Time and Environment of Childhood
Introduction: Dear viewers of Sheesha Media, we are honored to host Mr. Damon Wilson, the esteemed President of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), in today’s exclusive episode of Sheesha Media’s podcast. Mr. Damon, thank you for accepting our invitation to this talk show.
Damon Wilson: It is an absolute honor and pleasure to be here with you, Aziz, in particular, given your commitment to the Afghan people. I look forward to our conversation and having a chance to speak to your remarkable audience of Afghans.
Sheesha Media: Typically, we start our interviews with a brief introduction of our guest speakers. Please tell us about your early childhood, including your date and place of birth and early schooling.
Damon Wilson: I think it is interesting you ask that because it is one of the reasons why I think I am here at NED. I was born in national Tennessee, grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, and had a childhood in a rural community in North Carolina. So in the South, I grew up in an environment where the extent of our diversity was black and white. That was the nature of the community. Yet, when I was in third grade in rural North Carolina, a young kid showed up whose father had been a decedent under Nicolae Ceaușescu, the dictator in Communist Romania. In third grade, he became my best friend. I was very attracted and very interested in it. Some of the migrants to my community had a completely different experience.
To learn from spending time with his family, I didn’t learn intellectually, if you will, in third grade, but I learned maybe, perhaps in my spirit, soul, and heart, what it meant for a family to flee from tyranny. Growing up in high school in Charleston, South Carolina, one of my best friends had a family that again fled from Iran. He had a Bahai family who faced religious persecution, lost their freedom in Iran, and came and resettled in my community. And again, spending time with his family after school and eating amazing Persian Cuisine really opened my eyes to what it meant to live in a free society, something I took for granted initially. But also to see it through the eyes of those who had difficult suffering, lost family members, and had seen communism or repression in their home countries. So, my childhood had a bit of an impact on my wanting to work with the underdog and support those who were not able to enjoy the benefits of living in freedom.
Loving the humanitarian work
Sheesha Media: Thank you. Given your background, I think this is a very interesting story of transformation because of having the experience of the Ceaușescu’s tyranny, for example, and again becoming the President of NED, which promotes democracy, freedom, and citizenship worldwide. This is a fascinating story. Can you please help us understand or get a snapshot of your transformational journey as a person?
Damon Wilson: Sure. I felt my family and my mother are very much ingrained in the sense of commitment to public service and helping others. I went to the University of Duke in North Carolina and got very involved with international foreign affairs. This was a time of great hope with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the advance of freedom throughout much of Central and Eastern Europe and starting to see the advancement of the third democratic wave in Latin America and Africa. But it was also a time of great hardship because of the Balkan wars and the Rwandan Genocide. So, I spent time living in the Baltic States, Estonia, in its first year of regained independence. I watched people that weren’t much older than me reestablishing democracy in the Baltic States, which was very inspiring. I also saw the horrible effects of ethnically-based wars in the Balkans.
Therefore, I got involved with refugee and humanitarian work. I spent time in the Balkans, first on my own and later as a student working for a UNICEF-backed project, helping children in Exile. This drove my commitment. I was interested in history, politics, and culture and wanted to be present and involved in other historical events. So after I graduated from Duke University, I went to work for Save the Children.
Thinking originally that I might head back to the Balkans, but a war of genocide broke out in Rwanda, and I went to work in Rwanda for a year right after the genocide. At a young age, despite the press reports in the United States about ethnic hatred or historical tensions, I saw that the reality was corrupt, power-hungry, and often evil political leaders using rhetoric propaganda and controlled manipulation of their populations for political gain. I saw that unfold in a nasty way in the Western Balkans and Rwanda. So, I love the humanitarian work. We were working in the Rwandan prisons helping to connect children who had been separated from their families during the fighting and the genocide.
In some cases, children had to accompany their mothers into prisons in Rwanda which were awful environments. We were setting up pre-schools for children and helping them find family members to take the children. I realized then that I love humanitarian work but didn’t want to be always neutral in these environments.
I wanted to see some of the positive forces for good that could be supported to help prevent this behavior and to help stand up to such repugnant aggressive leaders that could empower individuals and citizens to shape their own life. It led me to go and serve in the US government on how to prevent and stop and mitigate these conflicts. But, it also had a direct linear pathway from becoming the National Endowment for Democracy to standing up to these evil forces, who were trying to control their people for their power and inflicting such violence, pain, and misery. And to stand by citizens that could shape their own lives; those experiences early in my career have had a direct impact and why I have such an affinity for the Afghan people and why I feel so comfortable in my skin at the National Endowment for Democracy.
Challenges and Opportunities of our Time
Sheesha Media: This journey has been in an environment that has been out of balance. A world that has not been stable, at least in the history that you, as a person, have been going through. Still, I think the world is out of balance, and we need that. What do you think has been the major factor behind this turmoil that we are always constantly experiencing in this world? And, as a person who has been working to promote democratic stability in the world, what is the one major factor that you would recommend, especially for the activists that are working for democracy and trying to contribute to creating a balance in shaping a world which is safer and more humane for the individuals?
Damon Wilson: Aziz, this is a great question. This is both about the challenge and opportunity. First, we start with the challenge. You are right that we are in a difficult spot right now. You and your listeners feel it acutely. Afghanistan is at the forefront of that. Part of what we have seen is a global set of trends. I was discussing my career when we saw the opportunity in the third democratic wave. The truth is that we have been in a bit of a rath for a while, but it is not just that. The past few years have been different. They are sharper. First, accepting the reality of a bit of a populous backlash and struggling within established democracies is a direct byproduct of globalization and an interconnected world. People see, whenever they live, the impact of inequality and trade dynamics. All of this, both social media environment incentivizes polarization. So, we have seen disruption in established democracies, but we have also seen much sharper repression in closed societies. I think this is part of a particularly acute problem right now. We used to know that most of the time (51 or 52%), non-violent civic movements led to democratic transformations. This is a far higher percentage than violent resistance, which was only 20% of the success rates in the 20s. If you look at the five years afterward, there are much more success rates for non-violent movements.
Yet, we have seen since 2006 that this has begun to change in much more hostile environments. Because autocrats have, one, learned to resist, crackdown, and become much more violent in suppressing resistance and, two, back each other up and support each other with legitimacy and political backing but also with technology, tactics, and tools of repression. What we are seeing in more recent years is a burgeoning degree of sharp repression inside closed societies, whether in China, Russia, Myanmar (Burma), or Afghanistan. Incredibly large democratic diasporas fleeing these countries have a scale we have not seen before.
You couple that with the inclination of these autocratic regimes to cooperate, work together and share the technologies, tactics, and tools of repression. All these happen in a more globalized environment where information often incentivizes polarization, and technology can be used for facial recognition. Now we are seeing the potential of Artificial Intelligence to repress and combine with much more sophisticated financial networks to support kleptocratic networks and to protect the ill-gotten gains of dictators and autocrats. They sometimes manipulate our systems for their wealth. This creates, to a degree, what NED board member Anne Applebaum has written about as autocracy Inc; how have regimes led by China and Russia learned the tools of repression, but how have they shared and backed each other up globally around the world, having an impact in Nicaragua, Venezuela, Burma, and Afghanistan?
We see the impact of this around the world.
My first impression of Afghanistan
Sheesha Media: You have been in politics for most of your life. Can you recall the first time you heard about Afghanistan and the first impression you got from this country?
Damon Wilson: I guess there are several ways to think about it. As a child, I was very scared by the standoff by the Soviet Union. Because of my best friend in the third grade who escaped communism, I was very anti-communist as a kid. I understood it was not good, even if I didn’t understand everything intellectually. I became very concerned about Soviet Military strength. I used to read Almanacs and study as a kid. I was very concerned about nuclear arsenals and weapons.
So, the Soviet Union’s tactics, its support for communism, and its aggressive behavior on the international stage were something I was tuned to as a kid. When I was young, the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan and a challenging and violent chapter in Afghanistan left a real impression on me. I think that was my first exposure. Professionally, I would say that my first exposure was more directly at 9/11.
On 9/11, I was working at NATO Headquarters. I was the Deputy Chief of Staff to NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson. The day New York was attacked, we convened at NATO headquarters, and by the next day, the Alliance had invoked Article five of the Washington Treaty said that an attack on one would be considered an attack on all.
Sheesha Media: You have been side by side walking through all the architects and people who have helped with Afghanistan’s reinvention. For me, as a Civic Educator, 9/11 was a new chapter. Even in my book, I called that the “new history of Afghanistan”. A new set of ideas and concepts were introduced for the new generation after 9/11.
Suppose we divide the contribution of the international community into two parts. In that case, one is in politics dealing with governments and the political realities on the ground, and the second is in the grassroots of democratic movements, especially with the population.
The contribution of the international community to introducing new values has been enormous.
Because of these grounds, we found in Afghanistan, after twenty years, we have a completely different picture of this country. In 2001, we didn’t have a single institution in the country to be named for the administration.
