Q&A: What do Afghans see as the main impediments to peace?
Intra-Afghan negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan government resumed on January 5 following a 20-day recess. The war in Afghanistan is a regional one with strong international backers and thus much focus is rightfully placed on the role of outside powers in shaping Afghanistan’s destiny.
Responsible Statecraft asked a group of Afghans from different backgrounds two questions to explore what they view as the primary roadblocks and catalysts for peace within the control of Afghans. Afghanistan has at least 14 ethnic groups and is also divided along urban-rural and sectarian lines. This Q&A cannot fully represent such a diverse society but it offers a glimpse into some Afghan viewpoints.
Adam Weinstein: In your view, what is the most significant barrier to peace in Afghanistan that is within the control of Afghans?
Dr. Orzala Nemat (@Orzala) was born in Nangarhar, Afghanistan and is a researcher and former adviser to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on sub-national governance.
Afghanistan’s post-2001 war by its nature has been a war in the international sense. The country has become a battlefield for many ongoing global and regional conflicts which turned violent in this country. From the India-Pakistan to Saudi Arabia-Iran conflicts, and those between the Saudi-Gulf countries, and the United States, Russia, and China — all conflicts have influenced in different ways the current and ongoing violence that is happening in Afghanistan.
In this context, the extent to which the barriers to peace relates to Afghans, I am afraid would be way too limited. In appearance, it seems like this [conflict] is the Afghan elite not getting along with each other but when you dig further, you will realize that making alliances is a core part of the history of the Afghan political elites over the past four decades. Hence the reason they seem uncompromising is due to their strong dependency on external patrons who support them to follow their own agenda.
At times, when the external sponsors/supporters do not push for a particular position or agenda, then we witness a state of chaos and confusion taking the stage, which I believe to an extent is the case with the current situation. Some of the above-mentioned players are in wait and see mode for the new U.S. administration’s position on what comes next. This could be one of the main reasons for the lengthy process of the first phase of negotiations and current unexplainable delays.
Others see this as a great opportunity to increase their leverage by creating more fear and an atmosphere of terror through targeted assassinations and killings for the sole purpose of weakening the state. In sum, there is not much within the control of Afghans at this stage and therefore, a stronger international push in either direction could be expected if one aims to see tangible results from this peace process.
Pashtana Durrani (@BarakPashtana) is from Kandahar, Afghanistan and is the founder of LEARN Afghanistan which is a non-profit dedicated to innovation in Afghan education.
Afghanistan faces a corrupt government. That is within our control. If we focus on controlling and tightening the loose ends it would help us not only stabilize but leverage our position in peace talks. The barrier to peace is also corruption since the majority of war profiteers don’t want peace. They want the international community to continue funding the war that has no end so they continue to profit from it. It is controllable but the world wants the war to continue so that it continues to profit.
Saad Mohseni (@saadmohseni) was born in London where his father served as an Afghan diplomat. He was raised in Australia and moved to Kabul, Afghanistan in 2001 to launch MOBY Group which is the largest media company in Afghanistan.
The biggest [barrier] seems to be this stubbornness that we will prevail. On one side you have the Taliban who believe that they can fight their way back to power while the Afghan government is of the belief that they can resist (with the help of the international community). Also, there is this belief in Kabul that a Biden administration will re-engage with Afghanistan.
Meanwhile the Taliban view their ideology as superior and are therefore unable to even contemplate a compromise on major issues including the adoption of Sharia law (their interpretation not ours) and a theocracy that very much resembles what they left behind in 2001.
Torek Farhadi (@TorekFarhadi) was born in Kabul, Afghanistan and served as a former adviser to the IMF, World Bank and U.N. He now resides in Europe.
The most significant barrier to peace in Afghanistan is now the preservation of financial interests of those who are in power. They have and will hire militias. They will keep fighting to preserve their interests. They will sugarcoat their fight in the name of preserving the Republic.
Sabir Ibrahimi (@saberibrahimi) was born in Kabul, Afghanistan and is a non-resident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation. He previously worked with the Norwegian Refugee Council and U.K.’s Department for International Development.
One major barrier is the Taliban’s insistence on a “pure Islamic system” at all costs. This is in a country that is already Islamic with an Islamic constitution. No doubt that Afghanistan is a Muslim majority country, but there are different sects and minorities with different interpretations of Islam. To achieve peace this realization has to take place on the Taliban side.
Malalai Habibi (@MalalaiHabibi) was born in Herat, Afghanistan and grew up in Iran. She is working as a program officer at the International Civil Society Action Network (ICAN) focusing on women, peace and security.
