For most people around the world, 2020 will be remembered as the year of COVID-19. A period that redefined anxiety, isolation, and abandonment and rekindled the spirit of community, connections, and solidarity among the human species. In Afghanistan, however, it will be remembered as a year when, amidst despair and chaos of pandemic and indiscriminate violence against civilians, a glimmer of hope for peace began to emerge. Following 18 months of mostly secretive talks, US and Taliban representatives finally inked a framework agreement on 29 February 2020. This led to the start of direct peace negotiations on 12 September between the government of Afghanistan and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar.
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The opaque nature of these initial talks coupled with the Trump administration’s lopsided rush toward making a deal with the Taliban at any cost appeared more like an exit ticket than an entry into an inclusive peace process. Nonetheless, the prevailing sentiment among most Afghans is an urgent longing for an immediate ceasefire and enduring peace. But there is also a very real and profound fear of abandonment and retribution, particularly those engaged with the country’s nascent civil society as well as women and girls, journalists, and human rights defenders.
Building this momentum for peace coupled with reassurances for the continuation of global support for the people of Afghanistan were the themes of the 2020 Afghanistan Conference, co-hosted by Afghanistan, Finland, and the United Nations at the Palais des Nations in Geneva on 23-24 November 2020.
A firm commitment for continuing support
Organized in what is now called a ‘hybrid format’, the conference brought together 66 high-level officials, mostly foreign and development ministers, the UN Secretary-General, and 33 heads of the international organizations. For Afghanistan, this remains a significant event in the calendar of international engagements. Every four years since 2002, both Afghanistan and the international community have come together to review progress, critically analysing shortcomings but also pledging resources for improving good governance and the reform of state institutions.
Despite unprecedented political and logistical challenges – holding it in the middle of a global pandemic did not help – the conference emerged perhaps as the epitome of diplomatic perseverance and faith in multilateralism. It was also widely perceived as a firm commitment to addressing Afghanistan’s humanitarian, development and peacemaking agendas.
It is highly likely that you have not noticed it. Even before around-the-clock coverage of Covid-19 and an overextended US Presidential election, Afghanistan has rarely appeared in much of the media, apart from heart-twitching headlines of terrorist attacks, mayhem, and terrible human losses. Hence, as the representative of Afghanistan at the UN in Geneva, but more so as an engaged citizen who rose through the four turbulent decades in the villages and cities of Afghanistan, I want to offer a snapshot of my country. Hopefully, this will provide a bridge to a more engaging and productive 2021.
In the late 1970s, Afghanistan, once a serene frontier land famous for its natural beauty and hospitality and an intersection where the Occident met the Orient, rapidly transformed into a tumultuous frontline of several global struggles. It is where the cold war reached its season finale, and the Soviet Union began to roll back. Abandoned by exuberant Western friends, in the 1990s dissident pan-Islamists, angry Arab princelings, and tribal fanatics intermarried and founded a nefarious global extremist network on its soil.
When the Taliban regime, which controlled Kabul and much of the country itself from 1996 to the US-led invasion in October, 2001, deprived women and girls of their basic human rights, including basic education, Afghanistan became a highly contested arena for the protection of fundamental human rights. The Taliban also systematically persecuted religious and ethnic minorities, and despite pleas by a horrified international community demolished the Buddhas of Bamyan, a distinguished world cultural heritage.
The so-called ‘war on terror’ was launched over its rugged mountains and deep valleys. The ideas of liberal internationalism faced an elusive and dogged religious and tribal extremism along its porous frontiers. For NATO, the world’s most dominant military alliance, Afghanistan became its most extensive operations’ theatre. This also witnessed the explosion of the most powerful non-nuclear bomb ever to be dropped, notably in eastern Afghanistan’s Achin district in 2017.
Afghanistan has shown what it can achieve with peace
But Afghanistan is also a fertile land with rich resources. Furthermore, it is a young nation. Following the establishment of relative peace in much of the country from 2001 onwards, it achieved – in less than a decade – a remarkable reduction in maternal and infant mortality. School enrolment both for boys and girls also increased. Trade, transit, and communication flourished. Thousands of new schools, clinics and hospitals were built. There was even hope of renewed cultural and eco-tourism from the outside world, an industry which had just begun to expand when it all collapsed with the onset of war.
An unprecedented number of women also joined the workforce, moving up into government ranks and the legislative bodies. Over 4.5 million refugees returned from the neighbouring countries. Today, Afghanistan still boasts one of the most vibrant free media and civil societies in the region. What all this suggests is that there is no way most Afghans can return to the past.
After more than four decades on the frontline with countless sacrifices, however, Afghanistan is once again at a critical juncture. It now has a narrow window of opportunity toward realistically ending this bloody conflict. But this can only be attained through national consensus and reconciliation involving not just the Taliban and the government, but also an across-the-board array of ordinary Afghans. Any peace settlement cannot allow any one faction to dominate. If that happens, then Afghanistan will not achieve what it deserves. Only with principled and fair political support combined with a dignified policy space can people hope to enjoy real peace.
Real peace must involve the grassroots
At the Geneva conference, the people of Afghanistan, more than ever before, expressed their desire for the international community’s unequivocal commitment to the preservation of human rights and fundamental freedoms. They also demanded the international community respect and uphold its obligations toward the attainment of a inclusive and fair peace settlement.
While the financial pledges predictably showed a slight decline, the commitment to a new, peaceful and democratic Afghanistan in which all citizens’ rights are secured, regardless whether men, women, children and persons belonging to minorities, were unanimous, loud, and straightforward.
But to achieve such shared goals, the firm political commitments and reasonable financial pledges made in Geneva need to be reinforced with a consistent national and international public engagement by our civil societies. Only by ensuring such grassroots participation can Afghanistan hope to achieve an enduring and inclusive peace. If not, then this brutal war will only continue to drag on, benefitting neither Afghans nor the world-at-large.
Nasir A. Andisha is the Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Afghanistan in Geneva. He served as the Deputy Foreign Minister and earlier as Afghanistan’s Ambassador to Australia and New Zealand. Andisha has a doctoral degree in diplomatic studies from the Australian National University and was a Fulbright fellow at the Bush School of Government in Texas A&M University. He also worked with the International Committee of Red Cross (ICRC) and taught international relations at the Institute of Diplomacy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Afghanistan and Al-Beroni University in Kapisa Province, Afghanistan.