U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
Other State Department Archive SitesU.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
Home Issues & Press Travel & Business Countries Youth & Education Careers About State Video
 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

How Political Parties Can Help Build the New Afghanistan

Ambassador and Special Presidential Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad
Remarks at a Conference on the Role of Political Parties in Afghanistan
Kabul, Afghanistan
April 17, 2004

I remember when I was in high school and college, there was enormous hope and intellectual energy in Afghanistan. In the 1960s and 1970s, the country was moving toward a more open political process. Young men and women fiercely debated the issues – what needed to change in the country, what a future Afghanistan should look like, and how fast should change come.

I remember debating the issues at the student union with such skilled debaters as Ashraf Ghani. I don’t remember who won. But I do remember that the debates were quite intense. 

It was an exciting, promising time. However, that historical moment failed to bear fruit. The country did not take the next step and allow political parties to take shape. Instead, politics were confined to groups that worked outside the law. We all know that the Khalqi and Parcham factions organized clandestinely a military coup to take over the state, for example. All of this, in turn, opened the door to foreign interference, civil war, and extremism.

Today, a new moment of promise is upon Afghanistan. Afghans again have the opportunity to build a successful political system. To do so, Afghanistan must learn the lessons of its past, as well as look outside the country to learn from countries where political transitions have succeeded.

How should this moment be seized? How should Afghans organize themselves to advocate new ideas and enact new laws through a democratic system? These questions are the challenges all Afghans face – but they are the heart of the challenge that any new political party will face.

In all democratic systems, political parties play a central role in selecting leaders, defining the agenda, and mobilizing the people. In a political transition like the one Afghanistan is experiencing, the manner in which parties conduct themselves can be the difference between the success or failure of a country. Parties face a test. They can either play a role in consolidating democracy and the new political order or they can be a force to undermine it.

In Afghanistan, the circumstances for political parties are particularly challenging. Afghanistan has no history of strong democratic parties. Many of the existing groups were either opposed to democracy or did not exist within democratic frameworks. The challenge for these parties is how to make the transition to democratic politics.This requires parties – old and new -- to be willing to coexist, compromise, and share power. If parties are unwilling to do so, they become a source of instability.

Strategies based on ethnic, religious, or regional appeals can undermine democracy. They will polarize Afghan society. Strategies based on offering the best program to enable Afghanistan to succeed economically and politcally will cut across and serve to reduce those divisions. Passing this test – showing that parties can be a force for stability – is the only way to overcome the deep suspicion with which the Afghan people view the very idea of political parties.

This view, tragically, is understandable. In the eyes of the people, the idea of political parties is associated with the tyranny of the Communist party in the 1980s and the civil wars between parties in the 1990s that, among other things, caused the devastation of the city of Kabul.The mission of the political parties must be to pursue political objectives in ways that break these negative associations and win the confidence of the Afghan people.

It is vital that Afghanistan’s new political parties rise above the troubled legacy – Afghanistan cannot succeed if they do not. In a democratic political system, parties play several vital functions:

  • Parties are vehicles for representing the aspirations of the people. Parties thrive if they understand what the people want – and perish if the do not.
  • Parties serve to aggregate the interests of different groups. It is parties that form alliances between leaders and groups in different regions and with different economic interests. The most successful parties are those that provide a big tent in which a broad variety of groups feel at home.
  • Parties involve the people – they register voters and recruit members. In the United States, the major parties have committees down to the town level that organize their members to campaign for candidates.
  • Parties stimulate debate – they are the driving force behind the competition of ideas in politics. If parties understand the aspirations of the people, they are uniquely positioned to develop proposals and mobilize people behind their ideas.
  • Parties identify and renew political leadership. It is by winning respect and support within a party that individuals emerge as candidates and as political leaders.
  • Parties are a force for continuity and stability in democratic societies. A key feature of any democratic system is that the same people are not always in power. A party that wins in one election may lose in another. This rotation in power is extremely important because no defeat is permanent and because, even out of power, a party can offer a responsible critique of those in power – to think of better ways to address the needs of the people.

Those are the standard functions of parties, but the establishment of parties that represent the people and that offer responsible leadership is even more important for countries, like Afghanistan, that are in the midst of a difficult political transition.

In this setting, enlightened parties and their leaders can serve as catalysts for the formation of a successful country. To succeed as a positive catalyst, a party above all has to understand what is needed to make the country successful – and then effectively argue for those ideas and lead the people to make the right choices. Your task as leaders of political parties is to help the Afghan people find the right way ahead for Afghanistan at this moment of opportunity.

I understand that you face a profound tension. On the one hand, elections and politics, by their nature, are divisive. Campaigns are competitive – and everyone wants to win elections. On the other hand, more than anything else Afghanistan needs national unity at this time. This is not easy. But this is your most important responsibility.

Your other responsibility is to help institutionalize democracy. To put it simply, parties must internalize the habits of democracy in order to help democratize Afghanistan. This means developing the ability to compete, to pursue an agenda, but to retain the ability to compromise. A democracy will not work if parties behave in a “winner-take-all” manner. Those who hold the majority must not only respect the rights of the minority but also must be willing share power with the minority.