I believe the most notable hurdle to sustainable peace in Afghanistan is the deep ethnic schisms. Not being a nation yet, Afghans prioritize ethnicity over nationality, and this prevents them from thinking about the greater good of Afghans. If asked, most Afghans identify themselves with their ethnicity rather than nationality. Ethnocentricity also exacerbates kinship relations and nepotism which further fuel war and corruption.
Arash Yaqin (@ArashYaqin) was born in Herat, Afghanistan and grew up in Kabul, Moscow, and the Netherlands. He returned to Afghanistan and worked as advisor for the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies, the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and for the Public Affairs Section of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. He currently lives in Virginia and is affiliated with the Institute of World Politics in Washington D.C.
The Afghan war has continued for 43 years and there is no sign of light at the end of the tunnel. Most Afghans, including the younger generation, are not trying to get involved in solving the Afghan conflict. It is a conflict with deep roots in historical social-ethical disputes and an irresponsible centralized government that allows a small circle of oligarchs not only to misuse all available resources, but also decide how Afghans should be dressed in their bedroom. Sadly, many highly educated Afghans including the Afghan diaspora in the West, are silent or view Afghanistan more as a milk-cow for short-term personal prosperity rather than looking for a long-term peaceful solution for the entire nation.
Tabish Forugh (@ForughTabish) was born in Panjshir, Afghanistan and is a former Democracy Fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.
The political upheavals of the last four decades have aggravated the disconnect between Afghanistan’s ruling elites and the “governed” masses. They failed to work together, trust, and complement each other. As a result, the governing power structure and political discourse became more exclusive and unjust. Instead of a democratic rights-based and citizen-centered political discourse, the governing elites and their international backers, the Soviets in the 1980s and the Americans in the recent two decades, imposed their formula for engineering the Afghan society and nation-state building. They paid little attention to the existence of different political views, diverse social groupings, distinct economic interests, and opposing ideological stands within the society.
The disconnect and divergence between the elites and the masses need to be bridged via conversation and dialogue. The key to a successful national conversation is the acceptance of this rather unsettling reality by the elites that the current status quo is exclusive, unjust, and fragile.There are social setups in place that can facilitate such conversations at local and provincial levels, including civil society platforms, elder councils, local media, and Jirgas.
Nazila Jamshidi (@NazilaJamshidi1) was born in Herat, Afghanistan. She is a former Gender and Diversity Advisor to the United States Agency for International Development ( and Afghan Red Crescent Society.
Since the onset of the peace negotiations, the real attempt for confidence-building among the Afghan citizens has not occurred. Afghans are trapped in a wait and see game played by the Afghan government and the Taliban. Each party awaits others to take concrete action showing their commitment to the peace talks. The Afghan government is waiting for violence-reduction and recognition of the Islamic Republic by the Taliban. The Taliban are waiting for the Afghan government to dedicate full power to them.
Moreover, there is an ambiguity about how life in the post-peace with the Taliban era would look among Afghan citizens. Educated and city women fear sacrificing their hard-to-achieve gains for peace, and women of rural areas are concerned about the continued violence.
The current social frustrations and cleavages are another barrier. Since 2001, rural people observed that urban dwellers benefit from development projects while their districts barely received public services. This created social cleavages among people of district areas on urban people and the central government. The same cleavages exist among the women of rural and urban areas. For a woman in a rural place, access to public services is more important than their political participation.
Adam Weinstein: What kind of political arrangement might enable Afghanistan to sustain peace and continue to grow after a U.S. withdrawal?
Dr. Orzala Nemat
The type of political arrangement or the title of it is not really as important as its content. Afghanistan is not a laboratory for experimenting with different forms of political settlement arrangements. Over the past four decades, we did experiment with different regimes, from a hardcore communist one to hardcore Islamist regimes. If we compare all of those with the post-2001 order, this latter one seems better despite its flaws and high levels of corruption and inefficiency in many aspects.
The most important characteristic of the post-2001 order is its openness to inclusivity and change. The issue of corruption, lack of accountability, bad governance and performance of political elites running this system are by all means topics for discussion that need to be addressed.
However, any attempt to push the country back to either of the old regimes will only worsen the situation and will not bring any improvement in the life conditions of ordinary Afghans who pay the highest price for this war and gain nothing or very little in return. The country has a code of conduct which is a constitution agreed upon by a majority of its people, the Constitution may need to be amended and changed, and there is plenty of research and studies on the Constitution that recommends lots of amendments.
