A mural painted on a wall showing hearts, a camel and a plaster over a map of Afghanistan.

The revival of the Afghan peace process demands not only inclusivity but also ethical considerations in navigating the authoritarian grip of the Taliban and the risks faced by those who speak out.

To be credible, any revived Afghan peace process will have to be structured so that representatives of the majority who have remained in their country can participate – as well as Afghans in the diaspora. But to be ethical, safe and, indeed, successful, peace process architects must confront the authoritarian nature of the Taliban and the threats facing Afghans living in the country. The challenge is how to organise dialogue and structure an inclusive process when Afghans are not free to speak their mind or may face consequences should they do so.

Authoritarianism is now a lived experience for millions of Afghans. The Taliban have explicitly renounced democracy and describe their regime as Islamic. But they govern with all four hallmarks of authoritarianism as it is classically defined by Linz and others. Firstly, pluralism has been eradicated by the Taliban asserting a monopoly of power for their movement. Secondly, the Taliban base their claim to political legitimacy not on popular consent but on the story that their Amir is guided by God with a mission to implement divine law. Thirdly, the Taliban suppress any criticism of their Emirate and deter any political mobilisation, even among their own members. And fourthly, the Amir and his subordinates exercise untrammelled executive authority, unconstrained by a constitution. In addition, the Taliban have developed a repressive apparatus to enforce compliance and suppress opposition.

In practical terms, under the new authoritarianism, elected bodies have been dissolved and non-Taliban are excluded from positions of responsibility in the state. The few Afghans who dare to speak their mind in a public space know that they may be arrested or disappeared for doing so. Journalists operating in the country know they must check with the Taliban before filing a report and can be punished for publishing material the Taliban disapprove of. You can also be picked up if a Taliban search reveals “objectionable” social media content on your phone. There is immense pressure on Afghans involved in civil society activity or running non-governmental organisations to reach an accommodation with the Emirate’s intelligence, which may require personnel to report to them.

Alas, much of what Afghans now experience is common to people living in other unfree countries. Freedom House’s “Freedom in the World report” rates conditions in 195 countries and 15 territories against 25 indicators of political and civil rights, based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). In the 2023 report, Afghanistan was one of 16 countries dubbed the “worst of the worst”, a sub-set of the 57 countries which are rated as “not free”. Countries with ranking similar to Afghanistan include Syria, North Korea, Eritrea, Tajikistan, Belarus, China and Myanmar.

Intensified suppression of freedom of expression is a common feature of contemporary authoritarian regimes. For example, in Nicaragua critics of Daniel Ortega can be jailed for treason and “authorities in Belarus, the eastern Donbas and Eritrea have developed informant networks and check people’s phones to suppress the sharing of dissenting opinion.” Afghans are grimly familiar with such practices. But this means that many of the challenges facing peacemakers who plot a way forward are generic to authoritarian contexts rather than unique to Afghanistan.

The February 2024 UN-organised Afghanistan meeting in Doha planned to follow-up the report by Special Coordinator Sinirlioghlu to the UN Security Council illustrates the potential pitfalls in trying to organise a process which is meaningful for people living in repressive conditions. Understandably the UN asked the Taliban to send a delegation to represent their Emirate in talks with international envoys. The UN did not want to invite members of the Afghan resistance groupings, such as the Tajikistan-based National Resistance Front or the Turkey-based Supreme Council for National Resistance at this stage. This stance was the safest approach for a meeting at the start of a process.

Therefore, the UN decided to put together a panel of members of civil society. The main idea was that credible but non-party-aligned Afghans should present their perspective on the state of play in Afghanistan to the assembled envoys. Potentially this could influence the roadmap adopted by a new UN “Special Envoy”. But expecting Afghans living under Taliban rule to participate freely in a high-profile and contested event is deeply problematic.

There is a long tradition of treating only Afghans resident and active in the country as authentic voices, better able to represent what is going on there than members of the diaspora. But when an Afghan colleague was asked to suggest participants, his first question was what guarantee the UN can provide that participants would not face repercussions from the Taliban, for attending or taking positions which the Taliban do not like.

