I will never forget the day I swore my oath as a member of parliament in Afghanistan.
Our national anthem was playing, and tears streamed down my face. I looked around the room and saw all of Afghanistan’s faces reflected there; every ethnic group from my culturally diverse nation—more than 40 languages, with more than 200 dialects, are spoken nationally. And all beliefs were represented: men with turbans and beards; grey-haired elders in traditional robes; clean-shaven bespectacled bureaucrats wearing suits, and young women like myself.
This was the blossoming of democracy and the new start for my nation that I had dreamed of throughout the long years of Taliban rule, when my country was led by men who claimed to speak for God, but who plunged us into darkness.
We cannot allow them to rule again.
One of the most common misperceptions about my nation is that democracy was forced on an unwilling population by the West after the defeat of the Taliban in 2001.
This is not true.
My answer to people who ask me how I feel to have had democracy “imposed” on Afghanistan is this:
“Wouldn’t any people, anywhere in the world, want the right to choose their own leader and vote for their own government if they could do so?”
I find it strange that anyone would think differently.
The fact is Afghanistan has a long and noble history of democratic traditions at both the local and national level. For example, locally we have a system of jirga, a local council where elders from neighboring villages meet and discuss problems or solve disputes. Anyone can bring a problem or dispute to a jirga—and the council will listen to both sides of the debate and make a judgment. Their decision is final.
At the national level we have Loya Jirga—grand council. This system brings together regional leaders from all over the country. Immediately after the fall of the Taliban, we had a Constitutional Loya Jirga that included representatives from all the different ethnic groups. At that gathering, the new democratic constitution of Afghanistan was agreed to and voted upon. Most recently, there has been a national Peace Jirga, which included village elders as well as politicians from all over Afghanistan.
Today, many Afghans have lost or are losing faith in their government. But that has nothing to do with not wanting democracy. Rather, it has everything to do with how little has changed for ordinary people despite the billions of dollars of international aid money spent in Afghanistan in recent years.
Most people still do not have access to clean water or electricity, even in Kabul, the capital city. In part this is due to government corruption—Afghanistan is ranked as one of the most corrupt countries in the world.
But it is also a failure of big international contracting firms that built roads, many of which were too small to allow farmers to pass trucks to get produce to market or that were made with such poor quality asphalt that they need rebuilding already. Many hospitals were also so badly built that they failed to include basics like plumbing, so they lay empty, unfit for patients. Yet the contractors still took their profit.
If Afghan people are cynical today, these are just some of the reasons. Yet they still risk their lives to vote in elections. I represent Badakshan, one of the poorest and most remote provinces of Afghanistan. Many people are illiterate, yet they love to talk about politics.
In recent weeks, there has been much discussion of so-called peace talks between the Taliban and the United States. The Taliban have recently opened a political office in the gulf state of Qatar, a key U.S. ally. Last year, the Taliban pulled out of similar talks with President Hamid Karzai. The US now appears to believe that the only way to achieve lasting peace in Afghanistan (and allow a smooth pullout of the foreign military) is to allow the Taliban to participate in government. I feel strongly that this is the wrong approach.
The U.S. government has announced plans to withdraw all forces from Afghanistan by 2014. Yet even now, as they prepare to leave, my beloved country once more lurches into insecurity, violence, and the looming threat of Taliban rule once again.
I do not believe the Taliban will share power or will participate in democracy. They try to assassinate me—and plenty of other female and liberal members of parliament, as well as opponents of their ideology—on an almost daily basis. Only a few weeks ago, Taliban gunmen attacked my car. I was inside for 30 minutes, not knowing if I would live or die. Three Afghan policemen were killed in the battle. Given that, can I really be expected to believe they would sit quietly in parliament alongside me? Impossible.
According to one United Nations estimate, nearly 90 percent of Afghan women suffer from some sort of domestic abuse. Some analysts believe that number may be even higher, making Afghanistan one of the most dangerous places to be a woman. Small but important gains have been made in women’s rights in the past 10 years. By allowing the Taliban back as a legitimate force in government, we would undo all of those gains, betraying Afghan women.
The problems of my nation are vast, but they are not insurmountable. In my view, we need to continue to support the fragile democratic gains and structures of recent years, not give up on them. We need continued Western support. In time we will be ready to go it alone, but we are not ready yet.
Plunging us back into the darkness of Taliban rule is not the answer.
Fawzia Koofi is a member of the Afghan parliament. This post first appeared in the Feb. 12 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer.