(Editor’s note: This article, produced in partnership with the U.K.-based international peacebuilding and conflict prevention organization Saferworld, is part of Just Security‘s ongoing “Voices from the Impact Zone” series by experts, advocates and academics from areas affected by U.S. security and counterterrorism policies and practices.)
With talks between the Taliban and the U.S. government recently resuming, even though in fits and starts, Afghans again find themselves largely shut out of the process of determining their own future. Greater involvement by civil society could help put negotiations back on the path to peace.
U.S.-Taliban negotiations that originally accelerated in late 2018 initially brought optimism that the ‘endless war,’ now in its 19th year, might be coming to an end. The sliver of hope was particularly precious for ordinary Afghans, who have paid so much of the price of war in terms of human life and the devastating poverty it has created. Of the more than 157,000 people killed as a direct cause of the war, according to Brown University’s Costs of War research project as of October, more than 43,000 were civilians, 64,124 were Afghan military or police, and 42,100 were opposition fighters. The U.S. by that point had lost almost 2,300 military service members and more than 3,800 contractors. Among allied forces, 1,145 troops perished.
But Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was shut out of the talks because the Taliban refuse to recognize the government. Although U.S. negotiators have consulted with him along the way, and Afghan government officials and Taliban representatives have met informally over the years, the exclusion was galling for many in Afghanistan. President Ghani had offered to join negotiations without preconditions, and even indicated a general willingness to consider amending the country’s constitution to reach an agreement, though he has emphasized that its provisions for an electoral democracy, citizens’ rights and human rights should stay intact.
Similarly left out of the peace negotiations were Afghan civil society leaders who have risked their lives for 18 years in efforts to rebuild their country. Instead, they were limited to speculating and scouring for occasional news reports about the proceedings. And in September, they heard from afar when a tentative agreement unraveled, as President Donald Trump called off a meeting with Taliban representatives at Camp David in the United States after a car bombing in Kabul killed 12 people, including an American soldier.
In the end, President Ghani’s efforts to support a peace deal were rendered moot by his main international backer. Nevertheless, the U.S. military revealed in October that it had reduced its troop strength in Afghanistan by 2,000 to about 13,000 over the previous year. Afghan political leaders were divided on whether the reduction could de-escalate the conflict and improve prospects for a deal – after all, the Taliban’s goal is to oust U.S. forces — or whether the exit of troops might reignite war by encouraging the Taliban to press its growing advantage and topple the government militarily. The initial peace deal had called for the United States to reduce its force to between 8,000 and 9,000, compared with a peak of 100,000 in 2010.
The September collapse of the negotiations and the more recent halting pace should illustrate the weaknesses of the process, even as it points to a solution: A sustainable peace cannot materialize from closed-door discussions and the whims of world leaders. It requires addressing, in the agreement and in implementation, the painful legacy and festering grievances of Afghans that have been baked into the society through 40 years of continuous conflict.
In addition to continuing devastating attacks against civilian targets by the Taliban, the presence of U.S.-led coalition forces continues to present a symbol of a destructive occupation and provides a target for those affected, as well as for political opportunists. Civilian casualties have climbed again in the past year, and the International Criminal Court last month conducted a hearing to consider allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including by the CIA and the U.S. military. Furthermore, local and international human rights advocates have raised alarms repeatedly about abuses by Afghan forces trained and supported by the coalition.
At the same time, ineffective and corrupt governance adds fuel to the fire. Months after presidential elections in late September, for example, the outcome remains uncertain. Afghans also are increasingly sickened by their country’s elites dominating the political arena and amassing enormous wealth through corruption and foreign aid, while many of their compatriots struggle just to maintain their livelihoods.
It is members of that same elite network, whether in the government or out of it, who now seek to influence the U.S.-Taliban talks from the outside or are maneuvering for a seat at the table of any follow-on negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban, if such discussions actually occur. This is a huge source of concern for many Afghans who worry that their human rights will be traded away in a peace deal, in return for personal gains for their leaders.
Civil Society is Active – But on the Margins
Though largely excluded from the process, Afghan civil society representatives have been active on the margins, monitoring the talks carefully, mobilizing around the country to amplify the voices of ordinary citizens, and commenting in the media to make sure these demands are relayed to the negotiators on both sides. A few civil society representatives have managed to meet with the U.S. negotiating team in Kabul, and a handful of women’s rights leaders even met with Taliban representatives as part of a delegation to the negotiations in Doha last April, although more formal planned talks between an Afghan civil society delegation and the Taliban collapsed.
The informal meeting without Afghan government representatives, though, caused its own controversy, as Afghan officials who had a record of engaging with civil society felt alienated once again. But civil society leaders felt compelled to take the rare opening to present their concerns on citizens rights, electoral democracy, women’s rights, and human rights to the Taliban, an opportunity that had long been out of their reach.
Those who participated in the meeting felt they had encountered a different Taliban from the representatives they previously had met in Moscow in February 2019. Female participants were surprised at how respectfully they were treated in the meeting. Some of them jokingly called it “Taliban recruitment,”a bid for the group to appear like a “government in waiting.”
But the Taliban still has much convincing to do if it genuinely wants civil society’s backing. Many groups are still deeply suspicious of the Taliban, and suspect they remain eager to return to the repressive ways of the pre-9/11 emirate.
To build a lasting peace in Afghanistan, as has been the case in other countries, any political settlement will require extensive peacebuilding efforts by civil society to support the key elements: disarmament; integration of the Taliban into national military and law enforcement ranks; social reintegration and reconciliation; and the effective and accountable provision of governance and aid.