We didn’t have a single uniformed soldier in the country. We had just a few women, one of them, Dr. Sima Samar, introduced as the Deputy of the Vice President of Hamed Karzai in the Interim Government. She was also acting as the Minister of Women’s Affairs. However, in 2021, we had millions of girls/women when we faced the Taliban.
Out of these girls/women, a lot of them were highly educated and trained. These women were individuals that had been empowered. Institutionally, they didn’t have protection, which made them vulnerable, but individually, they were widespread at a national level and throughout the world. So, your contribution in this regard can be something educational in Afghanistan. From the first days that you started your job to work in Afghanistan and from the times that you also helped Afghans (most of which were NED grantees) to be evacuated, and you were personally engaged with that, what was this book’s first and last pages to you?
Damon Wilson: What you shared is right. We all see the extraordinary democratic gains that supported the awakening and the awareness of so many Afghans who view the world and their agency differently, and that’s ultimately why I think you and I are worried about today. We are going to be optimistic about the future. You are right. My first trip to Afghanistan was in 2003. While in NATO, I spent many years welcoming Afghans to Brussels and helping an entire alliance learn about the history and culture.
I was very interested to know Afghanistan intimately and deeply. When I came to NED, I started on July 26, 2021 (over 22 months ago). When I began, Afghanistan was a critical program for NED. We were deeply committed and invested in Afghanistan. We had been dedicated to Afghanistan when it was under the previous regime of the Taliban. NED had been a strong supporter during the democratic opening that was tumultuous.
As the Taliban moved forward, we focused on supporting the people of Afghanistan, women, independent media, and remarkable gains. So, when Kabul fell unexpectedly and more rapidly than anyone expected, I, as an American, felt a bit of shame, anger, and disappointment on how the US was handling this, and frustration at the Afghan government and Afghan leaders on how they had been handling it. But I felt an incredible sense of commitment due to the responsibility to our Afghan partners, to those who were not corrupt, and to those who were out in the communities, cities, and villages helping to bring a better life, to engage communities, to educate people on civic responsibilities and democratic rights, to ensure that women have a seat at the table, and to ensure that access to information that could hold leaders accountable and could expose corruption.
These people did the incredible day-to-day tasks of building a vibrant culture and democratic life. The media quality and the women entrepreneurs’ vibrancy were pretty remarkable. That is when I knew we had to stand by our partners and do everything possible to support them in times of great danger, need, and disaster. We can talk more about that, but you are right. That happened three weeks into my job as the new President/CEO. I knew right in there that our response in Afghanistan would define me and NED, but more importantly, position the Endowment to underscore that we will be the friend of the Afghan people. We will stand in solidary and perpetuity for the Afghan people to preserve democratic gains and to know that they deserve their ability to demand that kind of future.
Evacuation of the NED partners
Sheesha Media: You and your team at the National Endowment for Democracy helped more than 1,200 people evacuate from Afghanistan. They now live in the United States, Canada, UK, and other countries. They are receiving excellent support from their host countries. But still, NED is committed as a member of the movement to transform Afghanistan, especially for the women and those regarded as the most vulnerable communities of Afghanistan, such as ethnic communities, linguistic communities, religious communities, and people who are suffering from a repressive ruling that is not following international norms of life.
First, how many resources do you think these over 1,200 people have provided for the democratic movements in Afghanistan?
And secondly, how can you fill the gaps of the presence on the grounds in Afghanistan for your work? Because NED is trying to give a model to people to do their job. It is unlike most other NGOs projecting changes in the country or implementing short-term programs. NED is trying to help people to have their contributions to their own life, and that needs people and agents to implement such a long-term vision in a country that is in turmoil and lacks even a single means of protection in law.
How can you navigate between these resources in the diaspora and those people still working on the ground in Afghanistan, and you are looking to support and help them stand on their feet without losing hope and aspirations for the future?
Damon Wilson: That question has two parts, the evacuation and NED with Afghanistan today. First, you are right. People that NED supported, like yourself and those who worked for IRI, NDI, and CIPE, are some of the most amazing people who have done so much to build a better Afghanistan. In some respects, you could say that there could be a conundrum. Why help so many of these fantastic people leave Afghanistan when they are critical to the future?
But as you said, it is not really about us and is not our choice. I did feel that given the disaster and my own country’s role in all of this, I felt that NED, as an independent institution based in the US, show the American people that we would meet their commitment to their partners and would stand by and support them. Our partners didn’t work for the United States. They didn’t work for the US Military. Therefore, they were not prioritized for SIVs and evacuation. And yet our partners were the reason the United States was enthusiastic about Afghanistan. Incredible women, journalists, and organizations were bringing Afghan democracy to life. So, it seemed perverse that if you were a translator for the military, you were eligible for evacuation. Still, if you are an architect of Afghanistan’s democracy, you would be in trouble.
