By Bipin Ghimire and Reza Ehsan*
In a country devastated by wars and lacking national cohesion, Afghan civil activists have consistently been in a state of alert to the unwanted and catastrophic events. Fuelled by aid from international donors, civil activism in Afghanistan has had a steady growth over the last decade during the involvement of the US and its allies with the country.
Civil activism in Afghanistan reached its peak in the last two years but failed to earn any positive response from the government — and accelerated by the direct attacks of insurgent groups on the activists, it seems that civil activism in the conflict-ridden nation is declining. An unprecedented democratic achievement is facing a tragic death.
On November 11, 2015, a mass of peaceful protestors surrounded the Presidential Palace in Kabul demanding justice in the case of beheadings of seven members of the Hazara community, including a seven-year-old girl, on the Kabul-Qandahar highway.
There was another round of protests — organised by the same activists — on May 16, 2016 against the re-routing of a power line project which was originally set to pass through the Bamyan province (a Hazara-dominated province) of central Afghanistan. However, the government apparently abandoned the previous plan and decided to proceed through Salang pass, a new route. The protestors were accusing the government of systematic discrimination against ethnic Hazaras who predominantly inhabit the central provinces of Afghanistan.
A couple of months later, on July 22, 2016, two explosions took place among the protestors during their second round of protests, which resulted in 80 casualties and left more than 231 injured. These protests became famous as ‘The Enlightenment movement’. After this explosion, the movement did not launch any further protests fearing attacks.
Hitherto, the social movements in Afghanistan have not been able to earn governments concessions. This situation has raised two questions — whether the civil movements are failing or does the government intend to get rid of civil activism.
The Afghan government has showed token acceptance of civil activism and democratic movements, merely to attract aid and assistance from the liberal world, particularly from the US. There are two reasons behind it — the totalitarian tradition of governance, which still casts its shadow over the conduct of the post-2001 bureaucrats and the over-concentration on security politics.
The post-2001 government in Afghanistan is old wine in a new bottle which replicates the 1970s bureaucratic settings. The same bureaucrats from 1970s-1980s totalitarian governments were recalled on the onset of Hamid Karzai’s administration. Not used to the democratic ways of governance, the Afghan officials lack both accountability and transparency to the public or civil activists.
This lack of democratic accountability is backed by the high political prioritisation on security issues. Such an over-focus on high politics have led to not only the official corps inherited from 1980s but also the President, a former World Bank official, turning a blind eye to non-security issues.
Incumbent President Ashraf Ghani, in one of his speeches to military officials, satirically criticised the media saying “winds come out of TV channels, we count on you; bombs come out of you”. Many media activists interpreted his words as not being sensitive to the media and popular opinion.
The decline of civil activism may allow the Afghan state to carry on with its priorities without civil griping in its ears. However, overwhelmed with its undemocratic bureaucratic background and its traditional governmental setup in place, it is prone to authoritarian rule.
The presence of the international community in the country since 2001 assisted civil activists to create an internal self-re-correcting mechanism within the Afghan society which constantly undercuts governmental aspirations for totalitarian behaviours.
To rescue the Afghan civil activists, firstly, the Afghan government needs to create a safe environment for their activities with specific protective measures to secure them against attacks by terrorists and insurgents. Secondly, the government should respond positively to their demands to keep civil movements alive which in turn encourages the armed opposition to seek their political demands through civil activism.
*Bipin Ghimire is a Doctoral fellow (International Relations) at the New Delhi-based South Asian University. Reza Ehsan is pursuing MA in development economics at the same institution. Comments and suggestions on this article can be sent to [email protected]