The long-awaited intra-Afghan talks that began in Doha earlier this month have been lauded by observers and participants alike as a significant step toward ending a war that has claimed tens of thousands of Afghan lives and injured countless more. While the process to get to these negotiations has been fraught with difficulty, Afghans — particularly the millions directly affected by decades of war — are watching the negotiations closely in the hope they will bring an end to violence while preserving the hard-won progress made over the past two decades.
The negotiations involve 41 people, representing both the Afghan government and the Taliban, who must consider the interests and voices of 37 million civilians. In a process where women’s rights in particular are crucially on the line, only four of the negotiators are women. Since the U.S.-Taliban agreement was reached in February 2020, much lip service has been paid for an inclusive intra-Afghan process that accounts for the interests and voices of the country’s diverse population.
While Afghans have welcomed and participated in nationwide polls and forums, to date there has been no structured pathway to bring their ideas and interests directly to the negotiating table. Only such a pathway can ensure the talks do not devolve into a pie-cutting exercise where the agenda is reduced to allocating positions of power to elite and armed actors, further incentivizing violence as a means for power. Holding the negotiators accountable to the 95 percent of Afghan citizens who are victims and not perpetrators of violence is the optimal route to addressing grievances and minimizing the marginalization that contributes to new dynamics and cycles of violence.
In recent years, there has been a sweeping consensus acknowledging that processes designed to be inclusive of women, civil society, youth, cultural, business, and other excluded parties are critical for reaching a lasting and just peace — a desire shared by the majority of the Afghan people. The evidence reveals that while peace agreements are fragile and imperfect, the processes that remain exclusive and elite-driven only lead to new forms of conflict and violence.
Colombia’s hard-won peace agreement is a case in point. It took several years, with numerous stops and starts and the inclusion of thousands of Colombian citizens at different levels of the talks, to reach an agreement that would end armed conflict, begin to address injustices suffered by all sides, and create a political pathway to resolving their differences. Even if the Colombian agreement remains fragile, reaching it was a remarkable achievement that led to a successful phase of demobilization and disarmament.
Afghan citizens are demanding the opportunity to shape the peace process. Since the announcement of the talks in February 2019, there has been a significant and countrywide mobilization by people from all walks of life who want to be heard despite increased levels of violence and targeted assassinations. Broadly, their simple demand is that they have a say in determining their future in a process that has so far taken place outside of their country and has been driven by geopolitical interests.
As an example of a recent significant step toward ensuring its interests are represented at the table, Afghan civil society created the Afghanistan Mechanism for Inclusive Peace (AMIP), an open, independent, accessible platform that brings together existing and new initiatives, research, and data from across the country to ensure maximum access and reach in the negotiations. This mechanism is designed, run, and backed by dozens of civil society groups and actors across the country working as a coalition to bring the voices of urban and rural Afghans to the negotiating table.
AMIP held a national summit on September 10 organized by its civil society partners representing diverse sectors and communities to mark the start of the intra-Afghan peace negotiations in Doha. The summit brought together over 500 participants from 34 provinces whose recommendations were enshrined in a petition and signed by all participants, stating: “We, the representatives of civil society and media throughout Afghanistan, demand a permanent cease-fire, protection of the achievements of the past 19 years, access to justice, ensuring the rights of all people including minorities and victims of war, protection of access to information, freedom of expression, and media.”
The Afghan discourse about peace is also influenced and shaped by the country’s leaders, activities, a vibrant press, and competing interest groups. Since the announcement of the U.S.-Taliban talks in February 2019, civil society groups across the country have mobilized to have their voices heard. From the Afghan Women’s Network to the Helmand Peace Marchers to organizations seeking to place victims of war at the heart of the negotiations, one thing is clear: The people of Afghanistan want to be heard.
The long war in Afghanistan is multidimensional, and intra-Afghan talks will be complex, lengthy and difficult, with tough agenda items that must be considered. This is why we must ensure the inclusion of the desires and demands for this historic moment of the Afghan people, who have made it clear they want to live in peace. Let us not squander the chance by excluding the very people whose lives most depend on it.