A special guest post by Chris Alexander, Canadian Member of Parliament and former Ambassador to Afghanistan, who was present at the inauguration of Afghanistan's new president, Ashraf Ghani, last week in Kabul.
President Ashraf Ghani & Hon. Chris Alexander
September 28, 2014
We arrive in Kabul. It's Sunday. The inauguration of the new president is tomorrow. The sun is a raging disc of brightness, as it usually is here. It's hot for late September. In fact, it's boiling hot and dry as soon as we hit the tarmac!
From the air, beyond irrigated ribbons of crops, the Kabul River Valley is brown with the season -- a slight film of Monsoon-fed green on fields at lower altitudes in Laghman further east towards Jalalabad. I am impressed to see many new roads have been paved south of Kabul.
We flew over the Lataband Road, which the British used for their retreat from Kabul in 1842. We also looked down on the wheel-like shape of Pol-e-Charkhi prison, the hub of Soviet-sponsored repression by Najibullah's KhAD up to 1992. The remains of former President Daud, cousin of the last king murdered in a 1978 coup, were found nearby only a few years ago.
It's incredible how busy this little airport has become. Emirates, its FlyDubai affiliates, Turkish airlines, Safi, Kamair, Ariana all have parked aircraft on this little apron. There are fewer military planes than I remember, although the Afghan Air Corps and NATO have a big new hub to the north.
The streets are bustling. Security is tight but that's normal. HESCO bastions, concrete walls and security checkpoints are higher, more numerous than I've seen before. But as we motor through the commercial centre of town later Sunday evening, it's clear Kabul has grown, massively in some neighborhoods, since I was last here.... (That was four years ago!)
Later in the afternoon and evening I get to meet outgoing President Karzai, incoming President Ghani, and election runner-up Abdullah Abdullah, who will be CEO (later, if constitutional amendments succeed, Prime Minister) in the new National Unity Government.
Karzai is in the Presidential Palace, the 'Arg' as the Afghans call it, which was started by an Emir in 1880 after the British blew up the Bala Hissar. Ghani is nearby in a two-story house reserved for him as president-elect. Abdullah is still in his own house to the north of downtown.
It was a grueling campaign for all the candidates, especially Ghani and Abdullah who made it to the second round. But now, with Karzai, they've made history. They're all part of Afghanistan's first-ever transition from one democratically-elected head of state to another -- another historic milestone for a country that deserves a better future.
September 29, 2014
Inauguration Day in Kabul! There's a feeling of celebration in the air. Afghans are relieved. After eight months of election campaigning, aftermath, and waiting for the results, they have a new president -- the first-ever to take over from another elected head of state.
The ceremony is in the Salaam Khana, the oldest palace in the Arg, surrounded by a sea of rose bushes. It has wooden columns and huge roofbeams. The floor is draped in carpets, the stage in flowers. Along the walls are portraits of all Afghanistan's émirs, kings and presidents since the early 18th century.
Karzai makes his final speech as president. Ghani is sworn in as president and then administers the oath to his vice-presidents, to Abdullah as chief executive, then to Abdullah's vice-presidents. Abdullah speaks briefly, then Ghani makes a much longer statement about his priorities and vision for Afghanistan's future.
A military band plays as he takes their first salute as president. The band is more in tune today than I remember it being years ago. We then follow the leaders back to the Char Chinar Palace, near four famous plane trees in the Arg, where the new Afghan President hosts a luncheon for his foreign guests. It's delicious -- Afghan rice, mutton, meat-filled dumplings....
By this time I have seen hundreds of people who were part of my life for six years. There are other returning friends as well. Afghanistan's state structure has a new resilience, just as the craftsmanship in the Arg and elsewhere has improved. Once again, there's hope in the brilliant air of Kabul.
Walking to the inauguration