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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

A 5,000-Year First

Zalmay Khalilzad, Special Presidential Envoy and U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan
Op-Ed
Wall Street Journal
October 7, 2004

More than 10 million Afghans will have the opportunity to cast ballots to choose their president on Saturday, in the first direct election for head of state in the nation's 5,000-year history.

Three years ago, few predicted that Afghans could reach this historic milestone. Yet with the world's assistance, they have seized the moment and are now poised to take another major stride toward joining the ranks of the world's democratic nations.

After the fall of the Taliban, Afghanistan faced enormous challenges, the lack of a legitimate political system, the existence of warlords with private militias, the absence of effective national institutions -- and desperate poverty. Though none of these problems has been fully overcome, significant progress is now being made against all.

Step by step, the Afghans are rebuilding an effective state and political system. At last year's Constitutional Loya Jirga (or political assembly), they approved the most progressive constitution not only in Afghan history, but also in the Islamic world. At the loya jirga, all political groups accepted a set of rules for deciding who governs, as well as on the limits of state power. And all ethnic groups -- Pushtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, and others -- are fully vested in the constitutional process to elect the president, the parliament, and provincial and local councils.

Afghans, with the support of the international community, are breaking the back of warlordism. Customs revenues increasingly flow to the national government, rather than to the pockets of regional strongmen. President Hamid Karzai has appointed new governors and police chiefs in most of the country's provinces. He has removed leaders with private militias from positions of military command or transferred them away from the regions in which their personal networks and bases of power were entrenched.

Most of the heavy weapons in the country -- and all of those in the capital of Kabul -- have been cantoned under the control of the Afghan National Army (ANA). A national agreement on the demobilization of militias has resulted in about 15,000 fighters -- about one-third of the total -- returning to civilian life and will see all militias disbanded by the middle of next year.

The job is not done, but the days of those who have conducted themselves as warlords are numbered. The warlords know it. The sun is setting on their way of life. Some seek to reform their ways, cutting their ties with the dying institution of private militias and looking to find their place in emerging national institutions. Those who do not reform ultimately will have no place of power or prestige in the new Afghanistan.

At the same time, Afghanistan's national institutions are taking shape. The Afghan National Army now numbers more than 15,000 troops, with deployments underway and regional commands being established in every region.

Progress is accelerating toward the goal of a 70,000-troop force. Average Afghans often say, "Where the ANA goes, stability follows." More than 28,000 members of the national police have undergone initial training and equipping. The Afghan government has launched a program to rebuild its administrative capacity in the more than 350 district centers.

Year-on-year progress in state building has been significant. Though much remains to be done, momentum is clearly gathering.

Economically, Afghanistan has experienced a peace dividend of growth rates in the legal economy exceeding 15% for three years. Inflation is low, and the new currency is maintaining a stable exchange rate. Several banks have started doing business in Kabul and other cities. Agricultural production is increasing steadily. Thousands of new small businesses have opened.

The rebuilding of the country's primary roads -- led by the U.S.-Japanese-Saudi work on the Kabul-Kandahar-Herat highway -- is well under way. The ring road and the links to regional networks, all of which are scheduled for completion in the next three years, will recreate the Afghan land bridge between Central Asia, South Asia and Southwest Asia, and re-establish a historic market that now accounts for more than $4 trillion.

The best market test to understand how Afghans view the future is the fact that 3.3 million refugees have returned from Pakistan and Iran since 2002 -- the largest voluntary repatriation in history. These refugees would not return unless they believed the quality of life for their families was better in Afghanistan.

While a positive trajectory exists in all of these areas, Afghans and their friends know that challenges remain.

The remnants of the Taliban and other terrorist organizations continue to conduct a low-grade insurgency from sanctuaries in neighboring countries. The explosion of opium production will need to be reversed in coming years, through concerted action to suppress production and provide alternative livelihoods.

In speaking with Afghans, they say that life is immeasurably better than under the Taliban, and that they are profoundly grateful for the help received from the United States and the rest of the world. However, we all know that, to succeed fully in Afghanistan, we must sustain the positive momentum developed to date for at least five years.

If we do so, Afghanistan will realize its enormous upside potential, both by improving the lives of a people who have suffered immense tragedy for a quarter-century, and by consolidating a landmark victory in the war against extremists and terrorists. This will be a major step toward the necessary political transformation of the wider region.


Released on October 7, 2004

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