Some, since the collapse of the Republic, have been involved in “lessons learnt” exercises to collate the experience of previous dialogue and negotiations with the Taliban. Other Afghans I listen to operate at a more local level, as former elected representatives, mediators, consensus-builders, and advocates for their community’s interests in dealing with the state or national political actors. Afghanistan is blessed with a wealth of talent, experienced workers for peace and reconciliation. Since August 2021, they have all agonised over what to do next. US-inspired efforts to engage with the victorious Taliban have delivered nothing for Afghans. But Afghan peacemaker skills are still relevant to the new context.
The harsh reality is that Afghans now live under an authoritarian regime, which explains the lack of results from dialogue with the Taliban. The constitution has been abolished. There is no freedom of speech. Civil society is severely restricted. The security agency is hyperactive and effective. It spies on the population, detaining and disappearing those deemed a threat to the regime, with no accountability. The top leadership is ideologically committed to a permanent jihad, the agenda of which involves removing women from public life, purging society of the heresy of democratic values, and asserting a Taliban monopoly of state power.
There is no prospect of meaningful political negotiations with the Taliban any time soon, much as Afghan peacemakers would love to be involved in another negotiation process. The Doha Process, in which Taliban supposedly committed to intra-Afghan negotiations, but instead ran the clock down, is over. The Taliban are in power, without any clear challenger or interest in moderating their policies or in a power-sharing deal.
The determinedly exclusive nature of the Islamic Emirate means that it should not be considered a stable equilibrium. The Taliban’s determination to concentrate privilege, resources and authority in their narrowly based movement creates a sense of ethnic, ideological, and associational exclusion which necessitates reliance on the repressive apparatus to maintain power. Such a “settlement” cannot in any meaningful way be considered peaceful. It is inherently vulnerable to reverting to open armed conflict because of the residual military potential of multiple excluded groups.
Furthermore, progress towards peace and freedom in Afghanistan is now only likely to be attainable through a protracted struggle, led by Afghans, to dismantle the authoritarian Islamic Emirate and replace it with an inclusive political system. For examples of how other nations have confronted the challenge, Afghans can look at the South African struggle against Apartheid or the ongoing Myanmar resistance to the junta. These examples are now more relevant than the Colombian negotiations in Cuba or the Northern Ireland peace talks, which Afghan peacemakers have previously been encouraged to model their efforts on.
Afghan peacemakers and committed political activists have an opportunity to shape the process of reorienting the country’s politics to the difficult struggle against dictatorship. This involves new roles, priorities and ways of operating. One profound change is that only Afghans can take the initiative this time round, unlike in the US-led peace process. The struggle for peace and freedom can only be led by people with a stake in the country. Western diplomats can perhaps be excused for devising their doomed schemes for accommodation with the Taliban because they could never have had a mandate to advocate mobilising a ‘freedom movement’. Afghanistan is simply not their country.
The Afghan ‘freedom movement’ will need to develop a convincing vision of the peaceful endpoint of the struggle. Peacemakers can help form this vision. They have already concluded that a renewed political system must institutionalise pluralism, which accords a stake to all of Afghanistan’s ethnic and religious groups. The experience of concentration of power under both the Republic and the Emirate has driven discussion of schemes to decentralise power. And the Taliban’s crass instrumentalization of religion as the cover for a power grab means that a freedom movement needs to articulate how it can act as the true guardian of Afghans’ religious values. These weighty political issues need to be fleshed out and presented as a convincing vision of a free and inclusive Afghanistan, which resonates with the population and around which coalitions can be built.
The Taliban have inadvertently focused attention on the centrality of the question of women’s role in Afghan public life. Through their ideas and practice, Afghan peacemakers can now ensure that women are integral to the peace movement and that the vision includes a convincing statement of Afghan women’s rights. The issue of generational change is closely related. The median age of the Taliban leadership is 55 years – the Emirate is a regime of greybeards. Likewise, the men who led Afghanistan’s wars of the 1980s and 1990s played an outsized role in the politics of the Republic. They still have some convening power but cannot dominate the freedom movement. The vitality of the freedom movement may well depend on how it manages the transition to women and millennials in leadership roles.
One of the fascinating challenges involves addressing the representation deficit. Having grabbed power at the barrel of a gun, the Taliban clearly do not represent the populace. But no one else can credibly claim to do so either. The freedom movement needs platforms which articulate the popular will. But Taliban authoritarianism leaves no space for open politics within the country. Maybe the deficit can be addressed through innovative ways of convening community representatives and designing a national dialogue outside the authoritarians’ control.
Peacemakers are now scattered across Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, Central Asia, Turkey and beyond – whereas they previously could all gather for a meeting in central Kabul. It has been fascinating to observe how the resistance fronts have embraced Zoom. However, more work is required to think through the implications of the new geography of Afghan politics. Peacemakers need a joined-up approach, linking multiple locations, in which those who do the hard work of challenging authoritarianism on the ground also have a voice.
Peacemakers will have to fundamentally rethink the toolkit of politics as they adapt themselves to a role in challenging authoritarianism – which modes of resistance are relevant in the face of Taliban control of the territory and readiness to employ their repressive apparatus? There is a traditional Afghan toolkit from the early struggle against the Communists and Soviets and there is scope for Afghans to consider South African resistance tactics. Part of this tactical innovation will involve adopting modes of struggle which do not depend upon centralised pots of resources. The harsh reality is that no one will pay Afghans to seek their freedom.
Coalition-building is perhaps the most relevant skill for Afghan peacemakers in the early stages of the freedom movement. In the second year of the revived Islamic Emirate, Afghan democratic and nationalist politics remain so fragmented that Taliban and international actors alike feel comfortable in ignoring the resistance. A freedom movement resting on a coalition which mobilises the nation could not be ignored. And, frustratingly, the broadest resistance grouping, the Supreme Council for National Resistance, has been hamstrung by the personal rivalries of the six or so leadership figures from the Jamiat party. Their dispute has proven intractable, but the council will be ineffective until it is resolved. Sometimes politics requires permanent mediation.
The situation confronting Afghans is truly daunting. Catastrophic errors by their own leaders and international partners have left them under authoritarian rule. International actors are still in denial, left dabbling in Taliban engagement long after Afghans realised that the Taliban only demand their subservience.
Getting Afghanistan back onto a trajectory towards sustainable peace depends upon the emergence of an effective freedom movement. The priority political tasks necessary to progress the movement involve dialogue and organisation among the Afghans who buy into the idea of a free society and inclusive political system. These tasks include developing the vision that resonates, building forms of organisation that span the country and the region, innovating in tactics, and building consensus and coalitions. All of these involve dialogue among Afghanistan’s nationalist and democratic forces. Talking with the Taliban can wait.
This article was written as part of our work with PeaceRep: The Peace and Conflict Resolution Evidence Platform. PeaceRep is a research consortium based at Edinburgh Law School. PeaceRep research is rethinking peace and transition processes in the light of changing conflict dynamics, changing demands of inclusion, and changes in patterns of global intervention in conflict and peace processes. Learn more about PeaceRep
Image: Afghan women hold placards as they take part in a protest in front of the Iranian embassy in Kabul (September 2022). Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images.