The Debate | South Asia

Afghan Civil Society Must Not Be Left Out of the Peace Process

During the 2001 Bonn Conference, the U.N. opted for a “light footprint” that delegated its civilian development role to foreign military forces. That cannot happen again.

Afghan Civil Society Must Not Be Left Out of the Peace Process
Credit: Pixabay

Since the beginning of the intra-Afghan peace negotiations, at least 14 journalists and human rights defenders have been killed in targeted attacks. Last week, Shaharzad Akbar, the head of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission, stated that the beleaguered Afghan public has still not been informed about the agenda of the talks originally due to begin within days at Istanbul, and now reportedly to begin on April 24. And now U.S. President Joe Biden is set to announce that U.S. forces will leave Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, extending beyond the May 1 withdrawal deadline outlined in the U.S.-Taliban deal of February 2021, but not by much. 

All along, Afghan civil society has been pushed to the margins. This is not for lack of trying from the beginning of talks last year, but efforts to gain entry to the negotiating table are given new urgency as civil society itself is targeted by a wave of violence with one goal: to silence it.

Talks in Doha last year were hailed as the beginning of the long-sought “intra-Afghan dialogue,” including a multi-layered and inclusive delegation from the government of Afghanistan that — thanks to active lobbying on the part of women’s rights organizations — had taken steps to increase its representativeness. However, as the talks dragged on, the representativeness fell away in favor of speed, even though such sacrifices did not succeed in leading to substantive advancements in the negotiations. The evidence shows that after months of talks in Doha (to say nothing of the years spent just to get to the Doha talks) every great power, along with the United Nations, is again trying to get involved to restart the negotiations in Turkey (the latest in a long line of hosts for Afghan peace talks). The Taliban said earlier this week they weren’t ready to attend, and now the talks have been delayed by a week. Even the baseline of a normal peace negotiation — a ceasefire — appears to be a long way off, with current language among the Afghan government’s partners still fixated on a nebulously defined “reduction of violence.”

Afghan civil society, which was repeatedly promised inclusion in press releases and directives from the coalition powers, has paid the steepest price for the delay of a real ceasefire. Strikingly, even female aid workers giving polio vaccines to Afghan households have been the targets of shootings, to say nothing of journalists, teachers, and members of the judiciary also killed. And their troubles likely will not subside with the mere end of war. The triumphalist spirit on (deliberate) display by the Taliban makes clear that whatever deal ends up being reached, the group considers itself the clear victor. Those that most benefited from the Taliban’s absence from power are naturally the most unwilling to return under its yoke, particularly the women and youth who gained access to civil liberties and rights under the current Afghan Constitution.

This same constitution is under threat. The ombudsperson of the Afghan government, Ghizaal Haress, notes the Taliban secretly devised their own constitution, which omits any mention of women. “This says a lot about Taliban’s stand on women,” Haress said. The implementation of such a constitution, if the Taliban are to regain power and allowed to do so, has created a lot of fear among Afghan civil society. 

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The inclusion of civil society representatives in the various talks was their best chance to influence both the Afghan government and the international community as to the real red lines of the wider Afghan public, and especially those who stand to lose most from an end to the republican system. This inclusion is no longer a certainty as no clear role has yet been outlined for any of the delegations supposed to be present at Istanbul. It is even assumed by some women’s rights activists on the ground that it is precisely because they seek to include matters of justice and protection of rights on the agenda that they are shut out. These topics may be perceived as slowing down the peace process.

It is in this dire context that no less than 1,350 representatives of Afghanistan’s civil society organizations gathered in Kabul in the face of danger and threat of assassination. They were joined online by thousands of members of the global Afghan diaspora. Masood Karokhail, the co-director of Afghanistan Mechanism for Inclusive Peace (AMIP), observed that this is the largest gathering of Afghan civil society in recent memory. Their goals include: pressure on the negotiating teams to include all segments of society in the peace process (notably “direct access” to the table via the AMIP), a complete ceasefire (as opposed to the long-promised and ill-defined “reduction in violence”), continued development efforts with a transitional justice component, and a “responsible, conditioned, and structured” withdrawal of foreign troops that “prioritizes the safety and security of all Afghan people.” 

That there was such a large physical gathering at all is historic. As more and more activists are directly threatened with death, this stunt took undeniable guts. What is more remarkable is their continued and determined faith in the United Nations and their ability to influence the process. They directly appeal to the U.N.’s sensibilities of the day with the U.N.’s own development jargon, citing research that peace processes are more durable with the presence of women and civil society

The U.N. opted for a “light footprint” during the 2001 Bonn Conference, which delegated its civilian development role to foreign military forces who preferred to focus on military objectives. While the conference laid out a path forward for an inclusive democracy, Afghanistan writ large was comically underrepresented, with leaders representing certain military forces but in no way close to the real composition of Afghan society. The lack of a mechanism for inclusivity meant many of the leaders who took major positions in government could elude actual accountability to the people they are supposed to serve. 

At the time of writing, it is unknown whether or not the U.N. has a mechanism for inclusion this time around, or even if the Istanbul talks will happen at all. The U.N. continues to this day to promote inclusivity and development in Afghanistan, having come a long way from the fragmented beginnings of the peacebuilding project in 2001. If it really wants to show how far it has come since then, it must at all costs avoid another Bonn Conference by ensuring the inclusion of the AMIP. To end the war with exactly the same mistake that handicapped it from the start would be comedy of cosmically tragic proportions. As Masood Karokhail states, “The U.N., as a neutral partner having promised its support to the people of Afghanistan, must keep its promise now that it truly matters.”