Asia Program

Events

Political Transition in Afghanistan:The State, Islam and Civil Society

December 31, 1969 // 2:00pmApril 20, 2004 // 12:00am
Event Co-sponsors: 
Middle East Program

H.E. Said Tayeb Jawad, Afghan Ambassador to the United States;
William Maley, Australian National University; Thomas Barfield, Boston University; Sima Wali, Refugee Women in Development; Neamat Nojumi, Harvard Law School; Marvin Weinbaum, Middle East Institute

With the adoption of a new constitution in January 2004, presidential and parliamentary elections slated for September 2004, and a new round of funding pledged in Berlin, Afghanistan is at a critical turning point in its political development. But myriad challenges remain. Narco-trafficking and warlord rivalry are on the rise and the U.S. has launched a spring offensive against Al Qaeda and Taliban militants still challenging Hamid Karzai's grip on the country. Weak and under-funded central state institutions and nascent civil society are still major obstacles to bringing peace and prosperity to the country. The Wilson Center's Asia and Middle East Programs sponsored a half-day conference in order to explore the current situation in Afghanistan and the prospects for stability and political transformation.

William Maley, professor and Foundation Director, Asia-Pacific College of Diplomacy, Australian National University, painted a dire portrait of the process of political transition in Afghanistan. He enumerated six challenges to long-term peace and stability: state-building, reconstituting trust, establishing security, dealing with criminals and other spoilers, surviving in a region of hostile neighbors, and retaining the interest of the international community. Maley warned that long-term international political and financial commitment is essential to the successful recovery of states such as Afghanistan.

Drawing on fieldwork in Afghanistan, Thomas Barfield, professor and chairman of the department of anthropology at Boston University, argued that Afghans are generally resistant to ideology, whether it be communist or radical Islamist in nature. Local identity and cultural understanding trump ideological affiliation in the long-term. Afghans will bend where the political winds blow, but will maintain their core identity and interests. He noted that none of the captured Al Qaeda members were Afghan and maintained that radical Islamic groups do not enjoy broad support or legitimacy among the people.

In his keynote address, Ambassador Said Tayeb Jawad focused on the newly adopted constitution and the structure of state institutions outlined within that document. He mentioned successes, such as significant economic growth, fiscal stability, improvements in infrastructure, and the enactment of numerous laws designed to improve the life of Afghans. He also noted challenges such as demobilizing and disarming militias and combating the narcotics trade, which funds both warlords and criminals. He called for the United States and international donor community to support Afghanistan in its struggle to fight terrorism and establish a stable democracy.

Two Afghani speakers addressed the issue of strengthening civil society and human rights in Afghanistan. Sima Wali, president of Refugee Women in Development, described conditions for women in Afghanistan and said that not enough was being done to provide security for women so that they could fully participate in society. She argued that reconstruction would not be possible without the participation of women, who constitute 60 percent of the population. American support for warlords and the diversion of funding from Afghanistan to Iraq are undermining reconstruction efforts. She also criticized the international donor community for not providing enough training and funds to local Afghan NGOs so that development efforts would be sustainable.

Neamat Nojumi, who recently finished his tenure as research fellow and coordinator for the Afghanistan Legal Studies Initiative at the Harvard Law School's Islamic Legal Studies Program, argued that indigenous sources of law and conflict mediation could serve as the basis for wider political participation and the strengthening of civil society in general. Democratization grounded in traditional institutions such as the Jirga and Shura can be used to mobilize regular Afghans to take part in politics and utilize resources more effectively. This type of grassroots process could help circumscribe the influence of warlords and groups with foreign connections.

The picture that emerged from these presentations is one of incredible complexity. The mosaic of ethnic, tribal, religious, and regional interests presents a daunting challenge to reconstructing the Afghan state and society. Solving these problems requires sustained political and financial commitment on the part of the international community to establish security and build state capacity. Equally important is the reinvigoration and revitalization of Afghan civil society after years of warfare, so Afghans themselves can become active agents of their own future.

Robert M. Hathaway, Asia Program Director, 202-691-4012
Drafted by Wilson Lee

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