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From Bonn to Doha: Why Is Afghanistan Still at War?

In December 2001, the city of Bonn, Germany hosted a conference on Afghanistan after the joint operation by the United States military and the Northern Alliance toppled the Taliban regime. The conference ushered in a new era for Afghanistan in which a democratic government was established that ensured elections, women and human rights, and civil and political liberties.

War was thought to be over and the reconstruction process funded by massive amounts of international aid that had poured into the country began. Nineteen years later, Doha is hosting another conference on peace for Afghanistan. Why does Afghanistan continue to find itself at war?

After the collapse of the Taliban regime, Afghanistan experienced a couple of peaceful years with no war and political turmoil. As the US redirected its military and political focus on the Iraq war, the Taliban based in their safe haven of Peshawar, Pakistan, used the opportunity to regroup and reemerge. The first question that comes to mind is how did they manage to grow as strong as they are now in the face of coalition forces and the fairly well-equipped Afghan national army?

The first response would be the fact that they have safe havens in neighboring Pakistan. Originally, they were supported by the Pakistani government and used as a proxy army to ensure Pakistan’s benefits in Afghanistan. After their collapse, and especially because Pakistan’s role was completely ignored at the Bonn conference, they still seemed to be of use for fulfilling Pakistan’s strategic goals.

This means that they had both safe havens and the support and encouragement from Pakistan which enabled them to retreat any time they were under attack, get medical services, re-equip and re-launch their attacks wherever possible. The question why the US and the world have not held Pakistan accountable and for supporting many other terrorist groups is yet to be answered.

The second response is ethnic supremacism. New research by Civil Society of Afghanistan indicates that ethnic supremacism is one of the main roots of war in the country. This is in line with the stances of the Afghan presidents since 2001. Hamid Karzai, the former president of Afghanistan, in an interview with BBC denies calling the Taliban a terrorist group. In another interview, he even says that the Taliban have every right to control some parts of the country since they are also Afghans.

Likewise in 2015, current president, Ashraf Ghani, objected that it was unjust that 98% of the prisoners in Bagram prison were speakers of the same language while he knew that those prisoners were convicted of terrorist actions. Both presidents have repeatedly called Taliban brothers instead of terrorists or enemies of Afghanistan.

The former first vice president, Younus Qanuni, in his recent interview said that President Karzai dealt with the Taliban, after their reemergence, under the influence of ethnic emotions. That was one of the reasons why the Afghan government never drafted a clear strategy for fighting terrorism and allowed the Taliban to grow into the deadly group they are today.

In general, one can assume that a decisive determination to fight the Taliban into their collapse did not happen for different reasons. Perhaps, military use was not an ideal solution.

Now that peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government are in progress in Doha, brutal attacks in Kabul saps optimism about achieving peace and security. Recently, terrorist gunmen attacked Kabul University and killed more than 22 students, injuring at least 22 others. Although ISIL claimed responsibility for the attack, the first VP of Afghanistan, Amrullah Saleh, declared that they had found evidence indicating that the attack was performed by the Taliban.

A couple of days before that, terrorists stormed a cultural center in Kabul and killed 41 people while injuring 84 others. Again, ISIL claimed responsibility for the attack. The main question that comes to mind, thus, is if ISIL or any other terrorist groups are capable of perpetrating such deadly attack in the capital city of Afghanistan, to what degree people can be hopeful that a peace deal with Taliban will actually bring peace to their country?

Understanding Memories of the Sri Lankan Civil War

Memory is not just the process of retaining events that happened in the past as it has a major function of validating reality. Memories do not have a predefined structure as they are shaped according to the emotions, relations, and the locations of the one recollecting an event. By preserving memories, the narrative of an event is kept alive and it further allows people to share among other fellow memory-bearers, thus creating cultural memory and establishing a new identity of one’s own. When these harbored memories are threatened, the bearers aggressively show their discontent. This is what happened in Sri Lanka last month.

Memories related to the Sri Lankan Civil War were threatened and it gave rise to two incidents. The first one surrounded controversies related to the making of a film about veteran cricketer Muttiah Muralitharan. The supposed lead actor Vijay Sethupathi faced anger and threats from the Tamil community for accepting the role of a person who is accused of dismissing the Sri Lankan government’s brutality during the war and having ties with the oppressor, being a Tamil himself.

The second incident is related to Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa. He was invited as a special guest to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the United Nations. This raised some eyebrows as he is often accused of being one of the perpetrators of the Civil War.

Both these events had the same functional problem: perceived threats against a collective memory. The protests against the film were made by the Tamil community as they feared that such representations threaten the memory they have of the Civil War. The invitation of Rajapaksa as a chief guest in an UN event was criticized for similar reasons.

In the controversy around the film, it seems like protesters were immersed in these memories that bittered the present for events from the past. However past is never discontinuous from present. When there is an audience to remember, the event no more remains only a component of past, but also of the present. That is why people scrutinize how memories of past events are represented. Representations are ways to remember and they have the potential to change memory or its interpretation.

These incidents also portray the phenomenon of cultural trauma — where groups of people that share the same identity collectively remember atrocities against them — in relation to the Sri Lankan Civil War. This war lasted for 26 years and it has been barely over a decade since it ended. No wonder the country is still recovering from the horrors of those days.

