Afghanistan's MilestoneZalmay Khalilzad,
Special Presidential Envoy and Ambassador to Afghanistan
The Washington Post
January 6, 2004
The constitutional loya jirga that concluded in Kabul Sunday was a milestone on the Afghan people's path to democracy. Afghans have seized the opportunity provided by the United States and its international partners to lay the foundation for democratic institutions and provide a framework for national elections in 2004.
The Afghan people manifested this remarkable commitment to democracy in two ways. They defied the enemies of Afghanistan's progress -- remnants of the extremist Taliban and al Qaeda forces -- by participating in elections for the delegates to the constitutional loya jirga. The extremists sought to intimidate candidates and voters. They failed.
Women especially were not intimidated. There was a powerful reversal of symbolism when the Kabul soccer stadium -- used less than three years ago by the Taliban to execute women accused of adultery -- was used by thousands of women to choose their representatives to the constitutional loya jirga. Of the voting delegates, 102 were women -- more than 20 percent of the total delegates.
Second, Afghans overcame their past. Instead of relying on the power of the gun, they embraced the often difficult and sometimes messy democratic process of debating, listening and compromising. They trusted in the power of their words by openly deliberating the important issues. Afghans used newspapers, radios, teahouses, schools, universities, mosques -- even the Internet -- as forums to debate fundamental issues such as the system of government, the role of religion, human rights -- particularly the role of women -- and, in a country with more than a dozen ethnic groups, such emotional issues as official languages and the relationship between the center and provinces. Such a wide-ranging debate is unprecedented in more than 5,000 years of Afghan history.
The Afghan people's desire to succeed overcame the potential for failure. In the midst of sharp debates, the delegates and people of Afghanistan were unswervingly committed to obtaining a sound constitution. Attempts by warlords and religious fundamentalists to hijack the process were thwarted. Women and minorities held leadership roles. When one brave young woman denounced some of the delegates for their role in the destruction of Afghanistan in the 1990s, the chairman initially sought to throw her out of the hall. The delegates forced him to relent, and Malalai Joya refused to be intimidated and went on to play an active role in her working committee. By the loya jirga's completion, three women were part of the seven-member leadership team and several more took leading positions in the working committees. When ethnic and regional divisions emerged as possible fault lines over issues such as official languages, the delegates decided to find unity in diversity by making all languages official where they are spoken by the majority. This is unprecedented for Afghanistan and the region. With the Afghan people and the world watching, Hazaras, Pashtuns, Tajiks, Turkmen, Uzbeks and others adopted one of the most enlightened constitutions in the Islamic world.
The Afghan constitution sets forth a presidential system with a strong parliament and an independent judiciary. The final document embraces a centralized government structure, which reflects most delegates' belief that years of war and the destruction of national institutions have left the central government far too weak. Delegates strengthened parliament by determining basic state policies and requiring confirmation of key presidential appointees, including the head of the central bank and the director of the national intelligence service.
The Afghan constitution also sets forth parallel commitments to Islam and to human rights. While embracing Islam as the state religion, the document provides broad religious freedom -- allowing adherents of other faiths to practice their religions and observe religious rites. The loya jirga increased the number of women in parliament to an average of two female representatives from each province and explicitly stated, "Citizens of Afghanistan -- whether men or women -- have equal rights and duties before the law." Accepting equality between men and women marks a revolutionary change in the roles women are able to play in Afghan government and society.
The United Nations has played a vital role in building Afghan political institutions since the Bonn Conference set the country on its current course. In particular the secretary general's special representative, Lakhdar Brahimi, was critical in helping the loya jirga delegates bridge their differences and achieve this successful outcome.
Afghanistan faces more challenges: implementing this constitution, defeating the remaining extremists and terrorists, disarming militias, strengthening national institutions, eliminating narcotics production and helping the poorest of Afghans gain a foothold on the ladder of opportunity. After the suffering of the past 20 years, ordinary people of Afghanistan want their country to work. By adopting a sound constitution through an orderly and transparent process, Afghans have cleared a major hurdle.
Afghanistan has sent a compelling message to the rest of the world that by investing in that country's development, the United States is investing in success. Americans can take pride in the role we have played in leading the multilateral effort to support Afghan democratization. The toppling of the Taliban and the stabilizing presence of the coalition and NATO International Security Assistance Force troops have enabled the seeds of political progress to sprout. President Bush's decision to increase aid to Afghanistan -- which will likely total more than $2 billion in fiscal 2004 -- will accelerate reconstruction of the country's national army, police force, economic infrastructure, schools and medical system.
Our work in Afghanistan is not yet done. It will take several years and a sustained commitment of significant resources by the United States and the international community before the country can stand on its own feet. Given the stakes involved, we must remain committed for as long as it takes to succeed.
Released on January 6, 2004