Scott Smith, USIP’s director of Afghanistan and Central Asia programs, gave opening remarks to a two-day conference in Kabul this week, encouraging Afghan women to use the constructive force of their vote to help ensure a successful presidential and provincial election this year. The national dialogue was organized by the nongovernmental organization Equality for Peace and Democracy (EPD), with support from USIP.

Photo Credit: Equality for Peace and Democracy

The Feb. 4-5 event, tracked on EPD’s Facebook page, gathered Afghan women active in civil society to discuss the importance of vigorous participation in the upcoming balloting, scheduled for April 5. A successful election will mark Afghanistan’s first democratic electoral transition from one president to another.

USIP has made a priority of helping Afghan civil society work toward peaceful and successful elections. The result will be crucial to the country’s transition once most U.S. and other NATO troops leave at the end of this year. Smith previously worked for the United Nations for 13 years, including extensively in Afghanistan.

The following is the text of his remarks to the conference, after his opening greetings.

It is an honor for me to address this group, on this occasion, concerning this vital issue. I speak to you not as a U.S. government official, but as an independent voice, a longtime friend of Afghanistan and someone who has been involved in some ways in the construction of Afghan democracy over the years.
I think that all of us, Afghans and internationals, who have been involved in the long work of rebuilding Afghanistan’s political order on democratic principles, look forward to the election, now less than two months away, with a mixture of concern and hope.
The concerns are real, but they are also well-known and frequently discussed. I would like to focus my remarks today on what we may hope from this election, and how you can contribute to that hope.
One of the greatest reasons to feel proud of what has been achieved by Afghan democracy is the participation of women – as voters, candidates, observers, activists and professionals within the electoral management bodies.
It would be easy, but incorrect, to see this participation as something that has been granted to women as some sort of gift, a compromise necessary to preserve an appearance of Afghanistan’s political modernization, or a concession to the international community in exchange for continuing to support Afghanistan.
Nothing can be farther from the truth. The participation of women in this and past elections is a function of their citizenship, and that citizenship gives women clear and equal rights to participate like all other citizens in all aspects of the electoral process. I don’t wish to minimize the obstacles that continue to face women in Afghanistan, or to suggest that full equality has been achieved in practice. But I do think it’s important to highlight how far Afghanistan has come on this question. And this has been accomplished thanks to the considerable courage of Afghan women.
This election belongs to the citizens of Afghanistan. In the next two days, as citizens, you will review specifically the policy platforms of candidates regarding women’s rights and discuss these positions directly with the candidates. This sort of exchange is the essence of democracy: it is about respect for fundamental rights. Above all, it is about the fact that, in a democracy, citizens choose their leaders and their leaders must be accountable to the people who choose them.
For too long in Afghanistan, the people have been the subjects of the exercise of raw power, where force replaces law, and the powerless had no mechanisms of appeal against injustice. This has been true especially, as we all know, for women. The democratic process, based in law, and defined by the right of citizens to hold their leaders accountable, is precisely the opposite. I think it is for this reason that Afghans, despite flawed elections in the past, still express support for democracy.
I confess that my own political analysis of this election has been somewhat simplistic at times. I have described it mostly as a means of legitimizing and allocating power, prolonging the constitutional order and buying a little more time for the country to stabilize itself. I am very pleased, however, that an event like this one shows my analysis to be perhaps too cynical.
What you are doing today and tomorrow and afterwards is making the elections not just about the allocation of political power, but about how that power is used. You are forcing issues to be debated, and candidates to make commitments. You are using the force of your votes to ensure the preservation of your rights and the advancement of your interests. In doing so, you are making this election about something more than political continuity, and turning it into a mechanism of hope.
As this process moves toward its conclusion, through the campaign, election day, counting and resolution, I’m sure we will all have many reasons to remember the concerns that we have now -- our fears of violence, of fraud, of low participation, of disputes over the result and of possible instability. But the best way to overcome these concerns as citizens is through a conscious and aware participation in the election as voters. This conference and the work of EPD to prepare it is a clear demonstration of your determination to do that.
I wish you the best of luck over the next two days and, especially, the next two months, as you return to your communities to organize and mobilize. This is an Afghan process, but the world will be watching. Days like this should give us all hope that we will all be pleasantly surprised at the outcome, that Afghan citizens, men and women, will demonstrate their determination to continue on the path of democracy, equality, peace and development.

Scott Smith is USIP’s director of Afghanistan and Central Asia programs.

Related Publications

Afghanistan Withdrawal Should Be Based on Conditions, Not Timelines

Afghanistan Withdrawal Should Be Based on Conditions, Not Timelines

Thursday, November 19, 2020

By: Scott Worden

The Taliban’s tactic of running out the clock on the U.S. troop presence may bear fruit after the announcement on Tuesday that U.S. forces will reduce to 2,500 by January 15. The Trump administration successfully created leverage by engaging directly with the Taliban to meet their paramount goal of a U.S. withdrawal in exchange for genuine peace talks and counterterrorism guarantees. This strategy brought about unprecedented negotiations between Afghan government representatives and the Taliban in Doha. A walk down a conditions-based path to peace, long and winding as it may be, had begun.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Peace Processes

Constitutional Issues in the Afghan Peace Negotiations: Process and Substance

Constitutional Issues in the Afghan Peace Negotiations: Process and Substance

Friday, November 13, 2020

By: Barnett R. Rubin

The peace negotiations between the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban that began in September in Doha, Qatar, will almost certainly include revisiting the country’s constitution. Both sides claim to abide by Islamic law, but they interpret it in very different ways. This report examines some of the constitutional issues that divide the two sides, placing them within the context of decades of turmoil in Afghanistan and suggesting ideas for how the peace process might begin to resolve them.

Type: Special Report

Mediation, Negotiation & Dialogue

Pathways for Post-Peace Development in Afghanistan

Pathways for Post-Peace Development in Afghanistan

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

By: Khyber Farahi; Scott Guggenheim

Even if the warring parties in Afghanistan manage to secure a still-elusive agreement on resolving the current conflict, significant economic challenges remain for the country, which will require continued assistance and support for core government functions. This report, based on an examination of Afghanistan’s recent development performance, provides a framework for how the Afghan government and its donor partners can more effectively deliver equitable development going forward.

Type: Special Report

Conflict Analysis & Prevention

Afghan Peace Process Tests Women Activists

Afghan Peace Process Tests Women Activists

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

By: Belquis Ahmadi; Matthew Parkes

More than a month after Afghan peace talks formally began, the effort to end the war in Afghanistan is stalled, and no one faces higher stakes than Afghan women. The attempt at negotiations has snagged on preliminary issues, the Taliban have escalated their attacks, and all sides are watching the evolution of the U.S. military role in the country. Afghan women’s rights advocates say the moment, and the need for international support, is critical. U.S. officials have noted how U.S assistance can be vital in supporting women’s rights, a principle that can be advanced at a global donors’ conference next month.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Gender; Peace Processes

View All Publications