When the Taliban took over Kabul in August 2021, the Taliban asserted that the war was over and that they now had control of the entire country. But just a year into Taliban control, an armed opposition front is taking shape, albeit only in a few provinces. Some travel around Afghanistan has become safer, increasing access to many communities. However, a range of factors has made communities more vulnerable to internal conflicts, grievances, and divisions. There is widespread hatred towards the regime, but also towards Pashtuns, as a majority of the Taliban come from this ethnic group. The Taliban have consistently ignored the promises they made in Doha with the U.S. and have brushed off all calls for a broad-based participatory government. Based on experience with peacebuilding in Afghanistan over the last 23 years, including during the previous Taliban regime, this article explores the challenges and opportunities for peacebuilding in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime.
The Taliban approach is to use force and torture not only against the armed opposition groups but also against their own local commanders who challenge them and against those raising their voices for basic rights and to those who might criticize the Taliban for their governance, nepotism, discrimination, and corruption at the community level. A growing fear of persecution exists among the population if they speak out on issues of corruption. For example, the Taliban will not tolerate public concerns that some Taliban at the district and provincial level are selling acutely needed humanitarian aid in the market and sometimes allocating humanitarian aid to Taliban soldiers rather than the public.
For the Taliban, the terms “peace” and “peacebuilding” are militarily and politically loaded. Using this terminology enrages Taliban leaders. Most of the Taliban leaders and members know little about social peacebuilding between groups. Therefore, anyone planning peacebuilding efforts in present-day Afghanistan must first go through many rounds of discussion and explanation with the Taliban, both in Kabul and at the district level, if they plan on implementing projects of this nature.
Civic space for individuals and groups to voice their concerns and interests has shrunk under the Taliban to the level of non-existence. Dissatisfaction and criticism of Taliban policies are seen as acts of sedition and could be severely punished. Therefore, one has to be careful about what peace initiatives are feasible at the present time. Anything at the national level is difficult, though small community-based peace initiatives could still possibly be carried out.
NGOs are required to sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) for each project with related ministries. This has turned into one of the most difficult tasks in project implementations, even if the project is humanitarian or development in nature. In the case of peacebuilding, there is no specific ministry or department to approach for an MoU. NGOs would need to use different terminology for peacebuilding programs in order to get an MoU. Furthermore, NGOs will need to have detailed discussions with authorities in Kabul to educate and convince them of the objectives of the program. However, In the current context, a number of small and dispersed programs, with a coherent strategic vision at the national level, would work better than one large national-level program. A national peacebuilding program will invite Taliban scrutiny, not only from the related ministry but from the intelligence department, which could put the program and NGOs’ staff at risk.
Community-based Peacebuilding and Governance
The current lack of a coherent, locally adapted strategy for the distribution of humanitarian aid is contributing towards significant harm at the community level. Almost all Afghans are eligible for emergency aid during the current intense food shortage and economic crisis, yet aid organizations either have little time or are unwilling to work with community structures in aid delivery.
The ideal approach to address this issue would be a “triple nexus” of coordinating humanitarian aid, development, and peacebuilding. Currently, there are few efforts to foster development. Yet, aid agencies working in Afghanistan today are not linking aid with peace to help develop cohesive communities. At minimum, aid agencies must “do no harm” and avoid undermining existing intergroup relations. If development aid does not appear in the near future, humanitarian aid should be distributed simultaneously with and through peacebuilding processes. The best way to implement peacebuilding would be through a partnership between peacebuilding, humanitarian, and development-focused NGOs to reduce Taliban suspicion of peacebuilding projects. By packaging peacebuilding along with vital aid delivery, it will appear more innocuous to Taliban officials.
International aid agencies desperately need Community Development Councils (CDCs) to partner with NGOs and for transparent aid delivery at the community level. Afghanistan’s National Solidarity Program (NSP) had helped to create CDCs across the country and operated as formal/informal community governance structures. CDCs should not be used as an aid conduit, but rather as community structures and governance bodies that are proactive on issues required to promote cohesive communities. Unfortunately, this has not been the case with aid to Afghanistan up until now. Even the implementing partners of the NSP program who are still active in the areas where they had supported local development prior to the Taliban takeover have abandoned the CDCs and created other structures more suitable to their projects.
Community elders can play an important role in peacebuilding to reduce ethnic divisions in areas where different ethnic groups coexist. They can serve as living examples to show peacebuilding in practice in their communities by trying to reduce the tensions created by previous warlords and further exacerbated by the Taliban. Peacebuilding led by community elders could not only reduce conflicts on aid distribution, land, and water rights, but also promote harmony among different ethnic and tribal groups. This is particularly important now in the face of the exacerbated divisions created by warring factions and now further entrenched by the Taliban.
There are a number of Afghan local civil society organizations (CSOs), with a majority working in provincial centers. Afghan CSOs are active in promoting peace and demonstrating accountable governance. Some are experienced in effective advocacy with the government departments pre-August 2021. Civic space for such local civil society organizations has shrunk and so has the funding for local civil society groups. Some of these groups have developed their capacity over the last 20 years. Funding and support could help to mobilize these CSOs for promoting peace and good governance in their communities.
These groups could have a check and balance role on the CDCs or any other structure the donor community is considering partnering with for the distribution of humanitarian or development aid. Interactions with the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) might be challenging for them, but CSOs can at least keep community elders accountable and reduce tensions that are already created by unfair aid distribution. Peacebuilding efforts could help to develop the capacity of CSOs for peaceful conflict resolution, basic advocacy skills, and efforts to promote transparency and peace at the community level.
Campaigning against the forces sending divisive massages
Another type of successful peacebuilding effort for Afghanistan could take place in the digital sphere. Social media is full of hatred and divisive messages among Afghanistan’s ethnic groups, particularly among the diaspora. Pashtuns are particularly targeted because most of the Taliban regime are Pashtun. CSOs, particularly youth groups, can at least raise their voices and can launch campaigns to prevent the hatred some people spread on social media. Young leaders from all ethnic groups could be mobilized to stop the warring factions using ethnicity as a battle cry to recruit soldiers. This strategy could be more effective in provinces with diverse ethnic groups to showcase community-level social bonds and promote coexistence.
Four leading Afghan experts with significant experience working to support inclusive political processes, democratic spaces, human rights, and peace processes author each of the articles in this edition of Peace Policy. We chose not to include the names of two of the authors at their request because of our concern for their safety.