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The Democratization of Afghanistan

A Director's Forum with His Excellency Younous Qanooni, Speaker of the Wolesi Jirga of the Parliament of Afghanistan

Date & Time

Oct. 26, 2007
10:00am – 11:00am ET


Mohammad Yunus Qanooni described the democratic reforms underway in Afghanistan, affirming that the government and people consider democracy "a proven path" to solving the nation's political and social problems. "We accept democracy as a way and a path and we learn this from you, our good friends in the West," he said, speaking in Dari with English translation.

He cautioned, however, that democracy there is in its infancy and will require sustained nurturing and support from allies. The Afghan people are determined for democracy to succeed, he said, but we should not expect the same kind of democracy in Afghanistan that exists in other places with a centuries-old democratic tradition.

"The people of Afghanistan are tired of the old ways and have matured politically," Qanooni said. In his nation's history, he said, Afghans have witnessed abuse of power and rule by fear. Bad policies left Afghanistan a backward society that inherited poverty, illiteracy, disease, and underdeveloped social and economic sectors. But "three years ago, for the first time in history, Afghanistan witnessed the formation of government according to [the people's] will—the birth of democracy in Afghanistan."

Presidential elections occurred and a new constitution was ratified. A law guaranteeing freedom of press was passed, the only one of its kind in the region. "I'm very proud to say that parliament, which is only 19 months old, has been able to establish its place in the hearts of the great nation of Afghanistan and in the international arena," Qanooni said. "We have a government, a parliament, a judiciary, and freedoms." He described the Constitution as a guarantor of democracy that recognizes elections, free speech and press, women's rights, and political pluralism. Today, there are more than 83 registered political parties.

The parliament is diverse, encompassing men and women from different ethnic groups and political backgrounds. In fact, 28 percent of parliamentarians are women. According to Qanooni, during a recent visit to Afghanistan, President Bush said the percentage of women in Afghanistan's parliament exceeds the percentage of women in the U.S. Congress. Qanooni added that today, in Afghanistan, girls have the opportunity to go to school and universities and play a significant role in society.

"We have a field for the growth of democracy," Qanooni said. "Six years after turning a new page in Afghanistan...I say proudly we have been able to take positive steps and that gives us hope for the future."

Of course, challenges abound. "The political field is not ripe and ready," he said. "We need time." He cited difficulty passing laws and the need for better regulation among government entities. "We still have difficulty accepting opposition, a challenge of democracy," he said. "We should bring ourselves to an area where we accept each other" and forge a strong national identity.

He argued that democratic principles must be an all-encompassing strategy infused into all sectors but some current laws hamper that development. For democracy to take root fully in Afghanistan, he said, it must be approached and adapted for a nation that is backward, traditional, and emerging from war. Democracy should be built from the top down and the base up. He reiterated that democracy is not against religion. While religious extremists threaten democracy, he said, democracy opposes dictatorship, not any religion or belief.

"It's our duty as representatives of the people of Afghanistan in [creating] and reforming laws to consider the growth of democracy and to take bigger steps in this direction. I'd like to say, with pride, we have taken some of these steps already."

Following his remarks, Qanooni took questions from the audience. Below is a summary of some of his responses.

On Afghanistan's relations w/ neighboring Iran and Pakistan
Pakistan has a major impact on Afghanistan and could play a role in peace and stability in Afghanistan. But Pakistan must alter its strategy to bring confidence to both nations. Currently it's a destabilizing force and has been supporting terrorists in Afghanistan. "It's unfortunate that some of our neighbors are not working with us as they should," he said. Iran is also an important neighbor and he hopes both neighbors, having so much in common, can work together.

On the government's plans to cope with poppy production and the opium trade Afghanistan's parliament and executive branch share a common view on narcotics. "With bitterness, we admit an increase of production and are committed to fight this scourge." He admitted their strategy over the last six years was unsuccessful and only worsened the situation. He underscored the need for a common policy at the national and global level. The poppies are grown in Afghanistan but the chemicals needed for production come from elsewhere. Meanwhile, the money generated from the drug trade finances terrorism.

"Wherever in Afghanistan there is lack of stability, there is more opium." Instead of fighting from the base to top, he urges fighting from the top down to bring the money out of the hands of mafia whose influence go beyond the boundaries of Afghanistan. Laws for fighting narcotics have been passed and cultivation of poppy in Afghanistan, even for medical use, has been banned. The Parliament is determined to fight this problem.

If the United States takes military action against Iran, how will this affect Afghanistan?
A year of preoccupation in Iraq overshadowed the situation in Afghanistan. His country was partly forgotten and that was partly why terrorism reemerged in Afghanistan. "We hope concerns Americans have in the region are solved with foresight. There should be no need for military engagement so that we Afghans don't become once again a preoccupation of our friend, the United States."

In the absence of certain preconditions such as railways and connected cities, where is democracy heading?
Afghanistan is emerging from a backward tradition and progressing toward modernism. This is a transitional period and democracy will come gradually. It would be a mistake to copy the model of those countries that have had centuries to grow democracy. He called for balanced progress. The period of war was left behind. With a free press and good economy, democracy is possible.

On the role of security and the progress of the police and judicial system
Afghanistan has a new army and police force. The police are not yet self-sufficient but are undergoing training. However, the police have limited powers under the new constitution. During this trip, he thanked U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for approving a new budget for police training in Afghanistan. At the end of reforms, in terms of quality and quantity, they will have a national police to maintain stability. The judiciary has made some reforms and has good relations with the legislative branch.

On education and the illiteracy rate
While education has not been compulsory, it's free of charge and offered to all. He believes primary education should become compulsory, which would help fight illiteracy. More than 70% of the population is illiterate. The Ministry of Education has launched plans to combat illiteracy. "I served in that ministry and we laid down the foundation...We are a traditional society. We're at the beginning of the road but we are making progress."

On security: Pakistan is having trouble bringing security to its own country. How can it help Afghanistan?
Yes, Pakistan also has a security problem. But terrorists do not recognize borders and will not remain limited to Afghanistan or Pakistan. Terrorism is an international phenomenon and requires global response. He suggested a strategic triangle among Pakistan, Afghanistan, and the United States to create and enforce a new strategy, thereby reducing casualties and building confidence.

Drafted by Dana Steinberg, Outreach & Communications


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