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 You are in: Under Secretary for Political Affairs > Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs > Releases > Public Statements on South and Central Asian Policy > 2004

Democracy Bubbles Up

Zalmay Khalilzad, Ambassador and Special Envoy to Afghanistan
Wall Street Journal
March 25, 2004

The adoption of a sound constitution this winter provided the framework for the democratization of Afghanistan. While many in the international community and some Afghans dwell on the difficulty of holding national elections in June, there is a palpable energy and enthusiasm among them to cast ballots to set the course for their nation as soon as possible. Yet a successful democratic transition, and effective governance, also requires institutionalizing political habits, including the acceptance of majority rule, working toward compromise solutions and respecting minority rights. The illiberal democracy that has taken root in many countries in transition is the product of instituting elections without also developing the habits of democracy that make representative government work.

While democratic practices are required at all levels, they are best developed at the local level. The Afghan government, with the support of the international community, has initiated efforts to facilitate the organization of village and district councils that are vitally important in our common effort to help Afghans build a moderate and democratic state and society.

Afghan society provides fertile ground for grassroots democratization. It has a tradition of shuras and jirgas, where the leaders of traditional social structures such as tribes, clans and families come together to decide local issues based on a process of developing a consensus on the right solution. Already, Afghans are drawing on this tradition. At the village level, informally organized councils are taking shape. At the same time, the Afghan government has instituted the National Solidarity Program (NSP), which seeks to create local governing councils and to empower these councils to make decisions about local reconstruction priorities. Members of the development councils are elected by secret ballot based on the principle of one person, one vote. Men and women are eligible to vote and to be members of the councils. The councils deliberate on local development priorities and the Afghan government then provides small block grants to help them undertake high-priority projects.

The council elections have mobilized a high level of participation. Sample elections data from five provinces -- Bamiyan, Farah, Herat, Kandahar, and Parwan -- indicate that 71% of eligible voters cast ballots, including 76% of voting-age women. Of the total delegates elected, 38% were women.

Assistance agencies of donor nations should understand the power of working with village councils. If we take advantage of this approach, there will be 20,000 engines for accelerating the reconstruction progress, rather than one centralized and inevitably bureaucratized source of decision making. These councils also provide new opportunities for women, economically and politically. Most important, working through grassroots councils can foster an ethic of self-reliance. This trait already exists in the Afghan social and political consciousness, particularly because the Afghan government has seldom had the resources to provide many services. Yet, the ethic of self-reliance has been dulled by the collectivist politics of the socialist and communist period and Afghans' experience as refugees. It needs to be reclaimed.

One danger in the current period of reconstruction is that Afghans will come to believe that all local activity -- such as building of schools or clinics -- should derive from their central government or the international community. This could produce a culture of dependency. To avoid this danger, even as the central government and international donors provide some resources to local communities, it should require that the councils make their projects as dependent on local resources as possible.

For this to work, the Afghan economy must grow at a pace that allows local councils to mobilize resources on their own. This is an area where the international community has an essential role. The rebuilding of infrastructure such as roads and communications, assistance to the Afghan government's effort to create a legal framework and economic environment conducive to domestic and foreign investment, the creation of enterprise funds and other mechanisms to jumpstart growth -- these sorts of things should be our priorities. If we help unlock Afghan economic potential, Afghans will take care of much of the reconstruction of their country on their own. I have seen this beginning to work in Ghazni, a province in southeast Afghanistan, where villages and building their own schools and hiring teachers.

As President Bush has emphasized, it is the hallmarks of freedom -- tolerance, rule of law and protection of civil rights -- that create successful societies around the world. In Afghanistan we are supporting President Karzai's government, the Bonn Process and initiatives such as the National Solidarity Program. If we remain committed to this strategy, Afghanistan will emerge as a moderate and democratic society, as well as an enduring ally in the war against terrorism.

Released on March 26, 2004

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