The traumas experienced by the people during that time have become a shared memory and thus giving it the shape of cultural trauma. Trauma is not instilled due to the potential of harming oneself or due to the rupture in the usual routine, but because they are perceived to have abruptly and harmfully affected the collective identity. Now imagine the trauma being invoked when proper reconciliation approaches are not made or the perpetrator of the war (the reason of their trauma) is acknowledged as chief guest for an event at an organization that promotes the idea of peace and security. This is what Human Rights Watch meant by “slap” on the face of the victims.

As long as there is difference in remembering an event, there will be conflict as different groups of memory-bearers will feel threatened by misrepresentation of the memory and further distortion of it. This risk of distortion even threatens their much shared identity in the present.

The first step to reconcile these differences or to avoid conflicts is the recognition and acceptance of different ways of remembering an event. This can be done by acknowledging not only the dominant narrative of a particular event, but also that of the invisible or the “unheard” part. The way an individual remembers an event is important as it paves the way to connection to past events that facilitates the construction of history. A past which is accepted by all will also lead to acceptance of all.

–Nelofer Laskar

Are There Any Lessons for Afghanistan from Post-Civil War Algeria?

Wars manifest differently in various locales: however, accrued insights can be considered in other scenarios. The Algerian government experienced a brutal decade-long intra-state conflict against Islamist extremist groups that ultimately ended in a statist victory. An official end to conflict left the proverbial door open to experiments in hard and soft government policies to combat terrorism and transition former fighters into contributing members of society. While the Algerian case is imperfect (as in any security matters reliant on fallible political will and resources), it offers some broad lessons for Afghanistan.

Two Very Different Conflicts

Afghanistan has been entrapped in 40 years of conflict, but the last 19 confronting the Taliban have transitioned from primarily a militaristic question into discussions of democracy and the role of traditional elements in any future manifestations of the state. As often noted, the Taliban do not recognize the current government in Kabul as legitimate and ultimately seek an Islamic emirate as their preferred choice of governance. Still, in the circumstance that intra-Afghan dialogue results in a viable and resilient peace deal, matters of disarmament, demobilization and reintegration (DDR) have to be hammered out, understood, and prioritized.

The civil war in Algeria emerged very differently. Islamist nationalism simmered for decades, but general dissatisfaction over socio-political factors caused by government inefficacy climaxed in the 1980s. As an aside, disenchanted young men travelled to training camps in Peshawar, Pakistan in order to fight against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. It was there they gained experience in insurgent tactics and guerilla warfare.

After the 1988 Black October riots (where security forces used excessive force that resulted in injury and death), the fall of the one-party political system dominated by the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), and the emergence of the Islamist political party Front Islamique du Salut (FIS) as victorious in local elections, the stage was set for a political fissure.

The FIS defeated the FLN in the first round of parliamentary elections in December 1991, however those in the deep state, les décideurs (the deciders) and le pouvoir (the power), considered this unacceptable. A second round of voting was cancelled by the military and they staged a coup d’état against President Chadli Bendjedid. From this point, civil war slowly but surely materialized. Extremists travelled to the north of the country to train while bombings and targeted killings occurred.

Numerous Islamist insurgent groups took up arms against the government. The armed wing of the FIS, the Armée Islamique du Salut (AIS), was composed of moderates that eventually entered into a ceasefire with Algiers in 1997. As part of the deal, the AIS was required to distance itself from hardline affiliates and used this opportunity to pursue a path as a political party. Further, the FIS continues to be barred from the Algerian political process though they maintain an existence by proxy. Even so, they acknowledge a political settlement is the definitive goal as they once sought a (failed) resolution with the Algerian government — the Sant’Egidio Platform.

On the other hand, hardline factions pushed the envelope. The Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA) had battle-hardened insurgents from the Afghan front in their ranks as well as former members of Bou Yali — a faction that previously engaged in armed rebellion against state institutions. It was a collective objective to topple the civil-military political arrangement and replace the government with an Islamic caliphate. Additionally, the Groupe Salafiste de Predication et du Combat (a breakaway from the GIA) acted as a key force and this is extremely important as the GSPC are often considered the foundation of al-Qaeda affiliated groups that continue to incite regional security concerns.

The Algerian Civil War first sprung in 1991, but ultimately ended in 2002. It is often called la sale guerre (the dirty war) due to the heavy handedness of the Algerian security forces to counter the insurgency whilst Islamist groups were rebuked for their attacks on civilians. Nonetheless, a fractured country immediately faced the situation of how to reach any semblance of unity as well as deescalate any further eruptions rooted in disparate views of governance. These next steps may provide the Afghan situation some insight.

Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration

In the case intra-Afghan talks reach a sound negotiated settlement, questions over the future of former Taliban fighters remain open. Many elements must be considered such as the extent of the radicalization of individuals or whether they took up arms due to coercion or for gainful economic payouts.

Undoubtedly, Algeria had to contend with a large number of insurgents. Algiers pursued a hard approach to managing extremist groups, especially those intent on the establishment of a caliphate or challenge political security. This was a double-edged sword as the austere measures employed by government forces often crossed acceptable lines and ushered in disapproval in the populace.

Some extremist groups never renounced violence and that is to be expected no matter the quality of any peace accord. The GSPC rejected the 2005 Charter of Peace and Reconciliation that was passed with a 97% approval rating in a referendum simply because they preferred to continue as a terrorist faction. This was a significant blow as they were the largest group still active from the civil war and shared connections with known transnational terrorist organizations.

For example, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is a direct outcome of insurgent groups that did not lay down their arms in the post-civil war period. Fragmentation typical of terrorist organizations meant that Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Algeria Province (ISIL-AP) splintered from AQIM and thus it is yet another distant offspring of past fighting.

