Anyone wondering why it's been so difficult launching a new government in Afghanistan need look no further than the Pacific Hills Banquet Hall in southern Orange County.
The 1,000 Afghan refugees from Southern California who showed up for a meeting last week shared a desire to take part in the rebuilding of their homeland. But that was all they shared.
Within minutes, the meeting was over, with no vote cast for representatives to an advisory council. There were reports of shouting, a little bit of shoving, accusations that one speaker was a Taliban supporter (he denied it), even hair pulling among a few women. In the end, nobody was arrested and nobody was hurt, but sheriff's deputies had to help disperse the crowd.
Filled with noble intentions to elect local representatives, Afghans in the United States are instead receiving a history lesson in the often messy business called democracy. The process has made them confront the tribal and political divisions that survive even here, thousands of miles from the strife in their ancestral country.
"The country has been in war for 23 years and it's been difficult," said Hasan Nouri of Laguna Hills, an organizer of last week's failed election in Southern California.
"Some of it filters here. There are sympathizers of the Taliban. Sympathizers of the Communist Party. We have Northern Alliance. We have Pashtun. That unfortunate characteristic of Afghanistan is also evident here ....The word 'retreat' is nonexistent in the Afghan vocabulary. And retreat is necessary in democracy."
Similar scenes have occurred in other Afghan immigrant communities.
In New York City, tempers flared and voices were raised at an election. A vote in Fremont, Calif., dragged on for eight hours and was criticized afterward by people who felt not everyone was fairly represented. Organizers in Washington, D.C., are wondering what will happen today, when more than 1,000 people are expected at an election.
''What we're trying to do is take the initial steps of democracy," said Hamed Etebar of Virginia, one of the organizers. "This process is painful and the road is long. But we are very hopeful that all Afghans, after seeing their country desolate and destroyed for 23 years, will come together and become one Afghanistan.''
When the votes are complete in four areas across the United States, Afghans hope to have a 40-member national council, one that will act as the community's unified voice in the U.S. to lobby for aid and offer advice about setting up a new Afghan government.
Southern California Afghans said they plan to try again, learning from last Sunday's mistakes, when the meeting fell into disarray even before it was officially convened with a reading from the Koran. Hundreds squeezed into a room too small to accommodate the crowd. Hundreds more congregated outside, unable to hear. Speakers grabbed for the microphone. Private security guards removed at least two men from the Laguna Hills banquet hall, setting off a fresh round of complaints. Some, like Afghanistan Mirror expatriate magazine publisher Sayed Hashemeyan of Montclair, complained of "profiling"--alleging that dissenters were purposely kept out.
Many do not understand the reason for the election. Some thought they were selecting delegates to meet President Bush and interim Afghan leader Hamid Karzai. Others thought if they were elected to this council, they could be considered for a spot in the Afghanistan loya jirga process. A loya jirga, or grand council, is to be convened in Afghanistan to draft a constitution and rules for electing a permanent government.
Hashemeyan brought a list of questions, numbered and written in Farsi, to the Southern California election. Item number seven, he said, read, "What is the necessity of this election? Why are we doing it? What is the purpose? What is the rush?"
There is no rush, organizers said, except that for the first time in 23 years, they see hope for their old country. Democracy is something they want for Afghanistan. It is something they want to practice here to show the world that it is possible to bring a divided community to unity, even if the process is painful and painstaking.
Even as the Taliban crumbles and the popular exiled Afghanistan king takes a back seat to Karzai, old alliances die hard.
As Zohra Daoud of Malibu put it, "Some people are holding onto their grudges."
Some said the process of coming together is difficult not so much because of grudges but because there is a lack of information. Hasan Aliyar, president of the Aryana Cultural Center in San Diego, boycotted the meeting in Orange County and fired off a critical letter to an Afghan newspaper and to government officials, saying that he has no idea who organized the election or why.
Another San Diego resident, Sakhi Ashrafzai, criticized the group for being self-appointed and said residents in Northern California, New York and Virginia are also complaining about "such clandestine events."