In Afghanistan's villages, ambitious push for democracy

Chiefs, tribal elders learn the basics as the nation prepares for a new constitution.

It's a scene that has been repeated for centuries: Tribal elders sitting in circles on Persian carpets, making alliances, resolving disputes, and planning future campaigns.

But there's something very 21st century about this ancient gathering in a sprawling home at the foot of Afghanistan's White Mountains. The first sign is the Magic Markers, the easels, and the corporate-style focus groups.

"We want national unity," says one tribesman. "And reconstruction of roads and irrigation systems," says another. "Don't forget about education and security," says a third.

"Hold on, I'm still on national unity," pleads the group leader, writing in elegant Pashto script on white butcher paper.

Welcome to Democracy 101, Afghanistan style. In gatherings like this around the country, aid workers and democracy trainers are teaching the basics of the democratic process to village chiefs and tribal elders, as the nation prepares to rewrite and enact a new constitution in December.

Turning such a feudal society into a democracy may not be as dangerous as fighting a guerrilla army of religious zealots, but it could be just as challenging - and as important.

It's an ambitious undertaking in a society that has always resisted change, but especially so because it changes the timeworn way Afghans have solved problems. Before, they always turned to powerful men - warlords, mullahs, or kings - to get things done.

Now, in theory, the bottom of that feudal system - the maliks - will help teach a form of government that puts citizens first, and holds the old feudal lords accountable.

Maliks are village elders. They are on the lowest rung in the power structure, beneath kings, warlords, and landowning khans, but they're above normal citizens. In villages, maliks are the often the only law, acting as judge, jury, and occasionally peacemaker.

But some experts still say that the relatively democratic nature of village-level politics, led by maliks, may form a building block for democracy in Afghanistan.

"There is a very strong tradition of democracy in Afghan culture, of a common man speaking and knowing his voice will be heard," says David Edwards, an expert on Afghan civilization at Williams College, now working on a film project in Kabul. "In some ways, [using maliks] may be the only way to overcome the warrior culture ... and to make the message appeal to the people."

Nobody here thinks it's going to be easy, however.

For many Afghans, democracy has taken on negative connotations, as anti-American sentiment increases with the slow pace of reconstruction. Some pro-Taliban mullahs have taken to blaming every new and old social ill - from prostitution to alcohol to disco-dancing - on democracy.

And after a half-century of violent swings from monarchy to Soviet colony to strict Islamic state, most Afghans have no idea what it means to vote. Individual rights for men are the stuff of fantasy; rights for women are, at best, an afterthought.

Democracy trainers like Mohammad Naseeb say their toughest task is breaking old habits of thought, such attaching one's future to a powerful man.

"We are democratizing culture, slowly," says Mr. Naseeb, managing director of Welfare Association for the Development of Afghanistan (WADAN), in Kabul. "We want a democracy that is locally acceptable; we don't want it to be seen as a threat."

Most of the communities Naseeb visits know change is inevitable, he adds. "With all the divisions of the past 23 years, the feudal system is changing. People realize you can't stay in power by grabbing it. You have to share it."

There are just a handful of projects like WADAN's across the country. In Kandahar and parts of southwestern Afghanistan, for instance, Afghans for a Civil Society is conducting democracy training in villages and urban centers.

But with proposed elections just months away, most Afghans will have very little knowledge, let alone faith, in the democratic system.

While WADAN's goals sound grand, its work in this part of eastern Afghanistan, in the Pashtun-dominated state of Nangrahar, is still a modest pilot project. Spending about $50,000 in grants from the US-government'sNational Endowment for Democracy and other donors, WADAN trainers have conducted three-day seminars in three districts thus far. By late June 2004, they will have trained 450 maliks in nine districts.

But the effect of this modest project could be profound. If all goes as planned, these maliks will pass their democratic lessons to 900,000 Afghan villagers.

At the district headquarters in Sorkh Rod, a flat, fertile farming region near Jalalabad, WADAN has invited 40 maliks to hear presentations on why they should prevent their neighbors from growing opium poppies this year.

Maulvi Azizur Rehman, a local Muslim scholar, provides the moral reasons. "There are people who say we don't use poppies, we just grow them," says the scholar. "But the holy prophet Muhammad, peace be unto him, said that everything having to do with drugs, from the use to the cultivation, is forbidden."

If the maulvi's audience, dressed up in their best turbans, doesn't look impressed, it may be because Sorkh Rod has traditionally been a prime belt for opium cultivation. But the very fact that a maulvi has been given a stage at all, in post-Taliban Afghanistan, sends a powerful message nonetheless. It counters the anti-American propaganda that democracy and Islamic teachings are incompatible.

And in Kudikhel, where the ideas flowed faster than the Pashto script, and in some of the three dozen villages visited so far by WADAN, the groups are more engaged.

WADAN plans to work in nine districts, each encompassing several villages, during the one-year pilot project, which ends next spring.

"As maliks, we do believe in the central government, even though ... they haven't fulfilled even one promise after two years," says one participant, Haji Mohammad Ashin Khan, stroking his long white beard. "If they help us with money, then we will do the work ourselves, contributing local labor. If they don't help us," he says, shrugging, "then they are not our government."

A trainer picks up the sheets of butcher paper and pins them to a wall at the front of the room. One by one, the group leaders describe the ideas that their group discussed, some of the presentations turning into political stump speeches.

"So many aid agencies have promised us a lot, but they haven't given us a single thing," says one speaker.

His voice turns into a barely controlled rage, like Al Sharpton in a turban. "We want the government to help us, and if they do, we will be responsible for their security. If they don't help us, the time will come when terrorists come back to plant bombs on the roads, and neither the government nor we will be able to stop them."

Mohammad Qasim, the malik from Markikhel village, knows that it will take time for the government to be strong enough to deliver on its promises.

In the meantime, he says that maliks will provide the only government that most of his villagers have ever known. "I hope this is the beginning of a good process and that something good will follow," he says. "We want practical results, not just words."

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