That didn’t sit well with me. We felt, based on demand from many of our partners who made it clear that they wanted an option, that we needed to supplement and offer our evacuation. So, we had to ensure the authority, Congress, and the state department supported our work. Our board had to commit finances to ensure we had the resources to do this because once you start, you can’t do this in half and must do it thoroughly. We had to ensure we had security on the ground in a dangerous environment working between Qatar and Centcom, and others. We had to have logistics. Thankfully, we could have buses and logistics because of the site’s presence and transportation networks that supported programs. We had to have the ability to run an operation. I come from an operational environment, and thankfully, we had hired a remarkable global security officer who started concurrently with the fall of Kabul and who could help ensure that we could run the operations.
We needed to resettle people safely and quickly, so I had to call a few heads of state in Europe and Southeast Europe. I received “yes” very quickly. Bless the Prime Minister of Albania, North Macedonia, and Georgia, who all said yes. As you said, it put it all together for us to act and support the relocation of over 1,000 people. They are now mostly resettled in Canada and the United States. As you said, at the same time, we committed that we would be as proud of the NED’s support for the people of Afghanistan going forward as we would be in our efforts to help evacuate those who chose to leave. That is what we are doing.
We have an extensive Afghanistan program, and we are committed to supporting those in exile and especially those inside the country who want to continue the work towards preserving democratic gains, whether it is in women’s rights, civic engagement, or access to independent media. We are all in. We understand that while we can help our media partners, millions of people also deserve a better future. We are not turning our back on them. We are doubling down, especially when many donors will leave or all shift to humanitarian work; we won’t. We are staying committed and are in this for the long hall. As you said, our model is not us; it is you. This is your country. This is your struggle. How can we support you and your efforts with your ideas and innovation? You understand what you can do securely with your capacity or what the Afghan people want. We are not here to pick and choose or tell you that, but we are here to support that. And that’s what the Endowment is all about.
Sheesha Media: I will come to the approaches and programs of NED back in Afghanistan. NED was not prepared to lead an operation….
Damon Wilson: No, it was not.
The Risks of the Evacuation Operation
Sheesha Media: Your mandate has not been in that field, including the staff who have not been mentally prepared to lead and implement such a complicated operation in a time of chaos and stress. Indeed, it needed a solid and committed team. I witnessed to your friends that, given the time difference between Afghanistan and US, they were primarily awake days and nights. They were working all the time.
How did you find it challenging at that time because you were in a pivotal point to lead and supervise all these activities, making sure it was not harmful and insecure for your team and people to be evacuated? At that time, a disaster was expected at any time, anywhere. How could you tell us about the challenges you were facing and some of the personal stories you can share with us about those times, days, nights, hours, minutes, and sometimes even the changing seconds?
Damon Wilson: First, it was a harrowing moment for you, your friends, and many Afghans. It was a tough time for us, but there is no comparison. I have been on the job for three weeks, and one of the things I know about the Endowment that makes this team special is that our work is based on people. It is based on relationships of trust which is golden. At the heart of it, I knew our community, partners, and each other.
For me, that was a way that I got to know my team. In a crisis, you learn the soul of an organization. You understand what people are made of. This was something that no one at NED thought that we could do. We are a foundation, not an evacuation or humanitarian organization. We give out grants. It is very different, but we could marry new leadership and an extraordinary team that knew departments on the ground intimately with some incredible assets that the new security officer put together because it started with the Afghan people and our dedication and commitment to you. Therefore, we decided that as an institution based on relationships of trust, we were not just going to sit back and hope that you would be fine or maybe someone would help protect you. We wanted to stand by our partners.
Sheesha Media: Was there any moment in the evacuation process that you were awake because of a jerk or sudden news that had come from the ground?
Damon Wilson: Absolutely. It was a harrowing time. We ran an operation and supported them even in the middle of the night. I remember that this was during Covid. I worked from my family’s old historic Charleston, South Carolina home. I was working in the middle of the night, waking up my family, and had to make real-time decisions on what to do about the buses that the Taliban were stopping. We had such painful stories that we had challenging moments coordinating with the Qatar embassy in the middle of the night in Kabul, which we did direct coordination with their anchors on the ground with Centcom, KIA, actual commanders that were at the airport, and mostly our partners that were at the ground.
