Apply to Afghans lessons of Kosovo

November 16, 2001|By Julie A. Mertus

WASHINGTON - The learning curve on post-war democratization appears to be on the rise.

The elections to be held tomorrow in Kosovo demonstrate considerable learning on the role of outsiders in post-war transitions. Just in the nick of time. We will need all the learning we can muster to identify a post-conflict strategy in Afghanistan.

As the reign of the Taliban in Afghanistan tragically demonstrates, Western democracies commit a grave mistake when they abruptly drop a country from their foreign policy radar screen as soon as the shooting stops. Even after war ends, conflict continues, and extremist forces may be well-poised to fill the void left by governmental collapse.

Our experience in Kosovo demonstrates that instead of turning a blind eye to injustices in lands where it once played an active role in the conflict, the United States can act constructively to support long-term peace and justice. American-style democracy can never be exported wholesale. Yet the values of transparency, accountability and participation in government can be fostered and adapted to local cultures.

We have learned that a country's post-war transition to self-government should be gradual. Fair and inclusive self-government does not come overnight after years of conflict. Other countries are needed to provide stability and oversight in cases in which a peace deal is driven by coercive international intervention.

In the case of Kosovo, this required adoption of a Security Council resolution that gave the United Nations broad license to oversee Kosovo's political future. Given the even more challenging nature of the factional conflict in Afghanistan, it is quite likely that any solution will involve even stronger international oversight.

The decision to run municipal elections first in Kosovo and to hold off Kosovo-wide elections was wise, and it represented significant learning from the disastrous early elections in Bosnia, when international observers rubber-stamped unfair elections and locals elevated to power extreme nationalists. Afghanistan's political history would make it a good candidate for a similar scheme of early local elections, with nationwide elections delayed until security and human rights guarantees improve.

The international experience in Kosovo also demonstrates increased awareness that elections are only a small part of democracy. Elections represent a beginning of democracy, not an end. Elections must be part of a broader plan of reconstruction that is viewed as legitimate by locals who participate in its design and execution.

The larger "democracy package" must also include guarantees for the security of all residents, but especially minorities; respect for human rights for all; a responsible, independent media and an informed electorate; reduction of corruption; and improvement in public welfare.

These steps go a long way toward enabling citizen participation in democratic life. With the standard of living even lower in Afghanistan than in Kosovo, support for the material conditions that could support a democracy should be an even greater priority there.

The democracy effort in Kosovo is far from perfect. Among its main shortcomings is the failure of other countries to make Kosovars genuine partners in decision-making and to value local expertise.

Another is the steadfast unwillingness of other countries to grant authority to local leaders who have evinced a willingness to adhere to recognized human rights standards.

With tomorrow's elections, the people of Kosovo will gain more autonomy, but the international administration still will retain tight control. I believe the people of Kosovo are ready to take a more determinative role in their future. However the international administration in Kosovo proceeds in the future, it should be more transparent and accountable to local leadership and citizenry.

It will be up to the democracy builders in Afghanistan to learn from the lessons of Kosovo and continue to better the learning curve on democratization.

Julie A. Mertus, a senior fellow at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, is an assistant professor at the American University School of International Service.

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