The answer is of course that no one can credibly give such a guarantee. In academic research, ethical approval would rightly be withheld from any proposed exercise which exposed participants to unreasonable risks which could not be mitigated. This is the situation that peacemakers now find themselves in on Afghanistan. Encouraging non-Taliban to travel abroad to publicised events, encouraging them to speak openly and then expecting them to return home to face the music from the General Directorate of Intelligence (GDI) is ethically deeply problematic. The approach is even more problematic given that Taliban claim that they insisted that the UN share with them the identities of civil society figures considered for invitation.

In any case, the modern civil society that flourished in the Republic no longer exists. Even Afghan traditional civil society, comprising ulema and tribal elders, is closely watched by the Taliban. The pool of Afghans able to maintain a public profile and a presence in Afghanistan, attend international events and speak critically is now very limited. Hezb Islami leader Amin Karim, women’s activist Mahbouba Seraj and academic Faiz Zaland are notable examples, each of whom has had to develop a personal strategy to cope with life under the Taliban. While these are all highly respected and honourable figures, it would be naïve in the extreme to ignore the fact that ethnic minorities have found it most difficult to retain their independence while accommodating with the Taliban. Authoritarianism poses a challenge both for peacemakers considering who to invite to their meetings, and for Afghans considering who they want to be represented by.

Some basic precautions would ensure that peacemaking takes account of the difficult circumstances now experienced by Afghans. Firstly, we should stop expecting Afghans who live under Taliban rule to speak candidly in dialogue events or to represent any constituency other than their own individual experience. It is unethical to expect independent Afghans to express what is happening in the country and people’s aspirations before having to return to Afghanistan and the Taliban’s intelligence. Under the first Emirate, Political Affairs Officers of the UN mission were responsible for engaging securely with civil society in the country and feeding Afghan perspectives into the peace process. The UN should again do its job rather than rendering Afghans vulnerable.

Secondly, whoever leads a peace process should recognise the vital role to be played by Afghan political and civic organisations which are based outside Afghanistan, but which are able to communicate with and indeed mobilise Afghans resident in the country. Afghanistan under this current second Emirate is far more open than the Afghanistan of the nineties, not least because of the penetration of telecommunications into the remotest parts of the country. This offers opportunities to circumvent authoritarianism inside Afghanistan. The February Doha meeting was only ever intended as the start of a process. The purpose of the new round of the engagement mandated by the Security Council is to help Afghans attain an inclusive political system which respects their rights.

Therefore, when prioritising which non-Taliban parties and groupings to engage with, the peace process lead has an opportunity to favour those which can demonstrate they have a real base inside Afghanistan and are inclusive and have a national character. This of course highlights that the primary responsibility for ensuring that normal Afghans (there is a lack of good adjectives to describe non-Taliban) have a say in determining their future lies with Afghan political and civic organisations. Afghan confidence in democratic politics was low by the end of the Republic and the onus is on the Afghan political class, which is now largely located in neighbouring countries and beyond, to win back that confidence and show leadership.

Thirdly, the peace process lead should recognise and address the considerable obstacles that Afghans now outside their country have faced in organising and building the new coalitions which are required to build pressure for an inclusive and rights-respecting system. Local and national elected representatives, leaders and activists have been scattered between countries, some of which have imposed restrictions on open political activity.

The peace process lead could work with host countries to win more space for Afghans to speak and organise. Ideally the peace process lead would also pursue what I have described as a “safe space to talk” – a country where Afghans engaged in the political process could convene. It is hard to over-estimate the decisive way in which access to Doha boosted the Taliban during the process led by Zalmay Khalilzad. The availability of an equivalent safe place could greatly facilitate the emergence of an effective and cohesive democratic opposition to the Taliban, which is a prerequisite for attaining durable stability. The conditions of authoritarianism prevailing in Afghanistan mean that such an opposition cannot develop in-country.

This article was reproduced with the kind permission of PeaceRep. Read the original article here.