There were very tough times, especially on the second convoy that the Taliban disrupted. Our ability to marry our transportation network with the Qatari ambassador and offices to navigate the Taliban checkpoints, but the negotiations broke down between the Qataris and the Taliban, and the agreements fell apart. It was our partners, and many of them had to pay a high price as one of our convoys was disrupted. We had three people that the Taliban detained. Two were released relatively quickly, and one of them was not. I won’t share all the details, but there were a lot of high-stakes diplomacies to get this last-person release. We were not letting our eyes off any single person. That’s what we told our team. We were dealing with human lives here, so we had a very rigid structured process, a strong command of control, and reliable data and accounting.
We could vouch for everyone we supported and would not keep our eye on the ball. This is why we have seen this evacuation process to the last person to ensure they have a permanent home and situation. These are human, and you can’t enter into this lightly. I am so proud of the Endowment team and the Afghan partners because the relationships they built over the years and doing the works of democracy became the relationships that were so critical for trust during a crisis. It was pretty amazing to see and meet the NED family and our Afghan partners that way and to see what the NED members are made of. It was a place that told me I had taken the right job at the right time to work with the right people. We are here for a reason. We will do proud with our Afghan partners as best as we can in a horrific situation.
The Costs of The Evacuation Operation
Sheesha Media: This question might be challenging, but you are free to answer or not. How many people did you have in the operation team in Afghanistan to lead and conduct this operation successfully?
Damon Wilson: There are a couple of ways to answer that. The Endowment has a staff of about 300 members, and we had over 100 people working on our Afghanistan task force because of a surge. As you can see, we diverted a lot of resources and attention to focus because you can get it wrong if you don’t focus on something big like this. We can’t do that all the time, but at this moment, we knew it was historic and had to do something unbelievable. Every team across the Endowment contributed to the cause. Thankfully, we had about 8 Afghans on staff that could also work, speak all languages, make phone calls, and talk to people on the ground. People who were not even working in Afghanistan, such as HR staff, were on the phone, working with us and contacting people on the ground. So, we had a core operations team and emergency coordinating group, but we had a cascading squad that also included core institutes within IRI, NDI, and CIPE, the Center for International Private Enterprise.
I was doing regular meetings with the core presidents of all of our institutes in a coordinating fashion. We then joined the coordinating meetings with the evacuation team Centcom was leading. Every night, we were on call with Centcom to coordinate operations and figure out how to protect our people and get them through. It was a Herculean task, and a handful of people were at the centre of that from our Afghanistan grants team. This middle east team was terrific; the emergency response team, which was brand new and unique, our new security officer, and some volunteers were remarkable. We brought some people (former Afghans who worked with NED) back who came on board to volunteer and help. It was all hands on deck and a remarkable effort.
Sheesha Media: Another challenging question is about the budget because this operation successfully helped over 1,200 people evacuate in that critical situation. This is not just the work of money and financial resources because there is a leadership and strategy to conduct this operation safely and smoothly. I want to know this operation’s total budget and cost to compare similar operations that cost billions of dollars. At NED, even though it was not your mandate or field of expertise, you did the job as a way to give a model for using the resources in the best way. Can you provide a concise answer about the budget for this operation?
Damon Wilson: Yes, but this won’t be a perfect answer because I don’t have it all right in front of me. When Kabul fell, I immediately called the board and said we needed emergency support. The board approved about seven million dollars. We ended up going back to the board a few months later and increasing it to, I think, about 13 million dollars. For us, this was to finance the evacuation, including the evacuation itself, charters, and security at certain points. Still, it also funded the resettlement cost, not just the resettlement but also the sustainment cost for the population in Albania, North Macedonia, and Georgia for an unknown period. You and many of your audience know that some people were in these locations for six months, a year, and longer. It also funded emergency fellowships that we could do, and you were one of our emergency fellows. It also supported emergency support to our partners, their work, and financing programmatic work during the crisis. So, new investments and media came out of this. We were doing evacuation, sustainment, emergency fellowship, and Afghan programmatic cost and continued to invest in Afghan organizations, strategy sessions, and conferences to a new independent media. So, our budget there was about 13 million dollars. You are right, as it is a lot of money in some respects, but it is almost no money compared to governments and things like that. They are talking about billions, not millions.
NED’s Educational Approach
Sheesha Media: We are returning to the central part of our talk today about the education that NED can provide for the audience in Afghanistan. My introduction to NED goes back ten years, when I came as a fellow to NED. It started with a very educational experience of mine. I had a five minutes orientation on the first day. When I talked about my project at NED, I had a sentence: “In my journey, I feel that Afghanistan has gone through a very successful development in the three decades of change in the country”. At that time, it was three decades of change after the Communist Coup in the late 70s.