Extremist organizations are ready to absorb any fighters unwilling to embrace peace and lay down their arms. In Afghanistan, there are numerous groups dedicated to violent methods so this remains an underlying problem, therefore hard approaches must be considered in any future outlook,  though they are not particularly a sunny matter. Just as Afghan security forces require support to ensure national security, Algerian security forces continue to conduct operations in areas of the country known for being hotspots of operational development or locales where insurgents typically and unassumingly cross the border into conflict-riddled Mali.

At the same time, Algiers promoted a soft approach. Afghanistan does not have the same economic means as hydrocarbon-rich Algeria, but both struggle with weak government and contracted economies. Nonetheless, Algeria ushered in a series of economic reforms to secure financing from the private sector as well as international partners. Dividends from these investments as well as energy revenues were allocated towards social programming, such as housing incentives and prospects for employment in state-funded positions. It is often noted that social discontents and the lack of viable employment opportunities prop up the effectiveness of extremist recruitment tactics so it is wise to solicit resources to nip this phenomenon in the bud.

Clemency was sought for those insurgents that were members of radical factions that did not commit serious crimes such as large scale indiscriminate killings or bombings. In clemency, willing fighters found an avenue to reintegrate into their local communities. Those that were convicted of grave offences — but willing to renounce violence — received lighter prison sentences. Some were not convicted or imprisoned at all due to a lack of evidence as crimes committed during civil wars are often messy and ambiguous. This was obviously problematic as justice must come prior to reconciliation and it must be completed in a method that aligns with the zeitgeist of local communities.

While political Islam did not amass an especially large following, extremism exhibited by factions during the civil war turned the Algerian populace even further away from related political philosophies. It is often remarked that Afghans will not renounce the progress and development that has occurred over the last 19 years. Algerians reached similar conclusions. At ongoing political protests, protesters were wary of the involvement of political parties that played a role in the civil war, and one stated,we are vaccinated against the FIS and its excesses.” A similar viewpoint could be easily expressed by Afghans who are tired of war, Taliban attacks, and chronic stagnation.

The role of women has been transformed from solely a human rights issue into an instrument of combatting extremism in Algeria. While it may seem facetious for a government to adopt this position to highlight the differences between acceptable forms of governance and extremism, women have generally benefitted from this arrangement. A similar approach can be extended to Afghanistan insofar as infringement upon the rights of women has become a red line that will not be crossed or negotiated away. In the words of a young Afghan woman, “We as women need to tell the Taliban that…this is a new Afghanistan.” Highlighting this element is a definitive difference between two philosophies and an applicable lesson from Algeria.

Conclusion

Intra-state conflicts are as unique as the nations that sadly end up engaged in them. Similarly, the means in which a state achieves relative peace will be reflective of its unique political culture. No perfect process exists nor will it ever.

At the same time, experiences of other states that have confronted extremist groups in intra-state conflicts offer valuable insight for others that must engage in disarmament, demobilization and reintegration. The aftermath of the Algerian civil war taught observers that attractive financial incentives, clemency for foot soldiers, and the tactical use of civil society issues in the context of a negotiated political settlement provided a means to quash further extremist rebellion in the long term.

This framework does not totally subjugate the overpowering allure of terrorism therefore the continued application of the repressive state apparatus is required. The situation is different in Afghanistan, but the case study of Algeria provides interesting food for thought.

Afghan peace talks

Recent American Decisions Will Influence Afghan Peace Talks

Two current events have implications for Afghanistan. Joe Biden was declared as president-elect in the United States presidential election by several news outlets on November 7. He will be the fourth president since the war began in 2001. Further, on November 17, the Pentagon announced that the U.S. will reduce its troops in Afghanistan from approximately 4,500 to 2,500 in mid-January.

Stakes are high. A rushed withdrawal from Afghanistan can affect the country in the short and long term. It is important now is to secure a safe period while the intra-Afghan peace talks take place and then the U.S can leave Afghanistan without the risk of the nation bursting into a civil war. With this in mind, this article will look into what effects the withdrawal can have on the Afghan peace process and the views of different stakeholders.

Joe Biden wrote in Foreign Affairs in March 2020, “It is past time to end the forever wars, which have cost the United States untold blood and treasure. As I have long argued, we should bring the vast majority of our troops home from the wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East and narrowly define our mission as defeating al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (or ISIS).” Biden’s plan was to keep a small number of counterterrorism forces in Afghanistan, but since the withdrawal now seems to start before Biden takes office, it is possible it will inhibit him in his plans.

According to interviews conducted by Al-Jazeera, many Afghans believe that the Trump administration rushed with the peace process and did not prioritize a responsible withdrawal of U.S. troops. The respondents fear that this can lead back into a civil war. On the same note, the Second Vice President of Afghanistan, Sarwar Danish, commented that he wants “a full review of the peace process” and to “apply more pressure on the Taliban to reduce the violence.”

However, the Taliban commented that they expect the new president to remain committed to the peace deal. Moreover, an Afghan analyst stated that it is important to have a permanent ceasefire, agreed to by all parties, in the peace agreement before U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan.

In addition, it is argued that the withdrawal will undermine fragile security in Afghanistan and that it will affect the peace talks. The latest announcement from the Pentagon, on the withdrawal of troops before Biden takes office, can put him in a difficult spot and he might have to redeploy troops to secure the situation in Afghanistan for a peaceful agreement.