Parties must also accept the fact that, even if they win election, power is not eternal – they may lose the next election and should accept the rotation or alternation of power as a normal and healthy feature of democracy. Those who are out of power must take the long view and accept the rules of the game. Those who are in power must conduct themselves with an understanding that someday they may be out of power.

Institutionalizing democracy also requires parties to maximize the functionality of the democratic system. Unsuccessful countries in transition have often suffered from a fragmentation of the party system – which results in dozens of parties, none of which has broad support. To avoid this pitfall, I recommend party leaders consider adopting the politics of the “big tent.” The advantage goes to parties that form alliances around a set of core ideas. The broader the base, the better the chance of representing the nation as a whole.

However, political strategies of leaders are more important. There is much to be gained from the merger of parties or through the formation of alliances, movements, or unions of parties that go into elections with a common slate and then share power after if they win. An important way to institutionalize democracy is for parties to select their own leaders through internal democratic processes that involve their members at the grassroots level. This not only connects parties to people in a fundamental way but also creates the ability to refresh the party leadership.

To win elections and to win the confidence of the Afghan people, the messenger and the message must be credible. Credibility for the messenger requires that parties have leaders and organizers who are respected or can gain the respect of the people. Credibility will also depend on whether parties and their leaders play by the rules and whether there is a gap between what they say and what they do. There are two key issues here. I believe that one of the key tests of parties is whether they support the demobilization of militias and the creation of a single, national army. 

The second issue is whether parties receive support from abroad. This is not only illegal under the new party law, it endangers the very stability of this nation. Interference from abroad is also a key source of the tragedy of the last twenty-five years. The fact that Afghan groups became the clients of powers seeking regional hegemony must not be repeated. This was a betrayal of the nation and ended in disaster for the people of Afghanistan. Any evidence that parties have continued down this path should instantly destroy their credibility.

In this sense, parties must be truly national. Afghans should put an end to the era when parties were instruments of other powers. Afghans should not be the cannon fodder of other countries. They also should not allow their parties to be the vehicles for other countries to pursue their own political agendas at the expense of Afghanistan.

A key test for any party is to understand what the people want. Successful parties represent the best aspirations of the people. Parties in power should serve, not rule, the people. I have spoken with many Afghans during the last two and a half years, and it is clear to me their fundamental aspiration is to live in a normal country, a successful country. And if you look around the world, the formula for building a successful country is clear:

  • National unity – with respect for and equal treatment of all citizens. Security, law and order.
  • Representative government.
  • A free-market economy, without corruption.
  • Justice through the rule of law – which means fair laws, fairly applied by the judiciary.
  • Equality of rights for all citizens.
  • Effective national institutions.
  • Openness to the ideas and markets of the world

I am offering these thoughts not with the intention of giving you political advice – you know politics here in Afghanistan better than I do – but to illustrate how the principles of building effective parties may apply in this country.

These principles have been demonstrated in other countries. In Germany and Japan after World War II, Adenauer and Yoshida understood that their nations wanted to end militancy and war and return to normalcy. They led their countries as they were reintegrated into the international community. By doing so effectively, their parties held power for decades.

The party that incorporates the best of Afghan traditions and the best aspirations of the people and the successful principles applied in other countries will have the advantage. In closing, I would like to say a few words about the responsibility that lies with all of you.

In 1787, after the delegates from each of the states of the United States had approved the new constitution, a reporter asked Benjamin Franklin, one of our greatest statesmen, what kind of a political system the delegates had created. He answered, “A republic – if you can keep it.”

Afghanistan today faces the same political moment. Your new constitution gives you a representative government – and you can join the ranks of the world’s successful countries if you can keep it, if you can make it work for the people. 

Success is not automatic and it is never guaranteed. We can see many examples where countries emerging from war or transitions from dictatorship had this opportunity but unfortunately failed. They sank back toward oppression. The people lost their freedom. Their countries stagnated.

Avoiding such mistakes – making the right choices – is even more important for Afghans. Your country has the support of the world – just look at the pledges of support at the Berlin Donors Conference. Leaders in the United States, as well as other countries, see that Afghanistan is succeeding, and they want to invest in its success.

One of the next critical tests for Afghanistan is the election of the national government – and then the effective formation and operation of the Afghan government. This success in part will depend on parties that represent the best aspirations of the people, that know how to compromise in the give-and-take of democratic politics, that put the national interest above party interests.

Afghanistan stands at a crossroads. The world is here to help the Afghan people. Your choices – the way you shape the early politics of your democratic era – will have a decisive effect on whether Afghanistan succeeds.

Thank you and God bless Afghanistan.  

  Back to top

U.S. Department of State
USA.govU.S. Department of StateUpdates  |   Frequent Questions  |   Contact Us  |   Email this Page  |   Subject Index  |   Search
The Office of Electronic Information, Bureau of Public Affairs, manages this site as a portal for information from the U.S. State Department. External links to other Internet sites should not be construed as an endorsement of the views or privacy policies contained therein.
About state.gov  |   Privacy Notice  |   FOIA  |   Copyright Information  |   Other U.S. Government Information

Published by the U.S. Department of State Website at http://www.state.gov maintained by the Bureau of Public Affairs.