Assuming the reduction of violence deal between the United States and the Taliban holds, the signing of a peace deal is set for February 29. However, the most important part of the peace process — negotiations between representatives of the state of Afghanistan and the Taliban groups, the so called intra-Afghan dialogue — is yet to begin. It is expected that a cross-generational group of men and women representing the diverse political and ethnic spectrum of the Afghan society will soon engage in an arduous negotiation with the representatives of the Taliban groups.
As part of its protracted and complex conflict, Afghanistan has experienced a series of unsuccessful peacemaking attempts over the past four decades. The Geneva Accord of 1988, Peshawar Accord of 1992, Islamabad Accord of 1993, and Tashkent Declaration of 1999 are also instances of formal peace efforts documented by the United Nations Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs.
The current round of peace negotiations is, however, distinguished from previous attempts at reconciliation by the engagement of various national stakeholders and civil society groups. Mobilizing public opinion and advocating for an inclusive peace process is a feature of democratic societies. Afghanistan has exhibited elements of these, despite recent setbacks. The majority of Afghans enjoy a modicum of civil and political rights, including freedom of expression and assembly. The participation of women in all walks of life, to a large extent, has also been realized. These accomplishments have been made possible partly with the investment and support of the international community to the people of Afghanistan.
Since the official beginning in September 2018 of the current peace talks between the United States, led by the special U.S. envoy, Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, and the Taliban’s representatives in Qatar, think tanks, civil society groups, and women activists in Afghanistan have organized a series of public opinion surveys, round table discussions, and social media campaigns to voice their demands and expectations from the peace talks and possible political settlement. For example, #MyRedLine has been a popular social media campaign offering a platform for some Afghan women to express their stance on peace and women’s rights.
Every civil and political movement in contemporary Afghanistan, from the Communist and Muslim Youth movements to the Taliban, have been engaged in agitation among the youth in educational institutions. Today, educated young women and men living in provinces constitute a significant portion of Afghanistan’s estimated over 34 million population. Hence, understanding and including the views and perspectives of this bulging cohort in the peace process is critical.
The National Centre for Dialogue and Progress (NCDP), a Kabul-based policy forum, recently organized an essay contest among high school and undergraduate university students in different regions of Afghanistan. The contest, named “Reclaiming Peace in Afghanistan,” took place between July and October 2019 in the provinces of Afghanistan’s central, north, northeastern, west, and southern regions. The contest solicited students’ views and ideas on the biggest barriers to establishing peace in Afghanistan, what could be done to overcome these barriers, and their perspectives on the current peace process. Information about the essay contest was disseminated via local radio stations, awareness sessions in high schools and universities, and brochures distributed in educational institutions.
Some 125 students (38 percent female and 62 percent male) participated in this competition and 123 completed essays were submitted. The submitted essays were evaluated anonymously in two stages by two separate committees involving distinguished Afghan academics, seasoned practitioners, and policymakers. In the remainder of this essay we summarize the main ideas, arguments, hopes, and wishes expressed by these students.
The participants were unanimous that peace should be achieved through direct negotiation among the Afghans themselves and were concerned that current talks have left key players, such as the government of Afghanistan, out of the loop. They were also concerned about the ambiguity of the process and criticized the lack of transparency in sharing information with the people. The students stressed that composition of the negotiation team and substantive agenda for negotiations must be inclusive in order to achieve consensus amongst the varied representative constituencies within Afghanistan. They defined an inclusive negotiation team as one that is gender sensitive, represents the main political parties, and includes government officials, representatives of the youth, and civil society groups.
The students hoped that negotiations should be conducted in good faith and the Taliban should not attempt to maximize their leverage through threats at the negotiation table, or extract concessions because of their violence. According to many participants, peace has been conceived simply as the end to physical violence, a ceasefire, or simply an agreement with the Taliban; the cultural, political, social, and economic dimensions of peace have been generally missing from these peace negotiations. Thus, they consider bridging this gap as a very important element to reach a durable and just peace.
The essayists in the contest also, unanimously, supported a negotiated settlement of the current conflict. A majority of them assert the necessity of peace simply on the basis of evident Islamic textual and moral ideals, overlooking the significance of political, social, or economic considerations for the necessity of ending the war. To support their moral arguments, most of the essayist quoted various verses from the Holy Quran that underline imperative of peace and harmony, suggesting that promotion of peace is intrinsic to Islam and should be adhered. They expect the state to focus on education by disseminating accurate Islamic textual information to the wider Afghan population to convey that Muslims fighting against each other is unjustifiable in Islam. Hence, a common narrative for peace was delegitimizing (calling haram) the current war under the name of Islam. While acknowledging the existence of political divisions inside Afghanistan, these students see religion as the sole force capable of uniting the people despite their differences.