Given the history of the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, it makes sense that officials in the U.S. want to leave as quickly as possible. However, it is important to bear in mind that a quick withdrawal can affect Afghanistan, both in the short-term with intra-Afghan peace talks, and in the long-term with fear of civil war and more violent attacks on civilians.

It is therefore very important that the withdrawal of U.S troops is done in a responsible way, especially when a ceasefire agreement is signed and the talks have moved forward. As Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the U.S. Senate told the press on Tuesday, “a precipitous drawdown in either Afghanistan or Iraq is a mistake.”

The war in Afghanistan has been ongoing for almost two decades and since the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan began counting, it has cost the death of more than 100,000 civilians, 45,000 Afghan security forces since 2014 and over 2,300 American soldiers.

While the incoming presidential administration states similar intent as the current one in regard to the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, it needs to be done in a responsible way. Troops should be kept in Afghanistan during the negotiations so that long term goals can be achieved for a peaceful Afghanistan.  As an Afghan official mentioned, “We expect more predictability, a more coordinated withdrawal.”

Youth Are an Important Factor for a Peaceful Afghanistan of the Future

Some say that the intra-Afghan peace talks in Doha, Qatar represent a unique opportunity to change the current state of conflict in Afghanistan. However, even if the parties manage to negotiate a peace agreement, the road to a peaceful society is long and it will require the commitment from the entire population, including youth.

Afghanistan is a country with a very young population. Over 60 percent are under the age of 25 and roughly 46 percent are under the age of 15. Currently, youth feel excluded from the peace process which is problematic since they represent the vast majority of the population, and also because they are an important factor in building peace. Therefore, this piece will focus specifically on the meaningful participation of youth in the peace process; why this is important and what some of the challenges are.

Because of the conflict, young people in Afghanistan face significant challenges relating to health, education, employment and gender equality. With decades of lost educational opportunities and unemployment, a great burden has been put on young people. In particular, young men are often forced to assume the role of breadwinner in order to fulfill their perceived obligations and duties to their family, and they can end up involved in organized crime or other illegal, often violent, activities. Young women face other challenges because of their gender. This includes direct violence and low-level harassment, which is affecting how they can physically move in society as well as their opportunities to participate in, for example, politics.

Youth in Afghanistan have expressed serious distrust in governmental and local leaders because of issues such as corruption as well as the undermining of younger leaders. Moreover, research shows that young people feel excluded from the political discussions around the peace process. At the same time, there are numerous examples of how young people engage in peacebuilding. This includes raising awareness of the peace process among the younger generation and working to engage them as committed stakeholders, the establishment of the mechanism National Youth Consensus for Peace, and presenting a declaration listing expectations of the current peace talks in Doha. A final example is an organization that was founded using art, education and critical thinking to promote social tolerance among communities.

The Youth, Peace and Security Agenda

By introducing youth as agents of change and highlighting the diversity of youth in the field of peace and security, the Youth, Peace and Security agenda was established in 2015. The United Nations Security Council Resolution 2250 recognized for the first time young people’s important and positive role in preventing and resolving conflict, countering violent extremism as well as building peace. Since then, additional resolutions have been adopted (2419 and 2535) and work carried out so far concludes that “including youth in peace processes will result in more inclusive and representative governance structures that will foster more peaceful societies”.

As demonstrated, to ensure the meaningful participation of youth is not only important from an altruistic perspective that all of society should be involved in what is essentially their peace process. Instead, a broad buy-in from society is vital for a peace agreement to be followed by a successful implementation phase and in addition, research shows that countries with a young population suffer an increased risk of conflict. Youth is therefore important also from the perspective of preventing the eruption of new conflict.

Negative Stereotypes Standing in the Way of Meaningful Participation

Just like champions of the Women, Peace and Security agenda are working to break down stereotypes and broaden the understanding of gender and women, those working for the participation of youth are faced with similar challenges. This includes stereotypes and assumptions that youth consists of only young men, that youth are violent and peace spoilers instead of peace activists as well as the perception of young women as being vulnerable and passive. There is a default thinking about youth in Afghanistan that tends to be overwhelmingly negative and as a result, this narrow and homogeneous view of young people as either perpetrators or victims has been and continues to be problematic for their participation.

To conclude, youth form the vast majority of Afghanistan’s population and they are distinctively impacted by the decisions made in the current peace process. Moreover, they are not only significant in building peace, but also responsible of doing so for decades to come. There are many examples, more than mentioned in this short piece, about how young Afghans work to build peace in their societies and how they are not necessarily fitting into any of the existing youth stereotypes.

Understanding and acknowledging the diversity of youth is one of the keys to understanding their potential. As the future leaders of their country, the meaningful participation of youth needs to be enabled by the people currently in power and this should be done for the future of a more peaceful Afghanistan.

Unite as Americans as We Celebrate this Veterans Day

I had the honor to serve with the United States Armed Forces from the early age of 16. While on the frontlines, I was introduced to Americans who were united in their objectives, not divided by political parties or race. It was one united nation combatting global terrorism and it was that power of patriotism that I learned from many brave soldiers.

I fought in the field with Special Forces, trained Afghan Security Forces, and advised leadership on counterinsurgency strategies to help the U.S. government rebuild Afghanistan, while engaged today in helping to advance the political settlement, teaching both American and Afghan diplomats and negotiators. Leaving school to serve alongside the U.S. military was my decision and it has become my passion to fight terrorism, like many other brave men and women I have come to feel a kinship with.


As well, this day brings pleasant memories at the light-hearted jokes about me being a young teenager to patrolling the mountains of Afghanistan, seeing brave soldiers frightened by scorpions, to convincing the newly deployed forces to try the local food. I would interpret funny local jokes into English only to realize no one was laughing but me.

