The Afghan peace process has been a lengthy and arduous one. Breakthroughs, talks, derailment and collapse of talks have marked this peace process since it unofficially began in 2008 and 2009. Efforts continued in one way or another to build trust between the United States, the Taliban, and the Afghan government despite repeated and long impasses. Eventually, the efforts between the U.S. and the Taliban culminated in an agreement in February 2020, which bore fruit for the U.S. in Afghanistan, but sidelined the Afghan government.
Ever since, the Afghan government has been trying to regain the upper hand in the peace process. But it lost the narrative, and the Taliban managed to leapfrog Kabul — it garnered credibility among regional and international stakeholders, engaging with the U.S. on equal footing to discuss their terms of an Afghan peace, all the while making the Afghan government a spectator. However, as the provisions of the U.S.-Taliban deal fell into place, the Afghan government has been able to win some ground by protracting the Taliban prisoner release; starting an unprecedented propaganda campaign against the Taliban, only too late; and reviving overdue and elitist concepts of Afghan nationalism (which are in urgent need of re-definition) to project strength and divert attention from its short-comings and systemic corruption during the global pandemic. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his close advisors are certainly making maximum use of all available tools to elevate their position at a very critical time in order to engage with the Taliban from a position of power.
A main problem, however, remains that despite all the strategic maneuvering to gain the upper hand, the peace efforts from Kabul’s side remain largely elitist and exclusionary. Efforts by Ghani to let a jirga (council) decide the fate of 400 Taliban prisoners accused of major crimes was certainly the right step for the intended intra-Afghan peace talks. However, his government has done little to devolve the Afghan peace process and make the people a legitimizing force and key stakeholder. The Afghan jirga, although well intended, is predominantly a collective of influential and high-ranking members of the community. But they are not chosen on the basis of merit or service to the community, instead largely inheriting their status based on family lineage, political connections, and wealth. So, while the jirga may provide horizontal means to mobilize certain sections of the Afghan population, it is not the right political instrument for this day and age to capture and provide a cross-class platform especially for those at the bottom — which accounts for almost 90 percent of the population, and who remain most vulnerable to insurgent recruitment.
The same logic also applies to relevant political parties that claim to represent the interests of ordinary Afghans. As political representation continues to be organized around ethnic identity and not class-interest or ideally a combination of both, and political parties continue to become dynastic, it is mostly the upper-class or wealthy members of the ethnic communities that get a chance to voice their perspective and position on fundamental questions regarding peace. Prime examples are the young and inexperienced sons of Abdul Rashid Dostum and Mohammad Atta Noor as members of the Afghan government delegation team for the peace talks. While the two men claim to represent the interests of the Uzbek and northern Tajik communities of Afghanistan, it remains unclear what qualifies their sons to represent the Afghan government and their ethnic communities except family lineage and political connection.
Furthermore, and to be numerically meticulous, neither the Taliban nor the Afghan government represent the Afghan people by large. While the Taliban lack any kind of vote-based representation mechanism in their structure, the Afghan government managed to mobilize only 2.2 million out of the 9.6 million registered voters of an estimated 35 million population in the country’s most recent presidential election. This leaves large masses of people disenfranchised without representation in a process that will shape their lives.
The lack of zeal among the political elite in Kabul, as well as U.S. officials and the Taliban leadership, to develop mechanisms to mobilize and reflect the stances of ordinary Afghans and their positions on fundamental questions like what political system they prefer, or how they view the role of women in politics, security, society and the economy attests to an elitist mentality. This mentality — that they know what is best for the people — is prevalent among the political class in Afghanistan, with U.S. officials complicit in supporting this attitude
Moreover, it should not be forgotten that the current political elite of the country remains largely dissociated from the realities of ordinary Afghans who cannot leave Afghanistan when push comes to shove. The elite can afford to leave the country at any prospect of change that would be disadvantageous to them and their families as they either hold dual citizenship or have the necessary connections to leave Afghanistan for a safer destination. Ordinary Afghans have to remain and deal with the consequences of a process they have had no say in.
As the effect of the coronavirus pandemic begins to ebb and life starts going back to “normal” (whatever that means in the Afghan context), it remains more crucial than ever to ask the people of Afghanistan what kind of a peace they want and what that peace should look like. Afghans — from the remote village farmer to the local female school teacher, to the urban taxi driver — are unusually politically conscious people because they have had to survive in a geography scarred by great game politics since time immemorial. Not utilizing the people and their position as the legitimizing force to consolidate the Afghan peace will be a loss for all stakeholders in this peace process. A sustainable peace cannot exist without the people.
Maryam Baryalay is a political and risk management analyst with nine years of work experience in South Asia, Middle East and Europe. In November 2019, she co-founded the Kabul-based Organization for Social Research and Analysis (OSRA) to push for and support more data-driven and fact-based research in Afghanistan.