The role of neighbors, regional powers, and Afghanistan’s international partners is viewed as a key factor in achieving peace and guaranteeing an agreement. The Afghan government, they underline, needs to talk directly with the Pakistani establishment and agree on a policy of nonintervention and noninterference in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. They believe that the international community, mainly the United States, should pressure Pakistan to remain committed to peace and stability in the region.
The respondents have suggested the necessity of designing an effective national reintegration program. They believe that transitional justice and ethnic harmony is critical during the transition period to ensure national unity. Implementation of a successful national integration program, they argue, will require creating employment for the younger generations by providing vocational and technical education and providing basic services to local communities. Employment, educational, and service programs should target people who have lost family members or friends due to violence and war, especially among the security forces and the Taliban, in order to be able to embrace each other when returning to their communities. They emphasized that continuation of social and mental suffering at the local level, if not addressed, can easily reignite the conflict.
Afghanistan’s numerous officially registered but very weak political parties, often void of any ideological foundations or well-articulated policies and platforms, were uniformly blamed as causal to the war and violence as well as hinderances to peace. The essayists also suggest older jihadi cadres and elitist leaders of the tribal and ethnic structures are contributing to the politicization of identities by organizing ethnic-based political parties. These activities, they allege, have disproportionately favored the interest of certain politically entrepreneurial individuals or small groups, but with considerable negative impact to the country.
These young students therefore argued that strong and effective political parties with coherent national ideologies, complemented by well-articulated platforms, strategies, and tactics to implement their programs, could help in achieving national consensus, if and when they are focused on matters of national interest and strive to cultivate shared values, meeting challenges and making use of opportunities to enhance national cohesion domestically. They also stress that political unity is necessary to avoid foreign interventions in the county. These youth argue that political parties, when strong and inclusive, could become accountable to their constituency and the nation in general and become less vulnerable to foreign agendas and dependent on funding.
Their list of barriers to peace are extensive, including foreign interferences, increasing poverty and insecurity, administrative corruption, nepotism, unequal treatment under the law due to a poor justice system, and poor service delivery — factors that have resulted in a wide chasm between the people and the state. A primary hope for the future is quality education and access to it is a top priority for attaining peace and future prosperity in the country. They consider illiteracy and lack of proper Islamic education among the rural population as the principle cause of their vulnerability to extremism. The uneducated masses are vulnerable to radicals who present them with inaccurate or distorted religious information to either recruit them, mobilize their children, or justify the vicious war and violence as jihad, in the name of religion, and against the people and the government. Therefore, these young students place the blame on the very inadequate and low-quality of basic education, including proper Islamic education, during the past two decades as well as harmful madrassa education, especially in the refugee camps in Pakistan, in the previous decades of the 1980s and 1990s. They also recommended inclusion of peace education in the school and university curricula for inculcating moderate viewpoints, so that students understand political, economic, social, and cultural benefits of peaceful society.
They propose advocacy for, and mobilization of, public opinion in favor of inclusive and sustainable negotiated peace, a necessity for peace settlement. They are also fully aware that self-indulgent political actors benefitting from the war and violence are fanning the flames of war on both sides. But the ordinary people of Afghanistan, especially the youth and elements of civil society, are playing supportive roles in promoting every stage of the peace process. These youth suggest that most ordinary Afghans have paid a very high personal price during the past four decades of mayhem, and are eagerly striving to protect their gains in freedom of expression, as well as to be able to exercise their right to participate in making decisions that shape their future.
For these high school and university youth who participated in the essay contest on “Reclaiming Peace in Afghanistan” organized by the NCDP late last year, during this crucial phase of Afghanistan’s history, becoming treal stakeholders is a noble undertaking. We hope that their desires, wishes, and hopes, shared by and reflective of millions of suffering people across Afghanistan will be honored, both nationally and internationally.
Hamida Andisha is the chairperson and founding member of the National Centre for Dialogue and Progress. Follow her on Twitter: @ncdfp
Metra Mehran is member of the board and a senior researcher of the National Centre for Dialogue and Progress. She is Policy Consultant, Women Empowerment & Education Advocate and a Fulbright Fellow. Follow her on Twitter: @Metra_Mehran