While living in the United States, I sensed something different. Some citizens take basic things for granted and use political agendas to divide the country. It should not be forgotten that the founding fathers built this nation on the core virtues of lasting tolerance and peace — a strong and united role model for the world.

This day is a reminder to remain strong, united and forever determined until we win the fight against extremism and global terrorism. Many heroes sacrificed their lives to protect us including three of my good friends, both Afghan and American. The willingness to fight and sacrifice for democracy, the protection of citizenry, family and homeland are what makes a veteran.

We should all be proud of our loved ones and friends that have lost their lives for America and the vulnerable people of the world. It is hard to outlive the ones we love and remembering their heroism is vital.

Today is not about arbitrating whether war is right or wrong, necessary or unnecessary, who is to blame or not to blame — it is about honoring the brave men and women who served to protect the United States of America and its commitment to democracy. It is about honoring those who have sacrificed their lives to combat terrorism and keep all of us and our way of life safe. It is about sharing condolences and supporting the families who have lost heroic loved ones. May they rest in peace!

Today is a special day to remind all of us that Veterans serve the homeland without regard for partisanship. For this day, this year, the country needs to put aside its divisions, join hands, stand up wherever you are at 11:00 am and honor all who lost their lives for us.

May this day remind us that unity is our victory – being different is our beauty and diversity makes us strong.

Use this day to combat various forms of violent extremism – from lone wolves on the domestic front, to organized insurgent and international terrorist groups that operate in all corners of the globe, from the Far East and the Horn of Africa to South America, and the Middle East, for extremism has no boundary.

Rise to Peace Taliban

The Taliban Killed Her Husband but It Did Not Stop Her Children from School

Jamila (45) has managed to keep her children in school despite the economic hardship caused by the loss of her husband. The only breadwinner in the family was killed during a Taliban raid in Nimroz province two years ago. Although her two eldest sons are away, Jamila keeps her five daughters fed and off to school every day, despite the challenges, pain, and threat of terrorism.

“A special joy and happiness happened to me this morning. The Zamani Foundation team came and helped us, took my girls to the kindergarten, and enrolled them so they can gain better education and knowledge and don’t feel poor, but feel happy,” said Jamila.

The Zamani Foundation was established with a mission to inspire the next generation so that they can bring positive change in their vulnerable communities. As part of its philanthropic movement of “Keep Learning, Keep Growing,” Jamila’s children are enrolled in kindergarten so they can learn and develop skills needed for success.

As a little girl, Jamila grew up in the midst of war in the early 1980s in Farah province. She never imagined that one day her children would be born under the same circumstances and that she would lose her husband violently. Life is undoubtedly hard for Jamila, so she made the trek to Kabul to settle close to her brother.

As it currently stands, she lives in a three-bedroom apartment in Emirates township — a complex that was built for lower-income residents in the 15th district of Kabul, near the mountains. Jamila spends half of her 8,000 Afghanis (approximately $100 USD) on rent while she uses the rest to buy food, pay bills and buy clothing for her five children.

Shortly after the loss of her husband, Jamila’s 21-year-old son, who would have graduated from school by now, turned to drugs due to the pain of losing his father. Her 14-year-old son left home a few months later and is now considered missing. With one son missing and the other suffering from addiction, Jamila and her five daughters live with the hope that her children can grow up and become educated.

Jamila is an example of the thousands of Afghans who have suffered tremendously due to the prolonged Afghan conflict. One in four families has lost a family member. Jamila is the product of war in the 1980s while her children are shaped by the War on Terror. Peace talks in Doha are full of uncertainty so it is unknown whether Jamila’s grandchildren will grow up in peace.

Despite all this hardship, Jamila has a message for the Taliban, “You cannot take the pain that I feel every day with my children, but you can prevent more families from experiencing what we go through.” She added, “I want our leaders to stop fighting and start building our country.”

Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries with 54.2% of its population living below the poverty line. Rapid population growth, particularly after the War on Terror, occurred as the standard of living increased just as resources such as clean water and health care became more accessible. Once home to 9 million in the 1960s, contemporary Afghanistan has nearly 39 million citizens, and it is expected to reach 63.8 million by 2050. Since 2001, 18 million have been born and raised in one of the ugliest wars in Afghan history, marked by suicide bombings and deadly explosions.

The conflict has profoundly impacted Afghans. In the last 10 years, over 100,000 Afghans have been killed or wounded. On average, 109 Afghans are killed each day on both sides of the conflict. In the words of President Ashraf Ghani, 45,000 Afghan soldiers have been killed just in the last two years of the National Unity Government (NUG). Jamila’s husband was a victim of this surging violence.

The Zamani Foundation has helped over 10,000 families in communities across the globe, specifically 9 countries on 5 continents. During the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, over 154,940 supplies have been distributed throughout the United States and Afghanistan. One of the foundation’s most effective programs in developing states focuses on youth empowerment through educational initiatives, such as the Kabul Street Kids project that enrolls orphans in school so they can continue their education.

While humanitarian organizations like the Zamani Foundation offer emergency aid and implement educational programs that help vulnerable communities in Afghanistan, a sustainable formula to save lives and end poverty is only possible once the conflict ends. This allows people to maximize their full potential in terms of the labor market and productivity.

