By Bernhard Schell
Women, youth as well as community and religious leaders in Afghanistan have been craving for peace and earnestly preparing for it long before the United States signed a landmark agreement with the Taliban on February 29.
The deal sets the stage to end America’s longest war stretching over more than 18 years and allow President Donald Trump to begin the promised withdrawal of American troops. U.S. forces and their allies have been present in Afghanistan since 2001.
A series of events organised by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) in 2019 and 2020 aimed at fostering peace and facilitating participation of considerable sections of the population in decision-making. The results of these efforts are expected to go a long way when the intra-Afghan negotiations kick off in Kabul on March 10.
UNAMA head Tadamichi Yamamoto, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, said after the signing of the U.S.-Taliban agreement in Qatar capital Doha: “All stakeholders must now look to make genuine and concrete steps toward ending the war.”
In New York, the UN head’s spokesperson Stéphane Dujarric said that Secretary-General António Guterres had reiterated “the United Nations commitment to supporting the people and the government of Afghanistan.”
Mr Guterres expressed the hope that the “deeply held aspirations of the Afghan people for peace” will be realized through an inclusive Afghan-led process with the meaningful participation of women and young people.
They are indeed prepared to participate. A meeting on the role of women in peace adopted a declaration on January 13, titled ‘Women as pioneers for peace’, calling for the substantive involvement and participation of women in bringing peace to Afghanistan.
The day-long UNAMA-backed event held in Herat, the capital of the western province, brought together around 100 women activists, government leaders and civil society representatives from across the region. The discussions focussed on recommendations made by more than 1,000 women including from Badghis, Ghor, Farah and Herat, following a year-long consultations on peace and security.
Participants, who included Herat Governor, Abdul Quayom Rahimi and his Deputy, Monesa Hassanzadeh, reaffirmed a call for women to take the centre stage and ensure that their role and rights are adequately reflected and safeguarded in peace efforts, as well as any subsequent agreement.
“Without women in the peace process, there is no peace,” Rahimi told the participants.
Member of the Afghan Parliament Massouda Karokhi urged women to be courageous. “I call upon all women not to miss this chance and to stand up in order to participate in the peace process, be courageous.”
The crucial role that youth can play in promoting peace, security and stability in Afghanistan was reinforced at the UN-backed events in the northeast throughout 2019, enabling hundreds of young people to make their voices heard on some of the country’s most pressing issues.
In a series of events organized by UNAMA’s regional office in Kunduz, young people from across the region came together to discuss their role in building peace in their communities and talked about how they could participate more substantially in Afghanistan’s development agenda.
In the wide-ranging discussions at each of the events, participants not only recognized the potential of young people as powerful agents of change in preventing and resolving conflict, but also underscored the importance of involving youth in any peace efforts and national decision-making processes.
“Peace efforts without engaging youth will not last,” said Salahuddin Qazizada, a university lecturer and participant during one of the televised events in Badakhshan last year. “It is essential for youth to be heard and for youth to participate in efforts to create peace and stability in the country,” he stressed.
The important role of community leaders in promoting and protecting human rights was the focus of a UN-backed event in Afghanistan’s southeast province of Ghazni.
Some 40 religious scholars, women’s rights activists, journalists and other community leaders gathered for a daylong symposium early February to discuss how civil society could more effectively empower their communities by increasing awareness of human rights and putting in place better mechanisms to protect those rights.
One participant, Abdul Mosawir Omer, called for strengthening rule of law and putting in place practical mechanisms to protect human rights and support human rights defenders. “We need solid measures to deter perpetrators from violations,” emphasised Omer, a civil society activist.
Other participants highlighted the many challenges faced by communities across the south-eastern province, including violence against women and human rights violations resulting from the armed conflict in Afghanistan.
As the discussion turned to education, participants called for investment in schools as well as in community awareness initiatives to promote human rights, especially the rights of women.”
“Afghanistan should pay more attention to education,” said Wakil Ashrafi, a civil society activist. “Without an educated society, it’s difficult to address human rights.”
Efforts by religious and community leaders to foster peace and reconciliation in the country’s south and nationwide were reinforced by a series of UN-backed events throughout 2019 enabling hundreds of Ulema and tribal elders to discuss best approaches in trying circumstances.
A tribal leader, Azeem Khan Samandar, told UNAMA in an interview that Ulema (religious scholars), as custodians of peace, will continue to preach unity and work for peace as they have done throughout history.
“We have been talking in our communities, expressing different views on the peace process,” noted Samandar, a regular participant at UN-backed events. Samandar said that Afghans, despite their differences, are united in their demand for peace. “Despite our different perspectives, everyone is thirsty for peace,” he said.
Community elder, Haji Neamathullah, concurred. “In my engagements and private discussions with my fellow citizens, the first thing that always comes up is the demand and hope for peace in our country,” said Neamathullah. “Everyone in this country is fed up with violence and looking to a new chapter of peace.”
Afghanistan’s Ulema play an essential role in setting moral and ethical standards for their communities. They often work as peace brokers and are respected at all levels of society, exerting influence on individual and community decisions.
Traditionally, local disputes have been resolved with their intervention, a tradition which has continued today, especially in parts of the south with no formal judicial system.
Earlier in the year, during one of the discussions in Helmand, a scholar, Mawlwai Obaidullah Akhunzada, made the point that every Afghan has a religious duty to build and make peace. “This is the duty of a Muslim, to mediate between other brothers in conflict,” said Akhunzada. “If we do not contribute in creating peace, we will never have peace,” he said.
At other forums both in Helmand and Kandahar, participants reiterated the importance of dialogue and public discussions. “We need more discussions to keep the dialogue and momentum going,” said Mawlwai Mohammad Dawood Modaqeq, adding that although change may seem slow, “more people are discussing peace and how they can get involved”.