Afghanistan ambassador discusses challenges of democracy

Afghanistan’s ambassador to the United States, Said Tayeb Jawad, discussed the country’s struggle with democracy and how it will handle its upcoming parliamentary elections to a packed audience at the Elliott School of International Affairs building Thursday night.

Formerly ruled by the Taliban, an Islamic extremist group defeated by American-led forces after the Sept. 11 attacks, Afghanistan will hold its first democratic elections for parliament and its 34 provincial councils on Sept. 18. Jawad, who spoke as a part of the ambassadors’ forum, said that while Afghanistan’s 2004 presidential election was successful, the country “is not out of the woods yet.”

Jawad said security in the country has been increased during the weeks leading up to the election. Jawad said that while the country has disarmed 120,000 Afghan militias and strengthened its three-tiered system containing local security forces, the national army and international forces, he sees an insurgent attack during the elections as unlikely “because (the radical groups) know how unpopular that would be.”

During his speech, Jawad explained Afghanistan’s problems with insurgents and government structure. He said a new amnesty program for low-level officers “has left the leadership fragmented and isolated.”

However, he said that while it will be challenging, he has high hopes for a sustainable democratic government in the country.

“The Taliban is defeated, but not eliminated,” he said. “(But) terrorists will not be able to stand against the will of the country.”

Jawad stressed how a strong democratic Afghanistan will benefit not only itself, but its Middle Eastern neighbors as well. He further expressed the country’s goal to “replace regional rivalry with trade and peace with Pakistan and other countries throughout the area.”

Charles Cushman, GW professor of political management, said he believes democracy is possible in Afghanistan, though it might not be anything like America envisions the concept.

“Democracy will have to be pretty loose to accommodate all the different groups involved in Afghanistan,” he said.

Regarding the upcoming elections serving as a catalyst for democracy in the Middle East, Cushman said, “I wouldn’t hold my breath.”

Jawad added that Afghanistan’s challenges do not end with the next week’s elections. He said the country is still one of the poorest in the world, having one of the highest infant mortality rates and one of the lowest life expectancy rates.

Jawad said Afghanistan’s major obstacle now is “facing the menace of narcotics … and the ensuing corruption.” The opium trade accounts for half of Afghanistan’s economic output. Jawad estimated that it will take four to five years to rid Afghanistan of narcotics.

“(We) have to let (the people) grow their roots again, but this is a war we can not win in 6 months,” he said.

Jawad also added that one of the most important investments Afghanistan can make now is in education. Currently, less than a third of schools have roofs, and most are held in tents or under trees.

“But (the kids) are determined,” he explained, telling a story about how terrorists burned down a school’s tent and the kids still showed up the next day ready to learn.

Yet in the face of these many obstacles, Jawad said Afghanistan has made a number of positive strides, including a new constitution, new currency and decreased inflation.

Students attending the speech said that it was rewarding to get firsthand knowledge about a region that is so important to the United States right now.

“I realized tonight, as a student of GW, that I am truly fortunate to be able to listen and learn from some of the wisest leaders of the world,” freshman Sarah Shalash said following the speech.

Edward Gnehm, a visiting GW professor of international affairs, said he thinks the speech was important for the GW community.

He said, “It’s a good, important supplement for what students hear on the news.”

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