With Presidential elections in 2019, Afghanistan is set for yet another pivotal political year. With security, economic development and regional cooperation high on the country’s agenda, the South Asia@LSE’s editor Chris Finnigan caught up with Ahmad Naveed Noormal (First Secretary at the Embassy of Afghanistan, London) to discuss last year’s parliamentary elections and how Afghanistan is going through a crucial period of transformation.
How significant were the parliamentary elections at the end of October? There were many cases of violence documented. How significant were these?
There are a number of good reasons why the previous parliamentary elections were a success for the people and the government of Afghanistan. It was the first ever elections where the security of the process was maintained by the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces throughout the country. For the first time the Independent Election Commission introduced a bio metric voting system for a transparent voting process throughout the country, which mostly turned out to be a success. The turnout, contrary to the expectation, was significantly high. Despite security challenges during the campaign process and in the week before election day, millions of people, including women and elderly people waited in long lines to vote, which is a clear message about how strong Afghans are valuing democracy. There were many challenges during the process including security, and mismanagement of the process by the Independent Election Commission in some voting centres, which will hopefully be addressed for the upcoming presidential elections.
Why do you think there is such a strong commitment in the face of such threats?
People in Afghanistan have realised that it is for them to decide about their future. They have, throughout history, proved to be one of the most hopeful and resilient nation. They never gave up hope for a better future even they were at their worst. I firmly believe that the majority of people in Afghanistan believe that the only way to change this country’s destiny and future is to take the lead through democratic values including elections and continued transformation of the country.
How is Afghanistan going through a period of transformation?
Well, change doesn’t happen overnight, however, it is undeniable that the country has progressed and developed on many fronts, such as governance, fighting corruption, economic development and social welfare. For example, many macro and micro economic projects have been initiated, and implemented. Afghanistan, once a country which was only relying on a single country for its trade deals, is now connected through different ports and corridors. A recent World Bank report stated that Afghanistan has significantly improved in the ‘World Bank Doing Business Report 2019’ securing 167th position, while it was 183 in 2018.
Another example is the generational transformation. Significant numbers of young, well-educated Afghan men and women are involved in important, key decision making roles in government and non-government organisations. This wasn’t the case couple of years ago. Transformation in any country will always have its challenges and potholes, however, initiating the process and working towards it will pave the way for further reform and development, and this is evidently happening.
View of Pamir Mountains from Afghanistan | Credit: Unsplash
What internal challenges are there to this democratic process?
Security remains one of our biggest challenges. Insecurity has affected almost everything. Security in Afghanistan is a complex issue given that Afghanistan is fighting on behalf of the world with more than 20 international terrorist groups. The issue of security in Afghanistan does not only relate to Afghanistan, but the whole region and the world.
The government of Afghanistan has unconditionally offered peace talks with the Taliban. We had a historic moment a couple of months ago: the ceasefire with the Taliban. During the ceasefire, two things clearly stood out. First, the Taliban foot soldiers are tired of fighting and they were happy enjoying a normal life; second, the people of Afghanistan, despite all the sacrifices they have given fighting with the Taliban, were still welcoming of the Taliban in the cities, hoping that this will bring a long lasting peace to the country.
We welcome any initiative that leads to security and stability in Afghanistan, however, the process is complex and time consuming. We hope that the efforts undertaken will lead to a negotiation platform for discussions between the Government of Afghanistan and Taliban for a long-lasting peace.
How will this democratic and economic development fare in 2019?
2019 is an important year for Afghanistan. Presidential elections are planned to take place. We had parliamentary elections and the Geneva Conference on Afghanistan a few months ago. Afghanistan presented its achievements and the challenges to the international community. During this conference, the international community renewed its commitment towards supporting Afghanistan. On the other hand, the government of Afghanistan renewed its commitment to development and reform.
Peace Talks with the Taliban are another important matter. The United States has appointed a Special Representative to facilitate peace talks between the Government of Afghanistan and the Taliban. The Government of Afghanistan has taken bold steps towards peace negotiations. The steps taken so far are promising and we hope that it will lead to actual talks.
In terms of economic development, a number of initiatives such as the Lapiz Lazuli corridor connecting Afghanistan to the European market, air corridors with China and India as well as Chabahar port have been inaugurated in the past couple of years. There are many other projects underway. Air corridors, access to wider markets, expanding on trade and transit routes for Afghanistan and further trade and economic cooperation with Central Asia and neighbouring countries are among them.
How important are Afghanistan’s regional diplomatic ties?
The foreign policy of Afghanistan clearly states that diplomatic ties with regional countries are some of the most important. The geopolitical location of Afghanistan as a hub between Central and South Asia connecting these two regions makes it much more important for us to maintain our friendly relations with our neighbours and the wider region. It is obvious that we have some difficult neighbours to deal with. However, we believe in good neighbourly relationships and will further strengthen our diplomatic ties with our regional partners and beyond, based on our mutual interest.
That said is the economic development of Afghanistan more dependent on South Asia or Central Asia?
Afghanistan is a landlocked country and we see the economic development of Afghanistan and the region as a collective need of the region. There is a consensus that security and stability in Afghanistan leads to security and stability in the region and economic development in Afghanistan benefits the region as a whole. Therefore, the key question for economic development in Afghanistan is regional cooperation to promote growth and development in the long run. Afghanistan has always prioritised working with its regional partners to boost economic growth and stability. Given that South Asia and Central Asia are the most important global centres for economic growth and development, Afghanistan aims at deepening regional economic integration with its neighbours and the region. We welcome any initiative, by any country that leads to economic development and integration in Afghanistan and the wider region.
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Ahmad Naveed Noormal is First Secretary at the Embassy of Afghanistan in London. He has previously worked as Policy Coordinator at the Office Deputy Foreign Minister, and the Regional Cooperation Directorate of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Afghanistan. He tweets @naveednoormal