Author’s Note: I spent approximately four months in Kabul and was introduced to this particular family through a contact. Thanks to Zamani Foundation, on October 14, this family received three months’ worth of food and supplies and two of her children were enrolled in kindergarten. The war has scarred the hearts of many Afghans and it is disheartening to see even more families losing loved ones to suicide bombings, Taliban attacks and rising organized crime. If you can, give a hand to those in need.

Progress or Plight?: CPEC & Baloch Separatism in Pakistan

With a valuation pegged between $50-60 billion USD, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, most commonly referred to as CPEC, presents Pakistan with one of its greatest developmental opportunities in the country’s 73-year history. Despite US backing during the Cold War, and early economic liberalization efforts in the 1980s, Pakistan’s economy has floundered in the era of globalization in large part due to two tenets that remain extant today: ubiquitous insecurity and political instability between the state’s civilian and military authorities

While much of South Asia has seen its political and economic clout grow in international relevance over the past three decades, Pakistan has lagged its regional neighbors on a number of socioeconomic indicators. In addition to the growth witnessed in India, the likes of Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Nepal have also eclipsed Pakistan in average GDP growth over the past 5 years. Chronic debt woes have compounded problems related to tax revenue collection, a dearth of foreign direct investment (FDI), and soaring unemployment that has increased nearly fivefold over the last decade.

Nevertheless, much of Pakistan’s economic revitalization ambitions remain pinned on the projects that comprise CPEC’s portfolio, most notably the construction of overland and maritime transport networks, coupled with the urgent need for quality energy infrastructure. Financed by a mixture of Chinese loans and Sino-Pakistan joint ventures, CPEC’s success is not only a priority for Pakistan but a crucial harbinger of China’s vaunted Belt-and-Road Initiative (BRI) that promises to scale similar initiatives throughout Asia, Africa, and Europe.

Such improvements, if implemented, will undoubtedly alter the commercial landscape within Pakistan. However, given the poor quality of Pakistan’s institutions and the present power dynamics that favor the country’s military and security establishment, CPEC’s fruition depends on far more than capital or manpower. The country’s chronic security woes continue to hinder developmental efforts in all 4 provinces, with the province of Balochistan, Pakistan’s poorest province, particularly salient for the viability of CPEC’s construction and operating efforts.

In addition to being one of 2 Pakistani provinces with a coastline, Balochistan’s abundance of natural resource wealth figures prominently into CPEC’s plans. The maritime port of Gwadar, located in Balochistan, is seen as a linchpin for CPEC given its proximity to markets in Central Asia as well as Iran, with which the province shares a border.

Yet, Balochistan’s restive history with separatism remains a considerable threat, not just to the port of Gwadar, but to all CPEC projects within its provincial borders. A perfunctory review of conflict history in Balochistan offers a microcosm into a similar group of issues that defined, and continue to inform, political challenges in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India. The gradual accession of the province to Pakistan in 1947-1948 by princely rulers has since been complicated by the intricacies of tribal politics, the desire for autonomy from central authorities, and the preservation of ethnic identity, in a fashion not too dissimilar to other regional areas of contention like Kashmir. Attempts to channel these grievances in the Baloch context has largely relied on engaged conflict with the Pakistani military.

At present, active armed groups in Balochistan view CPEC as an attempt to further relegate ethnic Balochs to an inferior economic, political, and social position in Pakistan. The significant involvement of the Pakistani military in the management of CPEC has confirmed such sentiments in the eyes of Balochs, who have subsequently targeted military convoys, the Karachi Stock Exchange, and even Chinese workers, who have filled the majority of CPEC jobs as per the financing arrangements cinched between Pakistan and China. The extraction of Balochistan’s natural resources has further irked militant groups, who claim the resources should be harnessed to generate Baluchi wealth instead of benefiting Pakistani or Chinese entities.

Much of the ire expressed by these groups view the Pakistani government as representing the agenda and interests of the Punjabi population, whom make up over 40% of Pakistan’s total population. Once more, regional parallels can be seen in the accusation of Punjabi majoritarianism, whether through the religious brand of Hindutva in India, or through latent anti-Pashtun sentiment in Afghan provinces that have a sizable population of minority ethnic groups. Following its inception, CPEC had and continues to be widely heralded by the civilian government as an opportunity to reinvigorate industrial activity to generate jobs, tax revenue, and improve the provision of public services. Yet, the opacity surrounding CPEC’s financing terms, tenders, and job growth has yet to enact the transformational change

Thus far, kinetic efforts by the Pakistani government to resolve the insecurity has led to accusations of human rights abuses by the military, which controls much of the oversight bodies and exerts significant influence on the project when compared to provincial, or even federal, civilian authorities. Pakistan’s characterization of the Baluch separatist movement tends to concentrate on allegations that Baluch militants enjoy political and financial backing from India, dismissing genuine grievances and regarding their actions as a foreign plot to subvert the nation-state.

Given CPEC’s stature and the strategic value of Balochistan, attacks by Baluchi militants are likely to go unabated in the absence of reforms that address the demands delineated by both armed and non-armed organizations based in Balochistan. By incorporating more local participation by Balochs, either through dialogue and/or job quotas in the CPEC initiative, both Pakistan and China can begin to allay these concerns before they escalate and evolve into a full-scale conflict, a scenario that portends less progress, low growth, and high insecurity for all Pakistanis.

What Can Afghanistan Learn from the Colombian Peace Agreement?

Amidst chaos in Kabul and confusion in Doha, Qatar, the future of the Afghan peace process looks gloomy. The recent wave of attacks on civilians and Afghan armed forces is unprecedented. Despite this, the desirable outcome of peace merits a review of similar peace processes and the chance to draw lessons from other countries’ experiences in reaching a peace accord. Among them, the Colombian government’s peace agreement with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) offers valuable lessons.