A peace deal must be followed by a comprehensive disarmament program to which all parties agree. This should include not only Taliban fighters but other militia groups that are not under the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) structures. This is particularly difficult in Afghanistan, where armed groups see their weapons as a source of power and income. But unless the warring factions sincerely embrace electoral democracy and come to tolerate each other, they will continue to retain their weapons and thus their option to return to violence.
Successful disarmament will require building trust among political leaders and between the leaders of the ANSF and the Taliban.
Civil society can play an important role in supporting implementation of a peace agreement, including disarmament – monitoring of agreements, for example — based on experiences in other countries implementing peace accords, such as Colombia. Civil society organizations also could conduct public education throughout Afghanistan on how to keep small arms safe in homes, and on defusing local conflicts without violence. Women could be particularly pivotal in all elements of the transition from war to peace, as they have been in other countries after conflict.
Integration of Security Forces
One thing that is still a question for many Afghans — and that should be an agenda point for future peace negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government that are intended to follow a U.S.-Taliban accord — is how Taliban fighters would be integrated into ANSF structures. Some Afghans worry that the ANSF already is too large for the country’s tax base to support, or that too many Taliban fighters might want to join so that the Taliban can dominate the forces. On the other hand, some Taliban fighters might prefer to lay down their weapons and enter religious studies or other fields, and they may not meet screening criteria for the kinds of upper-level positions they would prefer.
Accommodating an acceptable number of Taliban fighters in ANSF structures will definitely help to build Taliban leadership trust, but who to accommodate and how should be carefully thought through. Historically, Afghans from the southern provinces, where the Taliban are strong, have been under-represented in the ANSF, but it’s unclear whether that is the case because individuals don’t want to join or because leaders don’t want them. Tackling grievances in the ranks will be critical and will require a long-term peacebuilding to dispel misperceptions and to promote coexistence, camaraderie, and pride in providing security to Afghan communities.
Societal Reintegration and Reconciliation
Successful negotiation and mediation should end up with all parties feeling that they have more to gain from peace than remaining in conflict. Yet in Afghanistan, the government likely will have no such feeling, since it is consistently excluded and publicly undermined by not only the Taliban but also the United States. Accordingly, if the Taliban secures a deal with the United States, it would appear victorious in forcing the withdrawal of a superpower and the sidelining of the elected government. This would make local reintegration and reconciliation that much more difficult.
A more collaborative peace process, with the government involved, could make community-based reconciliation and reintegration more realistic and sustainable as part of any future peacebuilding. To tackle the grievances fueling and fueled by conflict, indigenous local structures such as jirgas and shruas made up of tribal elders and religious leaders are in the best position to ensure peaceful conflict resolution and social cohesion. In the last 18 years, women and young people have gradually made their way into these structures, with the help of non-governmental organisations and civil society, to make them more inclusive and participatory.
In addition, reintegration must go both ways. Most attention tends to be given to reintegrating armed opposition fighters into government-controlled areas, structures and communities. That is important, but the reverse is often forgotten.
Since the 2001 U.S. invasion, a vast number of Afghans have moved to cities to work in the ANSF or with private security companies. Some of them will want to return to their communities and villages but would face opposition and even be targeted by armed opposition groups for their wartime roles. Even tribal elders and influential religious scholors who moved to cities for security reasons during the conflict may not be welcomed back to areas controlled by the Taliban, as both sides jockey for power and position.
The Afghan government, Taliban leadership and civil society will need to work together on local peacebuilding plans, which might include establishing peace commissions or peacebuilding committees, at least at district levels, to advance reconciliation at the local level. A number of Afghan civil society organizations, supported by international NGO’s, have developed expertise by working in these areas for a long time and gaining experience and capacity in peaceful conflict resolution.
Governance and Aid
Another source of conflict among different political factions and tribes in a post-peace-deal scenario will be the continuing fight, however “peaceful,” over resources and power at the district and provincial levels. Many of the political elites who have gained power and amassed enormous wealth in the last 18 years through construction, logistics or other businesses mostly tied to international development assistance also will be considered by the Taliban to be rivals for political or economic power at the national and local levels.
The best way to promote transparency, equality, and respect for human rights, and to hold political leaders accountable is to build a vibrant civil society at the local level. A number of national and international NGOs support local-level CSOs, youth groups, women’s organizations, and community elders such as religious leaders who press for improved government services and justice. The local organizations have learned to advocate based on facts and evidence, and have proven efficient not only in working with district and provincial government offices, but also in reaching national government ministry officials in Kabul. Their demand for accountability at the local level can help prevent conflicts over resources.
Whatever the ultimate agreement between the United States and the Taliban – and ultimately between the Taliban and the Afghan government, if it will be strong enough to negotiate in the aftermath of a U.S.-Taliban pact, its durability will depend on whether Afghan citizens and, specifically, civil society embrace the terms and take responsibility for promoting peace, tolerance, coexistence, and transparency. Unless Afghans take this opportunity – and the accompanying responsibility — and work for the changes that they can accomplish locally, political leaders will remain unaccountable and will exploit ethnic, religious, and tribal divisions for their personal gains, undermining any bargains struck among the elites in the peace process.
That makes it all the more important to involve civil society now, during the peace negotiations. If peace is not to remain elusive for another generation, it must be pursued more inclusively – still from the top down perhaps, but unquestionably also from the bottom up.