More than 7 million Afghans waited in long lines for hours, in rainy weather, to vote at over 6,200 polling centers across the country. They did so with a hardened determination to secure a future for Afghanistan where peace, pluralism, and prosperity will be institutionalized over time. They defied months of terrorist assaults that killed scores of innocent civilians, including suicide attacks launched on the offices of the Independent Election Commission in Kabul and targeted a number of Afghan police forces who had been preparing to protect the voters. These indiscriminate attacks, which were staged, and continue to be organized, outside of Afghanistan, aim to derail the country’s democratic state building process and to undo the hard-earned socio-economic gains that continue to empower Afghan girls and women.
But on April 5, despite clear threats to the elections, Afghans crossed ethno-sectarian lines to make a loud, clear statement rejecting terrorism in all its forms and manifestations. At 60 percent, Afghan voter turnout was much higher than in some of the world’s most established democracies, including the United States, where voter turnout in presidential elections has fluctuated between 45 and 55 percent over the past several decades. By the time the polling centers closed, the Afghan people were delighted to have been heard by their close allies and friends, most of whom released statements supporting the further institutionalization of democracy in Afghanistan:
U.S. President Barack Obama said: “These elections are critical to securing Afghanistan’s democratic future, as well as continued international support.” He added that his country will continue to “support a sovereign, stable, unified, and democratic Afghanistan on the basis of mutual respect and mutual accountability.”
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen stated that: “Every vote counts, and every single one is a vote for democracy.” Rasmussen also praised Afghans for showing “their determination to have a say in the future of their country and their commitment to a future based on the fundamental principle of democracy.”
The government of India referred to the large Afghan voter turnout as “an important message that everyone should listen to,” pledging that “India will continue to work to support the people of Afghanistan in their efforts to build a strong, independent and democratic Afghanistan.”
The people and government of Afghanistan have welcomed these international expressions of support, and firmly believe that durable peace and prosperity will naturally flow from institutionalizing democratic values and principles. In the case of Afghans, those values and principles are already embedded in their egalitarian culture and Islamic belief system, which promote moderation against extremism. That is why radicalism has never taken rootin Afghan society, despite the overwhelming pressures of terrorism, weak governance, and widespread poverty.
Moreover, the electoral process was completely owned and led by Afghans. It was a good demonstration of Afghans being in the driver’s seat, while the international community played its rightful support role. As a result, this round of elections was more smoothly administered than those in 2009 and 2004, and proves that Afghans are capable of achieving self-reliance, if they are listened to and provided with the right assistance, in accordance with their own security and development priorities.
Yet as Afghans continue to celebrate their electoral success, their achievements remain works in progress that are under constant attack. But despite this daily threat of terror, the message for the region is clear: Afghanistan has firmly crossed the point of no return from a tragic past that witnessed the country’s destruction at the hands of its neighbors.
A secure, democratic Afghanistan will help stabilize the whole region, where regional trade and investment must replace the zero-sum postures that have cost ordinary people too much for too long. The adoption of win-win strategies by regional governments would automatically help protect Afghanistan against the same threats that undermine the security of every nation in South Asia and Central Asia, as well as the countries that neighbor these resourceful regions.
Ultimately, winning or losing in Afghanistan will squarely depend on whether the country’s allies and friends can actually deliver on the commitments they have repeatedly made to institutionalize peace and democracy in the country. If they do, Afghanistan will steadily grow as a sovereign, democratic country at peace internally and with its neighbors. It will focus on win-win objectives in a region where every nation needs to be secure and prosperous. Sincere, results-oriented cooperation is the call of every nation in the region and beyond. And Afghanistan stands ready to do its part for the good of all.
However, shortchanging institutionalization of democracy in Afghanistan in favor of any peace process, which is not Afghan-led, Afghan-owned, and Afghan-controlled, will effectively undo everything the Afghan people have achieved so far, in partnership with the international community. Afghans’ vote on April 5 was a referendum for the full enforcement of Afghanistan’s basic conditions for a meaningful peace dialogue with the armed opposition. For negotiation with the Taliban, those conditions include cutting ties with al Qaeda, renouncing violence, and respecting the values and principles of the Afghan constitution, including upholding human rights and the equal rights of women.
Indeed, any attempt to sideline Afghans and to ignore their recent vote against terrorism and extremism will once again undermine regional stability and endanger international peace and security. Let’s not forget that today’s Taliban are the same dark forces that brutally terrorized the Afghan people for years, systematically destroyed their cultural heritage sites, enforced a gender apartheid of unspeakable cruelty, and sheltered and aided al Qaeda. Hence, the Afghan people hope that their historic turnout for peace and democracy has convinced the international community to stay the course and maintain the steady momentum for collective success in Afghanistan.
M. Ashraf Haidari is the deputy chief of mission of the Afghan Embassy in India. He formerly served as Afghanistan’s deputy assistant national security adviser, as well as deputy chief of mission of the Afghan Embassy in the United States.