When I shared my impressions and some of these snapshots, they asked me to go and narrate the story of change in Afghanistan that led to my book. I was not prepared for that because it reminded me of a traumatic memory I was escaping. I was afraid to return. It was very tough and harrowing for me, but it became around 570 pages of the book. It became one of the best-selling books in Afghanistan, selling four editions. That was the first impression I got from the educational method of NED: how it can inspire people and show the way for them to go through. After that, we received a very small grant for a radio at our school called “Marefat Radio”. Throughout the times that we were receiving the grant from NED, we were not told even a single time what to do or how to use the budget. They said this is your job, and how can you share the message with people. This is the least support and assistance that we can provide. Then it led to our “SA TV”, the first edutainment channel in Afghanistan. And now, there is a new linkage with Sheesha Media. We just have an idea to help a community transformation project in Afghanistan, to help people come out of the era of violence, hatred, and fanaticism to a civil reconciliation ground where people can feel that they can have different approaches. As a civic educator, I believe it is an educational approach of NED. I want to know the perspective of the President of NED to share a little more insights about this type of program that you have at NED. This is not just for Afghanistan, as this is throughout the world. How can you share this methodology or approach that can be easily applicable in different contexts in Afghanistan, the regional countries, and other countries such as Ukraine that can help them get a first impression of NED’s approaches to democratic changes in the world?
Damon Wilson: Thank you for sharing some of that as well. Your journey has been a remarkable inspiration. It is important to understand that your personal story and even our conversations are why the people are here at the Endowment and do what they do because they are connected with people directly with relationships of trust that bond and invest us in your success. The ultimate idea of the Endowment is to help support the global infrastructure of democracy but to recognize that democracy is diverse. It must be anchored in its culture, country, and setting. That leads us to be both very proud of our work and confident in the universal values but humble in the approach. It is not about the United States or Americans. It is about finding amazing people and organizations, building democracy in their way and country and saying what you need and how we can help. What are your visions, plans, and strategies, and how do you see this as advancing democracy and democratic values in your society, and how can we help you? We call it a demand-driven process where the ideas, programs, and strategies must come from you and our partners, not us. And you are right. It is about how to give oxygen to those doing remarkable work and often doing work in local communities in their languages in remote areas far from capital cities. It is about recognizing the independent organizations fundamental to a vibrant democratic life and that they need to exist everywhere. Sometimes, they can’t raise funds internationally from other donors. So, the Endowment is about this ecosystem of support for democrats worldwide, and our support comes in three buckets. One is financial. We make grants. As you said, often, they are pretty modest and small grants.
The second bucket is knowledge, learning, and information. That’s where we have a hub of activities of scholars, practitioners, researchers, and political actors that all come together at the Endowment through the fellowship programs, scholarships, and the Journal of Democracy with the idea of how we accelerate democratic learning. It is pretty clear that the bad guys are learning and coaching each other. The editor of our Journal of Democracy has written a book on dictators learning cord.
The Endowment is part of the antidote. How to make sure that the good guys, the democrats, are helping each other to learn from their experiences and sharing their practices? The third area of support is moral, public, and political support. This is where the Endowment has built on relationships. We will rally to find moral support. We will connect our partners with media and Congress to tell and amplify their stories. We support the world movement for democracy to rally activists worldwide so that they have each other’s back and can help each other.
This creates a pretty unique institution at the Endowment. We are not just a foundation. We don’t just cut checks for projects. We are less about projects and more about people and amazing, courageous people who have a fire burning in their souls and spirit. People who are thriving for a better future for their people who understand that liberty and freedoms are fundamental to the quality of life that they want for their children. Our job is to determine how to get support and oxygens for that. How do we connect them with others in that fight? How do we connect them to the resources from others who struggle with the same situations so they can figure out how to apply them in their circumstances?
The Challenges of NED’s Programs in Afghanistan
Sheesha Media: Afghanistan can be an exceptional case. I feel this, especially given the restrictive and rigid ruling the Taliban have applied to the country. This is the only country in the world that pays no attention to the standards of international norms. For NED, you still have your connection with the people. You are committed to helping a democratic transformation in the country to ensure the safety and stability of the country and its people without facing the authority’s harsh and negative reactions. What are the significant challenges you now face with the ruling of the Taliban? Is it sometimes restrictive for you? Or it just helps you to have a turnaround to cross some of the limiting barriers and to help people adjust themselves and customize their big ideals with the harsh realities on the ground to continue the work?