In more than 50-days of intra-Afghan talks, Afghan negotiators and the Taliban have not agreed on a framework and agenda. Multiple meetings between contact groups from both sides have ended with no substantial results. The Taliban maintains their stance to recognize the Doha Agreement as the only basis for talks however the Afghan delegation accepts the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and United Nations (UN) approved United States-Afghanistan Joint Declaration.

With violence reaching 28 out of 34 provinces, hopes for a ceasefire remain distant. The Taliban has been accused of using violence to gain leverage in the peace talks. Moreover, they are also accused of maintaining ties with Al-Qaeda. Recently, Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary-General of NATO, called on the Taliban to live up to their commitments and “break all ties with Al-Qaeda and other international terrorist groups.”

Similarities Between Afghanistan and Colombia

Although two very different countries, there are similarities between experiences in Colombia and Afghanistan, especially in regard to peace processes. Both countries have witnessed decades-long insurgency and violence — from the 1970s in Afghanistan and the 1960s in Colombia. Conflict in both countries has been mostly based in rural areas. Drug trafficking has fueled the conflicts and neighbors have supported violence one way or another.

As signs of fatigue and frustration due to the stalemate in Doha begin to emerge, both sides must display strong political will and agree on meeting agendas and discussion frameworks. In order to do so, the following four lessons from the Colombian peace process can be helpful.

1. Maintaining Mutual Trust and Recognition

Despite their commitments to reduce violence, the Taliban have escalated violence — killing 260 civilians in the past 50 days. They have not shown any compromise and have recently demanded further prisoners’ release by the Afghan government. They have not accepted the Afghan-US Joint Declaration as a basis for talks and have publicly stated that they do not recognize the Afghan govenment. All of these undermine trust, leaving little room, if any, for talks to progress.

Humberto De La Calle, the former Colombian government chief negotiator, believes that both parties must acknowledge and recognize each other for peace negotiations to be successful. Similarly, Sandra Ramírez, a senator affiliated with the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force (FARC) party, states that political will is a critical factor in peace negations. This will not be formed unless parties establish and maintain trust.

On the other hand, Bernard W. Aronson, former U.S. special envoy to the Colombian peace process, believes that the Taliban may lack a strong consensus for peace. Therefore, they should be treated with dignity during the peace process so that they maintain their momentum for peace.

2. Gaining Support of the International Community

During the opening of intra-Afghan talks, about 20 foreign ministers delivered speeches, which is a substantial sign of support for the process. However, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, has stated that “The window to achieve a political solution will not stay open forever.” Therefore, both the Afghan government and the Taliban must not take the international community’s support for granted and agree to choose a ‘guarantor’ or facilitator from the international community.

Dag Nylander, the former Norwegian special envoy to Colombia, who facilitated the peace talks between FARC and the Colombian government, believes that ownership and control of the agreement’s outcome must remain with negotiating sides, and the international community assume facilitating roles.

Recent reports from Doha indicate that both sides have accepted Qatar as the facilitator for the intra-Afghan peace talks; however, this role must not be limited to logistics. The Afghan government and the Taliban must capitalize on Norway’s interest and support for the Afghan peace process. Given Norway’s experience in the Colombian peace agreement and its philosophy on peace and reconciliation, it can play a critical role in reaching a framework, setting the agenda, and beyond.

3. Seeking Internal and Regional Consensus

Pakistan has been repeatedly accused of forming and supporting the Taliban since the 1990s. Iran has also been accused of aiding the Taliban in western Afghanistan. Therefore, the support of neighbors, particularly Pakistan, is essential in the Afghan peace process.

Sergio Jaramillo, the former Colombian high commissioner for peace, states that it is vital to turn the vicious circle of aiding and abating the insurgency into a virtuous circle. As a result, the Afghan government should engage more with neighboring countries and reset its relationship with them.

Recent visits of Abdullah Abdullah, Chairman of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, with representatives from Pakistan, India, and Iran show the importance of the regional consensus on peace. It is expected that he will visit Central Asian countries to earn their support for the Afghan peace process. Equally important is building and maintaining a strong political momentum and consensus internally, which has become more fragile with increased violence by the Taliban.

4. Displaying Power on the Battlefield

The Taliban has dramatically ramped up attacks on Afghan armed forces. In the last 50 days, they have carried out roughly 2000 attacks killing 260 civilians and injuring 602 others. Afghan forces are on the defensive against the Taliban, which can weaken their position on the battlefield. Experts believe “the best opportunity for peace is when your enemy is begging to come to the table, and that generally happens once you have shown your military muscle and might.”

Experts also state that the concept of a “mutually hurting stalemate” in conflict resolution means that both parties realize that military confrontation is not a sustainable solution, and “this is when a conflict is ripe for negotiation.” Therefore, it is crucial for the Afghan armed forces to win on the battleground.

Agreement on peace between the Taliban and the Afghan government may now seem a distant reality. However, taking into account the lessons from other peace agreements in the world, particularly the Colombian peace agreement, can help speed up the process and can lead to a sustainable peace agreement.

