Remarks made by M. Ashraf Haidari, Political Counselor, Embassy of Afghanistan at The Near East South Asia Center (NESA) for Strategic Studies
Over the past few weeks, there has been much debate about the situation in Afghanistan at various think tanks in DC, but almost none has specifically focused on what is actually on everyone's mind. The views and comments raised here since yesterday have been quite informative and enlightening on the upcoming Afghan elections.
Other panel speakers and those in the audience have identified the key challenges ahead of us, as well as the opportunities that need to be ceased to build upon the progress we have made in the social, economic, and security sectors to encourage voters' participation in the upcoming elections.
I would like to share with you my thoughts on a few issues that I think are important to keep in mind, as we plan and prepare for the upcoming elections in Afghanistan.
At the outset, I would like to stress, as Ambassador Jawad did yesterday, that holding presidential election next year is of deep symbolic importance to the Afghan people, both inside and outside our country.
Afghans view next year's elections not only as another step forward in our new democracy but also as an opportunity to make their voices heard on the many challenges facing our population of what I call vulnerable groups (e.g. returning refugees, IDPs, the disabled, former combatants, jobless youth, women and children, and the elderly).
I am optimistic that we will have a high voter turnout in the upcoming elections if security allows. I think that regardless of weak governance over the past four years that may be a cause for low voter turnout, the demographic landscape of Afghanistan has generationally changed in favor of a multi-candidate and competitive presidential election next year.
The voting age is 18, and if you recall from 2004 presidential elections, there were 10.5 million eligible voters, 80% of whom turned out to cast their votes. By the following year for the parliamentary elections, the number of eligible voters at 18 years of age rose to 12.5 million.
So, if we add two million eligible voters to the electorate each year since 2005, we will have at least another five million young voters. This means that the majority of the electorate in 2009 and 2010 will be between 18 and 40 years of age.
Compared to the previous electorate, this age group is far more literate, educated, and aware of the domestic, regional, and international issues that affect the stabilization and reconstruction of Afghanistan. To give you an example: in 2004 and 2005, young Afghans were just getting cell phones and beginning to take intermediate English courses across urban Afghanistan.
Today, they know how to text-message better than most of us here; they have multiple e-mail accounts; and they daily write blogs, discussing Afghan issues in the regional and global contexts. This age group dominates both urban and rural populations; they constitute the largest jobless segment of our population and yet they are the bread winners of their families; they are active in the formal and informal marketplace; and they are high school and university students, looking forward to a better future.
So, I think the caveat to keep in mind is that it is important to engage this young electorate both from a civic education and participation perspectives from the beginning. Failure to do so will be easily taken advantage of by peace spoilers; we know that jobless and frustrated young professionals can be very destabilizing in any society, particularly in Afghanistan's complicated political environment.
Second, security will continue to worry all of us until after the elections are over. I think there are two types of security threats to the upcoming elections: traditional and non-traditional. On the traditional threat, as Ambassador Jawad pointed out yesterday, a strategic commitment by the government of Pakistan is needed to cooperate with Afghanistan and our common allies to ensure the security of upcoming elections.
We sincerely hope that Pakistan will truly mobilize its deployed forces along the border to curb cross-border terrorist activities in Afghanistan. I also think effective intelligence sharing between Pakistan and our common allies will be key to neutralizing terrorist plots against strategic targets such as candidates, international observers, relief workers, polling staff and stations in key provinces, and civilians.
On the non-traditional security threat to the upcoming elections, we should be concerned about an abundance of narco-money and funds from foreign peace spoilers that could be used to destabilize the political and security situation in major urban areas with large numbers of voters. This means that we must have a two-pronged strategy, one that simultaneously addresses security threats in rural south and east, as well as in large populous cities, where security incidents are least or minimally expected to take place.
Third, on the issue of legitimacy of elections as far as the impartiality of the international community is concerned, we hope that our international partners, as Ambassador Jawad and General Barno pointed out yesterday, will have a hands-on approach. By default, the Afghan people expect UNAMA—as mandated by the UN Security Council Resolutions— to play an effective oversight role to ensure that no electoral institution will violate its independent status in favor of any contesting candidates.
In the Afghan context, a lack of effective oversight can easily lead to such violations, which could undermine the legitimacy of the whole process, as well as that of its implementers, Afghans and non-Afghans alike.
Fourth, we Afghans like bargaining too much, negotiating days and months, getting rough and tough. This is quite reflective of the culture and diversity of the Afghan people, but we are also a people sincere and serious in our words and actions—in spite of our differences. Afghans tend to reach consensus on the most difficult issues as quickly as we might sweat over small ones.
Needless to say, the upcoming elections will involve much bargaining and negotiating over anything and everything. This will require a listening ear first and foremost by the UNAMA leadership and its supporting UN family of agencies. Ambassador Kai Eide's most challenging and yet rewarding task would be to talk to Afghans endlessly, listen to what Afghans have to say, and work with them on a consensus in the greater interest of the Afghan nation.
Afghans do have a good record of coming together to do the impossible for their country, of course, regardless of their ethno-sectarian background and political ideology. But each time they have gotten close to a national compromise, they have been divided by regional peace spoilers in the past. Ambassador Eide must be supported strongly by the international community to prevent this from happening before, during, and after the elections.
Fifth and most important of all, we all agree that holding elections one after another round without actually strengthening our state institutions to deliver on the promise of elections is meaningless. Afghans resort to elections as a means to achieve an end. If we continue to fall behind in making progress towards our end goal over the next five years, Afghans will increasingly be forced to choose between us and dangerous alternatives for survival. Therefore, we hope that the international community will deliver on the commitments they made in the recent Paris Support Conference to align their aid resources with the objectives of the Afghanistan National Development Strategy—a key priority of which is to build institutional capacity in order to deliver basic services to people.
I think it is important to stress that Afghanistan cannot achieve self-reliance and self-sufficiency unless the international community enables it to do so. In light of our massive rebuilding needs, the international community must match ends with means. Committing long-term resources is absolutely necessary but ensuring that aid is effectively delivered through Afghan state institutions to achieve the objectives of our National Development Strategy is equally important.
To ensure strategic coordination across the donor community, the international community must provide the requisite resources—as recently requested by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon—to operationalize UNAMA in Afghanistan, and be willing to be coordinated by UNAMA.
Finally, a significant number of Afghan citizens reside in developed countries in Europe, Australia, and North America who wish to participate in the national elections. In 2004 and 2005, we received many calls from the Afghan Diaspora, complaining why they were not given a chance to vote.
The Afghan Diaspora is an important voting bloc that should be given an opportunity to vote, particularly in an effort to strengthen moderates in Afghanistan and to give resourceful Afghans abroad a stake in returning home to help rebuild Afghanistan.
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