Damon Wilson: The Endowment doesn’t do any of this work as we are not on the ground. We don’t have offices. We don’t implement projects and programs. We support you, the Afghan people, in your work and activity. It becomes a question for Afghans to determine how we can be effective. How we contribute to our country’s democratic future? How can we support civic engagement? We invite them to come and share those ideas. We see unique ideas of Afghans who have fled their country and yet still have strong ties and are doing things today that are really for the advocacy and support connected to the daily lives of people in Afghanistan. So, we are working with many in the diaspora to support a more open environment inside Afghanistan to help Afghans access independent information, for example. We also support those groups in Afghanistan that can continue finding space within which they can operate to do things that they determine they can do in an environment of the Taliban’s control. We see an extraordinary situation. As you said, twenty years was when an incredible awakening of population and civil society occurred. There is such a vibrant civic life in Afghanistan.
The Taliban cannot put that back in the box. You can’t unlearn your education. You can’t unlearn everything you have been exposed to, such as access to independent media. So, we are going to stand by creative, entrepreneurial, and innovative Afghans who desire a better future for people. Afghans will figure out in a safe way how they can advance in a non-violent way the democratic prospects of the future of Afghanistan. Many people don’t believe in that today. They think that the Taliban are in charge. Well, that is today. That’s not just how that operates. We will always stand by people’s sides. Whether in open societies or closed societies, we support the ever-constant work and process of bolstering democracy.
Sheesha Media: You are the President of the National Endowment for Democracy. You also have a background as a political activist as well for yourself. You have been a democratic promoter for so many years, but you are still human. You have the characteristics of a human being. Has there been any moment to feel slightly pessimistic about a complicated case like Afghanistan? Have you thought in a way about a case that is out of humanistic capabilities? A time that you felt we have to find other ways, or we have to retreat as the United States forces did from Afghanistan. A time when you thought that we must leave Afghanistan as we have many other commitments and works around the world. A time when you thought that case of Afghanistan was dangerous, risky, and counter-productive. As a human being, has there been a time for you to look at Afghanistan like that? Or no, you still are a realistic and optimistic person.
Damon Wilson: Because I am a human being, we are connected with human beings, NED is a human-centred organization, and because of what has happened to Afghanistan, we are doubly resolved in our commitment to the Afghan people. No, we will not back away from that. That doesn’t mean I am naïve. That doesn’t mean I think we will have a beautiful constitutional democracy in Afghanistan next year. But it means that my resolve to support Afghans in their journey is rock solid. So, the last thing we will say is, “Oh, Afghanistan is so depressing, the Taliban are in control, it is a mess, we wasted a lot of money, and let’s move on”. That will not happen at the National Endowment for Democracy. We are going to stick by those Afghans that believe their country can tap the potential of its people; fifty percent of its people are female that started to taste the taste of freedom and education and to be able to harness that into a better, inclusive, diverse Afghanistan that doesn’t look like what we see today led by the Taliban.
They are in charge. It is a point of time. It is just a point of time. So, we are in it for the long hall. Are there days that I am pessimistic and upset? You bet. We see partners executed in Burma. We see partners picked up and imprisoned in Belarus. We see the repression from Hong Kong to Tehran. It is not good. It is tough. We are people. We are human. It is like throwing logs on a fire. The fire is bigger inside us. I have a robust set of fires inside me to understand that it might not be today or tomorrow. Because of the commitment that we made to support Afghans now, there is going to be another chapter. When Afghans can write this next democratic chapter, it will be more successful because it will have something to stand on. They can stand on the democratic gains, such as people like yourself. All the women you have educated and the children on your radio show will be a firmer foundation for the next chapter of a democratic Afghanistan.
NED’s Longterm Strategy
Sheesha Media: You are not instilling the idea of revolution at all, but you are promoting an evolutionary process of change in the country which counts on the contribution and commitment of people on the ground. Because of that, you are not pushing to have results overnight. There is also a question of strategy because most people when they are in the first stages of their growth in Afghanistan, do not have a clear strategy and do not know how to carry on their missions; they might lose the time and energy which will be disastrous in the long run.
This is because then, you will negatively impact the people, especially the children and the youth who look at the future, feeling that everything faces a deadlock. So, the strategy for the NED mandate becomes very important. What is the NED’s strategy to help Afghan people learn and believe in the power they have grown and nurtured in these twenty years? What is NED’s strategy for the people of Afghanistan and a person like me who can share it with his audience in Afghanistan to be optimistic, practical, and more functional in a more productive, result-oriented, and process-oriented way through their democratic journey?
