Just weeks after the United States and the Taliban agreed to advance peacemaking in Afghanistan, that peace effort’s internal flaws—and now the COVID pandemic—pose serious obstacles. While ordinary Afghans—civilians and fighters—have shown their desperate desire for peace, the delegations named to negotiate to leave most of our people unrepresented. And as in every country, COVID now constrains our lives in unpredictable ways. Yet the representation problem can be reduced and the pandemic can be turned to serve the cause of peace.
No one can doubt what 38 million Afghans want most of all. Our people’s desperation for peace was dramatized in 2018 when the government announced a three-day cease-fire for the Eid-ul-Fitr holiday. Taliban fighters flocked into Afghan towns to join Eid prayers, embrace civilians and take selfies in that moment of unity. The celebration was so joyous that Taliban officials called for disciplinary action against their fighters who had fraternized with their foes. In the same year, Afghan civilians marched from distant Helmand province to Kabul, demanding an end to 40-plus years of warfare. Those demands have not ceased.
Yet the current peace process is too narrow to draw strength from this vast, grass-roots demand for peace. Experience and research show that peace processes often collapse precisely from this weakness—that they failed to include all groups in a society at war. The Afghan process is at risk for this failure. The Taliban, on the other hand, is a narrowly based group in our society, and their legitimacy for many Afghans is undermined by their historic dependence on Pakistan. And while the Afghan government won international applause for the relatively broad makeup of its 21-member negotiating team, that delegation also unhelpfully includes unqualified members and relatives of longstanding warlords.
The makeup of the government-backed delegation has also been subject to political disputes even in the government, as reflected in the 15-day delay by the administration’s former chief executive officer, Abdullah Abdullah, in endorsing the team announced by his rival, President Ashraf Ghani. The two Afghan rival leaders however signed a power-sharing deal – giving Dr. Abdullah Abdullah the leading role in seeking peace with the Taliban and the ability to name half the cabinet. A practical way to address the concerns of people over the inclusivity of the 21-member Afghan government team to negotiate with the Taliban is to broaden participation without re-negotiating the government-backed lineup, at least for now, might be to build a larger role for Afghan civil society adjacent to the negotiating team. Afghans should demand—and the international community should support—the creation of a broad advisory committee for each member of the Afghan delegation. These advisory groups should include members from all walks of life who can press upon the delegates the demands and the red lines of Afghan citizens—with ample Afghan press coverage to keep the pressure on.
Peacemaking in the time of COVID
Afghans, like all people, must now decide what the COVID pandemic means and how we should respond to it amid our war fatigue and our desire for peace.
Worldwide, political leaders can always exploit fear and pain to turn their tribes (ethnic, political, religious, or other) against old enemies—to sharpen the attack by “our” group against some “other” group. So we can choose to blame the virus on some outsiders or enemies. Or we can decide that the virus is a common foe of humankind against which we must unite, ending violence in favor of negotiation to settle our old, factional disputes.
Some readers will call this idea naïve. Yet the readiness to negotiate, rather than fight, in pursuit of justice and the welfare of people facing hardship, is required not only by our common interest but also by our Islamic faith. And we have seen even hardened fighters halt their warfare to join their enemies in human response to catastrophe. When a massive earthquake shattered the Kashmir region in 2005, Pakistan-based guerrilla groups declared “terrorists” by the United States ordered a stop to attacks on India. They instead supported relief work even in proximity to U.S. troops flying in emergency supplies. After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami devastated Indonesia’s Aceh province, the government and separatist guerrillas halted their fight to cooperate in relief work and finally make peace after nearly 30 years of war.
Afghan citizens and civil society, and Islamic leaders and governments worldwide, should demand that the Taliban and the Afghan government accept their higher duty to help Afghans suffering from both war and COVID, by halting all violence and cooperating to ensure both public health and safety. The government should take a difficult first step by releasing imprisoned Taliban fighters to improve their chances of surviving COVID and to carry a message of conciliation to the Taliban leadership. The Taliban must accept that Afghans who have enjoyed 19 years of free expression, free media, and opportunity for education and work—for women as well as men—will never accept a return to the brutal Taliban rule of the past. What we can offer is a place for them, as for all Afghans, in a democratic system that lets them offer ideas and compete for a share of power through elections. The Taliban have seen this offer implemented with their former ally, the Hizb-e-Islami of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
Reaching such a peace accord remains a massive task. But neither COVID nor the other problems so far make it impossible.
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