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Afghans may vote in Communists they drove out

Master-Corporal Kevin Langlois, of the Montreal-based Canadian Psychological Operations, distributing posters and leaflets near the Pakistani border on Saturday.

Graeme Smith/Graeme Smith / The Globe and Mail 2005

It's been four decades since Noorolhaq Olomi was a young Afghan army officer, secretly giving Communist books to his troops.

In the years since, Mr. Olomi has played several roles in Afghanistan's turbulent history: political prisoner, asylum seeker, and highest-ranking official in southern Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation.

Now, like many other former Communists returning to the political stage in Afghanistan, Mr. Olomi has taken another important part in the country's development. He leads the National United Party, perhaps the only major political party that spans tribes, regions and religions in a country still divided by ancient factions.

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Part of his party's appeal, he says, is Afghans' nostalgia for the years after the Soviet invasion in 1979.

"The happiness people had during those days, it makes them vote for me," said Mr. Olomi, 64, in an interview at his heavily guarded compound in Kandahar.

Observers say it's ironic that Afghans would vote for the same Communists they drove out of the country during eight years of bitter warfare. But the violence and repression that followed the Soviets' departure makes the years under Moscow's thumb seem tolerable by comparison, observers say.

There's also hope that Mr. Olomi's party represents a new breed of Afghan political movement, based on ideas rather than identity.

"Olomi's party doesn't have its basis in any tribe or armed group, which is very unusual," said Hayatullah Rafiqui, general manager of the National Democratic Institute's Kandahar office.

Final results of the election won't be available for weeks, but the National United Party is widely expected to gain a small foothold in the new parliament. A few other former Communists, not associated with Mr. Olomi's party, are also considered likely to win.

These include Kabir Ranjbar, a lawyer and former adviser to the Communist president Mohammad Najibullah; and Mohammad Qasim Ehsas, a former deputy minister of commerce.

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All of them were members of a group called Parcham, or Flag, named after a leftist newspaper. The Parchamis emerged in the 1960s after King Zahir Shah experimented with creating a legislature.

The King's liberalization program mirrored some aspects of the current situation: After years without a chance to vote, Afghans were allowed to choose among a polarized list of candidates, ranging from extreme leftists to fundamental Islamists. The elections of the 1960s, like this week's vote, also happened soon after women were allowed to remove their veils and appear in public.

Some of the issues were also similar, Mr. Olomi said: Like today, Afghans needed water, electricity and paved roads.

"We wanted progress, and that's still what we want," he said.

With membership mostly among urban intellectuals, Parcham aimed to moderate the influence of Islam on daily life.

"It was written in our party rules that we must respect Islam," Mr. Olomi said. "The fundamentalists wanted more. They wanted us to obey Islam. At the time, like now, to be labelled a non-Muslim was very dangerous."

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Parchamis helped stage a coup in 1973, only to be overthrown by a more radical Communist group, People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan, in 1978. Mr. Olomi was lucky; the PDPA only threw him in jail, while executing many.

He was freed during the Soviet invasion, and his Communist credentials earned him plum jobs in the occupation administration. He served as military and civilian governor of Afghanistan's southern regions from 1987 until the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Despite the constant fighting against the U.S.-backed mujahedeen, Mr. Olomi describes those years as a time of progress. Women were given jobs as construction workers, bus conductors, factory labourers. Some even became government ministers and military generals, he said.

Not everybody remembers the occupation so fondly. Hakim, 45, who like many Afghans has only one name, said the Russians destroyed his house, and forced him to flee to Pakistan as a refugee. He was planning to visit his ruined house this week for the first time in 20 years, and thinking about moving back to the country now that it's more peaceful.

"They [Communists]will only come back and cause problems again," Hakim said.

Like many of the Communist leaders, Mr. Olomi was driven into exile in the early 1990s. Two of his brothers were killed by the mujahedeen. But when he returned from the Netherlands in 2001, the party he formed included former mujahedeen. Mr. Olomi also included about 25 per cent women at the senior level, along with representation from Afghanistan's minority Hindu community.

"Brothers kill brothers; we have no unity in Afghanistan," Mr. Olomi said. "If we have unity, we will have law, democracy, and peace."

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