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.

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