Damon Wilson: In some respects, we will not give you a grand strategy for Afghanistan because we will look to your strategy for Afghanistan. We will look to you, your partners, and many other Afghans out there to articulate your vision, theory of change, and how you see the future. So, we are committed to supporting Afghans that will push for a more democratic lot through non-violent means and find a way to achieve this. Understanding that for today, it may mean ensuring that there is at least a competitive information environment so that the Taliban don’t have the ease with which they can dominate the information coming out of Afghanistan and manipulate it for international narrative and their people.
There is a learning cycle that takes place as well so that Afghans can learn and understand that access to information is a building block for democracy because if you can’t have data to think critically about the situation you are in, you are not able to hold leaders to account. We see as Afghans learn and in so many closed societies, there can still be responsiveness and accountability for governments, and even dictatorial regimes understand that the legitimacy of the people is fundamental to some degree. There is a way to push accountability issues and have incremental progress in protecting certain individual liberties. But it will have to be defined by Afghans what works for them in the Afghanistan of today, drawing from the lessons that they can learn in the NED family from our other partners, the Journal of Democracy, and from our forum that does research. It will have to be Afghans relating it to Afghanistan. That’s for Afghans to answer more than me.
Sheesha Media: Your impression of democracy and democratic change is not just something in the head of an academic person in the university or the think tanks. You have been a practitioner as well. You had a firsthand impression of Rwanda and the Balkan states. You have engaged with countries that have been facing challenges for at least in these twenty years. These have been the significant experiences of your personal life. What lessons can you share with us from other countries such as Rwanda, Balkan states, and Afghanistan? Both in terms of the negative aspects of events and some of the positive aspects that people can consider as energizing factors and supporting beliefs.
Damon Wilson: First, leadership matters, and we see the negative and positive consequences. This is why the agency of individuals is so important because we have seen, historically speaking, leaders who are power-hungry and want to dominate for themselves can manipulate systems and tensions for great evil. Yet, we see that the actions of a small group of people who mobilize to counter that and provide alternatives lead to change. People are getting engaged. Therefore, the leadership and agency of individuals matter.
Second, the international community’s role also matters in terms of whether you are willing to provide support. That’s why I am here at the Endowment, not because I think that the international community can determine the outcomes. I think we have seen from time to time that that doesn’t work, but the international community can support local solutions and voices pushing for something more sustainable. Democracy can not be imported from abroad. That’s not going to work. We can support indigenous efforts to build more democratic institutions and cultures. Finally, the biggest lesson is the agency of people. We have seen that leadership can be bad or good. The international community can be bad or good. It is the agency of people and understanding that if you are engaged, demanding, or if you are forcing institutions and agencies to be responsive to citizen’s interests, to hold leaders accountable, to consume independent information, to engage in community activation, and to vote even if it is not a fair election as we see in Thailand. It is just incredible. Understanding that people working together can ultimately shape their own future is the most powerful force and inspires us all. I think that is where I bring this to a close.
Sheesha Media: We have a challenging journey ahead of us. Still, there are a lot of ups and downs. But let’s think about a marathon race and our journey for democracy. Let’s look at the ending point in 2030. What message will Damon Wilson have to tell the people of Afghanistan? The next destination for Afghans is 2030, with a new country, environment, and generation. Assume that you are standing there as one of these people in this marathon race, and you are one of the people celebrating and appreciating some of the efforts made there. What is your picture of that time and moment, and what message will you deliver at that particular time in Afghanistan?
Damon Wilson: That’s a beautiful thought, and I am so eager to go back to Kabul with people like you and spend time with the incredible hospitality of Afghans in their homes. I hope at 2030, we can say that we have come through a tough path. We went through a dark chapter, and now we are entering a reawakening of what you can call a democratic revival. What historians, I hope one day, will call the fourth democratic wave, historically speaking. And that Afghanistan will find its path in that fourth democratic wave.
So in 2030, I hope we are on the ground to feel, sense, appreciate, and understand Afghans by changing themselves and their nation and embedding their sovereignty in their people, where people are the source of legitimacy. Afghanistan will carve its democratic future as part of a historic fourth democratic wave. A democratic future that will be Afghan-led, created and therefore, sustainable, durable, not brutal, not subject to the same pressures of corruption, and not dependent on the same outside support. That’s one I will be, with great humility, ready to celebrate with you.
Sheesha Media: This is a beautiful message for reinvention and transformation. I am looking forward to seeing you there.
Danon Wilson: Aziz, my friend, thank you so much for what you do, for the cause of freedom, and for supporting the Afghan people and their ability to shape their future. It is beautiful. Thank you for having me on the show.
Sheesha Media: It was our honor to have you. Goodbye.
Damon Wilson: Goodbye.