–Shabir Eman

Rise to Peace Crime, Punishment and Deradicalization

Crime, Punishment and Deradicalization

Deradicalization programming is an essential element in wider reintegration efforts of individuals who have fallen victim to extremist philosophies, however analysts often critique any inefficiencies of such initiatives. This is often the case when individuals convicted of past terrorism infractions later go on to commit subsequent acts. A legal case earlier this year of a Bosnian citizen and the emergent deradicalization process inherent in the Balkan nation reiterate the actuality that any such initiatives are complex and require multifaceted solutions.

Legal Precedence

In a European context, Bosnia presented a unique situation as the small Balkan nation exported the most foreign fighters per capita in comparison to other continental states. Attention later transitioned to how the fragile nation would manage complicated issues related to repatriation,  trying citizens through appropriate legal channels, and deradicalization programming in the immediate post-caliphate period.

The case of Munib Ahmetspahić is not unique in the context that an individual was tried and convicted for terrorism-related offences. Ahmetspahić had travelled to Syria to fight on behalf of Daesh twice and received a three-year prison sentence for these actions upon his return to Bosnia. Rather, the legal proceedings are notable because Ahmetspahić is the first foreign fighter to be medically certified as deradicalized.

Psychologists and psychiatrists reached this conclusion after seriously studying the statements made by the former foreign fighter. Ahmetspahić spoke bluntly about his regrets and expressed that he had been manipulated to take part in the terrorist campaigns through false propaganda. Once on the battleground in Syria, he witnessed a corrupt situation in which specific individuals fought for personal power and advancement, rather than the promotion of wider objectives for the Muslim people, as he originally thought. The loss of his brother, amputation of a leg, and wanting to be a part of the lives of his children initiated the first pangs of a deradicalized mindset. Any sort of rehabilitation cannot proceed without a serious reflection of conscience and personal acknowledgement of guilt.

Faulty Programming and Better Approaches

More often than not, anytime a previously incarcerated individual with terrorist-related convictions makes headlines, critics highlight the failures of the penal system and its deradicalization programming. This is an extremely ‘low-hanging fruit’ sort of critique as anyone with knowledge of how prison programs work knows that they are often underfunded, understaffed, restricted to a set amount of sessions that often do not cover all aspects, and success is dependent upon the attentiveness of the inmate. Perhaps, this is an issue with academic analysis because those trained in academia often present detached abstract solutions based on theoretical outcomes without first-hand experience or little to no contact with those personally influenced by the criminal underworld.

Deradicalization programs in this setting may be beneficial to those willing to absorb the lessons and engage in an examination of self, but recidivism in other aspects of crime with specific programming, such as narcotics offences and addiction counselling, teaches prison is indeed a revolving door. For instance, psychologists speaking in reference to the Ahmetspahić case highlight that, “neither radicalization nor deradicalization can happen overnight” and “little can be done if an individual has not already come to question their own actions.”

In both cases, inmates are asked to shed either a philosophy or a chemical that has taken a hold of their psyche, physical being and how they engage with their communities. And thus, any remedy requires an intensive and holistic approach that extends beyond punishment, but into the realms of intensive mental health services, social work, and supportive frameworks post-release.

Further, specific needs of the individual must be tailored into such programming and this cannot be done in a prison setting with its aforementioned issues. It is clear that these elements require not only a long-haul approach, but devoted resources too. For this reason, neuro-psychiatrist Ćemalović states that, “there is no patented deradicalization procedure” and such an endeavour requires systemic cooperation with society and religious communities.

The Wayward

It is prudent to acknowledge that not all radicalization cases can be effectively neutralized as hardcore proponents of extremism become so enmeshed with ideologies that they never relinquish hate or violence. Nonetheless, the Ahmetspahić case presents as one that has similar characteristics to many others.

In 2013, he was acquitted of destroying evidence connected to an armed attack on the United States Embassy in Sarajevo in 2011 and this experience fostered a sense of disillusionment with the Bosnian state. Ahmetspahić was a resident of Gornja Maoča — a village known as a stronghold of Islamist extremism in the Balkans. Employment opportunities were offered to wayward young men in the battlefields of Syria and it seemed like a profitable idea. A lawyer that worked with Ahmetspahić contends that he was not religiously radicalized, but rather, looking for a path.

The same conclusion can be applied to young people in other parts of the world that feel as though they have few prospects ahead of them. As an example, it has been noted that extremist groups often focus their recruitment drives in areas of economic downturn or working-class neighbourhoods. Arthur Snell, a former government official in the United Kingdom in charge of an anti-extremist program, once stated in an interview that, “They almost universally were young men without much sense of direction or status, and by joining the insurgency… they felt for the first time in their lives that they mattered, that they were doing something important, almost heroic.”

Similar feelings of disillusionment and the inability to escape environments that cause one’s psyche to question social arrangements often lead to the adoption of extremist thinking or alignment with others that feel the same way. However, it does not mean that this cannot be overturned with the proper resources that direct individuals to education, gainful employment, and positive social interactions. As such, it is difficult to ask a radicalized person (or released prisoner, for that matter) to make the transition to a peaceful existence if they are released from prison without adequate tools for the job market and return to the same communities that stoked extremist thinking in the past. These are resource-heavy solutions, but they must be examined and acknowledged as imperative.

Incarceration is an integral part of the crime and punishment of terrorism offences in societies with punitive legal systems. However, significant attention must be focused on the rehabilitative aspects not only behind bars, but especially when an individual has been released. The prison environment is one in which convicts become used to routine and program completion is often a mandatory part of release preparation, but reentry into communities is more difficult than it appears. It is this period of deradicalization programming that is indeed the most important and while ‘one size does not fit all’, networks focused on mental health care and skills development are primary needs.

Rise to Peace