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Report from an international conference on Afghanistan

On December 12, 2018, Anna Lindberg, affiliated researcher at SASNET, attended an International Conference on Afghanistan, organized in Stockholm by the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan (SCA).

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The aim of the conference was to address local Afghani perspectives on peace building, and explore the role of development partners, humanitarian actors, civil society, and others in preventing conflict and promoting conditions for peace from below. The question posed was how to obtain sustainable peace by working with local citizens, making them participants in the process, and using their capabilities to address injustice and promote reconciliation, as well as ensure that there is a response to the needs and rights of all segments of society. Among the participants were speakers from international and Swedish organizations and research institutes, as well as staff from Sida and the Swedish Institute.

The keynote speech was delivered by the Ambassador of Sweden to Afghanistan, Tobias Thyberg, who focussed on three main issues: a) the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan and the resultant high level of casualties among all groups, including civilians; b) the rising polarization and increasing fragmentation of the country’s political climate; and c) the international situation of global terrorism and political disunity. Despite these factors, the ambassador cited some positive signs for peace. There was recently a three day cease-fire, the first in 17 years. A few months earlier a large number of civilians participated in a peace demonstration, marching from Helmand to Kabul. Some have speculated that peace will come within a year, whereas the Afghani president has said that it will take at least five years. Ramiz Bakhtiar, the first Afghan Youth Representative to the UN, spoke after the ambassador. He announced the startling figure that 70% of the Afghani people are under the age of 30, and that this number will increase in the future. Thus far, young people and women have been excluded from discussions and strategies for building peace. Exclusion of this kind, he stated, may drive young people to extremism. He concluded that peace is not a technical matter or a document on paper. Rather, a solid, sustainable peace must be inclusive and come from below.   

The conference continued with a panel discussion on “Local Voices—Experiences of Peace Building.” The participants were Palwasha Hassan, Director of the Afghan Women’s Educational Center (AWEC); Rahmatullah Amiri, Senior Researcher at The Liaison Office (TLO); Najiba Sanjar, Head of SCA’s Taloqan Management Office; and Ashley Jackson, Research Associate at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI). Najiba Sanjar stated that peace is only possible if the majority of the population receives access to healthcare and education, lacks fear, and if minorities are included in the peace-building process. Rahmatullah Amiri followed by pointing out that attempts at peace building while unfamiliar with the context can be dangerous and can even contribute to “war building.” External intervention has often proven harmful because old structures, which may be good or bad, were destroyed. One example is the tradition of hashar in which village members come together to help each other on a voluntary basis. Thus, peace building should take into consideration existing structures in the local society. Palwasha Hassan described how women have been gathering in underground places and homes to create schools. It is possible to mobilize women, as has been done in the past, although there are considerable barriers, especially in rural areas.

Ashley Jackson talked about the great potential residing in people, and the sad fact that many returning or internally displaced individuals are recruited by the Taliban because it is very difficult to go back to their old villages. She reminded the conference that the Taliban are now part of Afghani society and must be included in peace building from below. A second panel addressed “The Triple Nexus of Humanitarian Action, Development, and Peace.” The participants were Sari Kouvo, Co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network; Margareta Fahlström, Chair of the Swedish Red Cross; Khalid Fahim, Program Director of the SCA; and Mirwais Wardak, Managing Director of the Peace Training and Research Organization. The discussion began by observing that “triple nexus” has become a buzzword that has been used for many years. While it makes intellectual and ethical sense, it is not so easily implemented. One even wonders whether a triple nexus really exists. One often sees two of the elements together—for example, humanitarian aid and peace, or development and peace—but rarely all three. It was also suggested that what may be needed is to create a “quadruple nexus,” adding human rights. It was again emphasized that external intervention, such as in the case of some development projects, can create both exclusion and conflict. Local knowledge, therefore, must be taken seriously, and peace simultaneously built up from the national and local levels. The process must be done patiently, step by step, and include young people, women, and minorities. The problem of corruption must also be targeted and local communities helped to achieve empowerment.

The conference included four round table discussions in smaller groups: 1. Understanding Conflict—Successors and Spoilers in the Peace Process. Moderator: Emma Nilenfors, Head of Sida’s Afghanistan Unit. 2. Diving Deeper into the Nexus, and Its Implications for Local Peace Building. Moderator: Steve Brooking, Director of Peace and Reconciliation for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). 3. Leaving No One Behind—Sustainability, Resilience, and Local Peace Building. Moderator: Elizabeth Winter, Senior Advisor to the British and Irish Agencies Afghanistan Group (BAAG). 4. Women and Youth as Local Peace Builders. Moderator: Kevin Schumacher, Deputy Director for Women for Afghan Women (WAW). The four groups concluded that while there remain many spoilers to peace, there is great hope now, especially after the Helmand march. However, those whose voices have not been heard in the past need to be brought into the conversation. It was also agreed that the process must be given time to become inclusive and arise from below. The conference concluded that peace is “in the air” at present in Afghanistan.

There is increasing support for it because people have grown weary of the war. However, any peace that is secured must not only be for the urban elite, but for the rural majority as well – and not in the form of a political stalemate, but as a total peace. As a learning opportunity aimed at strengthening our common understanding of local peace building in Afghanistan and how we can help create conditions for a lasting peace, the conference was a successful event. It closed with the screening of Cinema Pameer, a documentary by Martin von Krogh that centered around a movie theater in Kabul, its staff, and its loyal patrons. It was a fitting means of gaining some insight into the Afghani society that we are all working to restore.

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