However, it cannot be categorically ignored or bypassed just because a side to the conflict that does not have a clearly defined and internationally accepted alternative does not like it. Sustainability of peace and political stability requires political consensus rather than changes in the political order. The order can remain as it is (with some amendments using its internal mechanism in place for that) while a coalition could be formed to ensure that the future political settlement is more inclusive and it shares power and resources in an equitable way.
Communities need to be involved. Stop funding projects that are based in Kabul. It is that simple. Start involving people outside of Kabul in conflict resolution. The peace process in Afghanistan is still elite and it needs to be at a grassroots level. The government needs to delegate and make it inclusive and more focused on the lives of people rather than projects. Everything in Afghanistan is a “project” even peace is now a project. And then that peace is a few young men in suits debating about peace. This is not what it is supposed to be. We need more [projects] on the ground and less of the Kabul approach.
Given the Taliban’s reluctance to even discuss (in any substantive manner) issues relating to women’s rights, media, education, rights of minorities (namely Shiites) etc., means that it will be very difficult for them to compromise on anything major without alienating its base. A more devolved, de-centralised Afghanistan may allow a greater participation by all the stakeholders. This would allow the more conservative parts of the country to adopt more rigid policies vis-à-vis education etc.
Meanwhile in Kabul we have to consider the presidential system given that power pretty much rests with only one individual, which has in effect paralyzed the system over the last two decades and hampered tackling major reforms on governance and development.
The only political order that will survive after the current set-up is one with every major player’s representation included proportionally in the future power structure and the financial resources that go with it.
A political arrangement that maintains the pluralistic nature of the system and brings the Taliban into the political fold can be sustainable. This arrangement should also decentralize power and governance. Afghanistan cannot maintain peace, let alone sustain it if the Taliban impose their high ideals on the rest of Afghanistan or the Republic tries to impose itself on the Taliban. That is why we have a negotiation process to reach a political settlement that would include compromises.
A genuinely inclusive and participatory political arrangement would pave the way for having sustainable peace and growth. Inclusivity does not mean bringing in the same number of representatives/sons of warlords or political opponents, but to include representatives of different stakeholders who have constantly been sidelined, such as women, youth, and religious and ethnic minorities, and to enable them to have a meaningful involvement.
The Taliban’s representatives, as part of Afghan society, should also be part of it. Thus, a Monitory Democracy where a government’s exercise of power is monitored by a wide variety of public and private regulatory agencies and mechanisms would best provide the space for genuine inclusion and safeguard the rights and access of all citizens. Equal power and responsibility sharing would make room for thriving economic and social growth.
I don’t see a peaceful solution even if the Taliban join the government or replace the current oligarchs with their authoritarian system. If the Afghan society doesn’t stand up as a whole and local leaders don’t come up with a decentralized solution for peace, the U.S.-led peace process will only add a few religious tyrants into an already failed centralized bubble to leave Afghanistan just as the Soviets did.
Afghans should not repeat the mistakes of the past half-century by leaving their destiny and their children’s future in the hands of a small circle of elite oligarchs. Kabul-based elite oligarchs have nothing to offer except a false rhetoric that everyone in the region and the world is responsible for the future of Afghan children except Afghan leaders themselves.
The ongoing peace negotiations should not produce another form of a centralized system where power and resources are concentrated in the hands of a few. A centralized theocracy is particularly dangerous, giving the experience of the Islamists’ divisive reign in the 1990s. Reproducing the current presidential system with the supplementary clerical institutions won’t do good to Afghanistan either.
Afghanistan needs a decentralized, perhaps semi-federal government that allows peripheries of Afghan polity and society to feel included and contribute to fostering peace and consolidation of an inclusive status quo based on the principle of equality and democratic participation. The illusion of governing Afghanistan from Kabul or creating a powerful centralized state should not make us blind to the fact that Afghanistan is not practically governable from Kabul. A future Afghan state should be devised based on what is feasible and doable in Afghanistan, circumventing sentimentalities and nostalgia for the return of an ethno-nationalist or Islamofascist regime in which the Taliban or the elites of a particular ethnic group unilaterally sets the agenda and govern.
We need to look over the most peaceful period in Afghanistan’s history to figure out the political principles and order that sustained peace among a multicultural and multilingual nation. While a monarchy regime, Afghanistan enjoyed more stability under the leadership of King Zahir Khan. Indeed, peace wasn’t a direct product of the monarchy government but it was due to sharing authority and power with the local governments, leaders, and finally, the people. Those who could more effectively deliver services to the locals, establish justice among society, and reflect people’s voices in the decision-making process held authority. Hence, the government needs to transfer some power and authority to provinces and districts and recognize local leaders’ roles in sustaining peace.