By Laurel Stone
Fixated on Afghanistan’s looming challenges, the international media is drawing a bleak picture of the embattled country’s future. President Barack Obama marked 2014 as the deadline for the withdrawal of American armed forces. This troop removal signals an expectation for both Afghanistan’s government and its civil society to take control of security and governance. The international community has pledged to aid the country during what will certainly be a trying transition, but unless efforts are made to address the current complexities on the ground, a smooth and successful transition will be difficult.
To aid these efforts, World Policy Institute hosted a private roundtable discussion, co-sponsored by the Heinrich Boell Foundation, to stimulate conversation about the policy options available to the international community for Afghanistan’s transition. Thirty leading diplomats and practitioners from the United Nations, think tanks, and non-governmental organizations attended. Three Afghan civil society leaders discussed the current situation in Afghanistan: Musarat Hussain of Heinrich Boell’s Afghanistan office, Masood Karokhail of the Kabul Liaison Office, and Nargis Nehan of EQUALITY for Peace and Democracy. Michelle Fanzo, a project leader for World Policy Institute and former Vice President of Arzu, who recently lived in Afghanistan, facilitated the conversation.
Despite the complex picture forecasted for Afghanistan’s future, the conversation offered evidence of the potential for peace. The three Afghan leaders highlighted the desire of the people to see democracy take root and emphasized the successes already taking place. Their message was simple: grant patience to Afghanistan and allow them to shape the course of their future by partnering with them instead of imposing unwanted policy.
Lingering obstacles complicate the peaceful implementation of democratic rule of law. Several of these problems were addressed by the speakers in the course of the discussion, yet three specific issues garnered the most attention due to their direct impact on democratization: corruption, elections, and justice.
Corruption not only prevents foreign aid from reaching targeted projects, but it also destroys the accountability of the government to its own people. Masood Karokhail discussed the internal problems that corruption creates, and he also highlighted how they have made efforts to address its presence in the system. Last year, the government adopted the Tokyo Accountability Framework, which targets corruption by providing indicators that track foreign aid in projects. Donor countries, like the United States and the United Kingdom, signed onto the framework as a pledge to help Afghanistan even after the withdrawal of security forces. Nargis Nehan stated that, “the framework laid a solid foundation” because it intends to award good governance, an incentive that will help Afghanistan transition toward democracy.
Yet good governance is damaged by more than just corruption. Next year’s presidential election in Afghanistan will significantly impact how effectively democracy can be implemented. The current government’s lack of accountability is detrimental to the prospects for democracy because it creates a disincentive for participation. Musarat Hussain emphasized the importance of involving the Afghan people in the pre-electoral process by encouraging them to participate and ultimately vote. Civil society bridges the gap between the government and its people because as Nargis described, “it ensures them their vote is important.” Musarat further emphasized this point by stating, “A vibrant civil society is the key to bringing democracy to Afghanistan.” Supporting the role of civil society by engaging Afghanis in elections will be instrumental in the electoral process as the country prepares for new leadership.
Airing grievances and carrying out justice are both critical for Afghanistan’s transition. Nargis identified the justice sector as one of the most corrupt and in need of repair. As an example, she referenced the lack of justice administered in cases of women’s rights. Nargis declared that “Women are advancing; there is transformation,” but she stated there is still rampant physical abuse that escapes prosecution. These abuses create a desire for justice to be administered, but this is difficult without deciding what transitional justice looks like for Afghanistan.
Transitional justice is designed to help civilians air their grievances during the process of prosecuting war criminals, a vital component of moving the country past the divides created by conflict. However, Musarat discussed the difficulties of implementing transitional justice processes which help civilians hold the government accountable. He specifically identified old judges remaining in the system as a problem for judicial reform because some of them could even be found guilty of war crimes. Masood also contended that until a political settlement has been reached, the process of reforming the judicial system will be daunting. Despite these difficulties of deciding when a transitional justice process can begin, each speaker was emphatically optimistic about Afghanistan’s ability to help their citizens address grievances in a way that would still maintain a peaceful settlement, saying that optimism is necessary in order to face the situation.
Each leader articulated a desire for the international community to have patience with Afghanistan as they steer their country out of conflict. Rather than focusing on deadlines, they encouraged the international community to partner with them by supporting the implementation of Afghan-led ideas. Ultimately, Nargis’s exclamation that “challenges should not undermine achievements,” serves as a reminder for us to look beyond the media's bleak picture of Afghanistan’s future and into the potential for the Afghan people to successfully transition toward peace.
Laurel Stone is a research intern at World Policy Institute and a MA Candidate at the John C. Whitehead School of Diplomacy.
[Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army]