present a walk-through panel exhibit titled “Afghanistan: An Emerging Democracy.”

While the panels are content driven, artifacts from the reconstruction effort will be on display, along with a short video, documenting the work of the foundation in Afghanistan.

Former Rep. Doug Bereuter (R-Neb.), who is now the president of the foundation, will host the event in the foyer of the Rayburn House Office Building.

“While I think people have a vague understanding of the programs that the United States government and the international community are implementing in Afghanistan, I don’t think there is a complete understanding that a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization like the Asia Foundation has been that absolutely crucial element in making sure these Democratic processes took place,” Bereuter said.

The Asia Foundation certainly has deep roots in Afghanistan. From 1954 until the Soviet invasion in 1980, the foundation operated out of an office in Kabul, providing on-the-ground support for a wide array of projects that focused on issues ranging from education and women’s affairs to law, commerce and export agriculture. Even after the Soviet invasion and throughout the 1990s, the foundation continued its advocacy work in Afghanistan through an office in Pakistan.

After the U.S.-led invasion against the Taliban government in 2001 and the signing of the Bonn Agreement, which mandated the course of democratic action that would culminate in the recent elections, the Asia Foundation used Congressional funding to re-establish offices in Kabul.

“People know we have been there for the long term and so people understand that our missions are not being imposed from the outside,” Bereuter said. “There is a degree of sensitivity and cultural awareness that I think is very important in making our programs as successful as they are.”

Bereuter added that of the 50 Asia Foundation staff currently in Afghanistan, a high percentage of those are foreign nationals or citizens of Afghanistan, who know the terrain, the communities and culture, and most importantly, the languages.

The foundation was quickly targeted by the United Nations and later by the Joint Electoral Management Body as an organization that would be vital for the reconstruction effort.

Over the past four years, the Asia Foundation has been involved in nearly every aspect of democratic development in Afghanistan. When thousands of Afghan delegates, election monitors, and U.N. personal were to convene for an emergency assembly, or Loya Jirga, shortly after the Bonn conference, the foundation organized and provided air travel and set up large tents in which to house the proceedings. When the United Nations discovered the need for secret ballots at the last minute, the foundation mobilized international election experts to ensure there was a legitimate process.

Throughout much of 2004, foundation employees spanned the country to register Afghans to vote and identify voter registration sites, despite the inherent difficulties in accessing certain areas. Once those voters were registered — more than 10.5 million of them — the foundation set to work educating them about the electoral process through advertisements, village theater, posters and products that explained the secret ballot system and alleviated concerns about the danger of voting.

Their efforts led to the successful presidential election in October 2004, the first for Afghanistan in its 5,000-year history. Nearly one year later, thanks to similar, yet extended, work, the recent National Assembly and Provincial Council elections were able to take place.

“The kind of activities in Afghanistan were not unique for us, but they were conducted under much more difficult circumstances than in the past,” Bereuter said. “Everyone understood that there was a lot hanging in the balance on whether or not those elections could have been conducted or whether external sources from the Taliban or al Qaeda would derail the progress that the Afghan people were making.”

While the exhibit relates these efforts and challenges through chronological panels spanning the last four years, the message doesn’t end there. There is a fear among Afghans that now that the Bonn agreement is complete, the international community will forget about Afghans, that Afghanistan will fall off the radar. This exhibit will take their concern right to the heart of Congress.

“Even with this democratic infrastructure in place there are still tremendous challenges ahead and it is in all of our vital interests for Afghanistan to be successful,” said Katherine Brown, a spokeswoman for the Asia Foundation. “This is something we are committed to. We want to raise awareness for a long term commitment.”

The exhibit will be open to the public until noon on Friday.