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Supporting Afghan grassroots efforts in building a foundation for peace and unity

By Marika Theros and Tom Kirk

I am a country always alone, never helped. Always under the gun, never thinking of its lost sons and daughters.   

Over the last nine years, the international community, along with the Afghan government, has set the country's political and social agenda while ordinary Afghan voices have remained conspicuously absent. While it has been widely acknowledged that progress in Afghanistan will depend on the support and actions of the larger population, current international strategy remains centred on government officials and a new elite of politically-connected actors with access to guns, funds, and foreign forces. 

These policies have perpetuated a system of personalised politics, power-grabbing and profiteering that fosters insecurity, corrupts Afghan society, and prevents the emergence of alternative political forces. With momentum now shifting towards a negotiated settlement and transition, a process of coming together has started and has gained increasing urgency as many Afghans fear that an exclusive political pact between corrupt government officials, abusive commanders, and insurgents would only deepen insecurity for people and communities. 

This begs the question of how Afghan civil society and communities can help create the conditions for peace when they increasingly find themselves caught in a complex system of violence, squeezed between the various military-political actors in the conflict – the insurgents, the government, the foreign forces, and US-backed strongmen.

Since 2009, LSE and the Civil Society Development Center Afghanistan (CSDC) have engaged a range of Afghan citizens – community, religious, and tribal leaders; NGO and community activists; teachers and educators; students and youth leaders – across the country to capture their experiences of insecurity and their views on how to tackle the challenges facing their country.

Through in-depth conversations with Afghans in the provinces of Balkh, Baghlan, Herat, Kabul, Kandahar, Khost, and Nangarhar, the research team sought a better understanding of both the dynamics of violence at local levels and Afghan, not international, aspirations for the future of their country. Co-authoring a research paper in late 2010, Mary Kaldor and Marika Theros presented some of the team's initial findings| in a paper on bottom-up engagement requested by the Brahimi-Pickering Task Force on Afghanistan in its Regional and Multilateral Dimensions|.  

In February 2011, with the security situation noticeably worsening in Afghanistan, the team sought to build on their work by bringing together more than 120 Afghan civil society actors from across the country for three days of talks and workshops in Kabul. Although the atmosphere in Kabul was tense|, leading Afghan activists agreed that such an event would be a good first step towards creating a space within which citizens could share their experiences of managing life under conflict and discuss strategies for overcoming common obstacles in their daily lives. In some cases setting off three days beforehand and taking a mixture of civilian and military transport, Afghan participants from all walks of life braved arduous journeys to arrive at the Safi Landmark Hotel in the city's busy centre district.  

Over a three-day period, conference participants told stories about their lives and their communities and described the pervasive sense of insecurity that is almost universally experienced by ordinary Afghans. They recounted how they suffer at the hands of everyone – the Taliban, the Afghan security forces; the international forces, and the warlords or drug barons – sometimes in combination. Their stories stood in stark contrast to the emerging narrative of progress emanating out of Washington where 'notable operational gains' have been made, with key insurgent districts cleared and significant numbers of Taliban mid-level commanders killed. 

These rather optimistic statements by NATO and White House officials simply did not match the experiences of the participants, many of whom came from the districts 'cleared' by international forces. While the specific challenges in each region of the country differed, all participants expressed their frustration with the current political and economic order characterised by a lack of social justice, the abuse of power and predatory exclusionary politics. These sentiments were conveyed within formal workshops, breakout groups, over meals and even during impromptu poetry sessions in which Afghans of all ages and both sexes, orating in both Dari and Pashtu, delivered heartfelt verses outlining their current struggles.

Above all, participants wanted to overcome their isolation and to create a movement, as opposed to a project-based organisation. This movement, they insisted, had to be focused on (1) the national interest as opposed to personal political and economic ambitions and (2) the security of every individual Afghan and not just the security of the government or the West.  Foremost, they demanded back their dignity. By the end of the conference the participants declared their commitment to create a 'Civic Platform on the National Interest and Human Security' that can provide the means and structure for Afghan citizens from all corners and ethnic communities to interact, exchange ideas, and increase their voice in the debates and decisions that currently affect their lives. 

As one young Afghan woman explained, 'We must focus on finding solutions ourselves. Since 2002, civil society has articulated over and over again the problems we face but the government and the internationals do not listen to us. Rather than presenting them a list of demands and grievances that are already well-known and ignored, we must instead find ways to work together to overcome both societal divisions and the obstacles faced in our daily lives.  We must take responsibility ourselves to create a peaceful and stable Afghanistan.'