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Afghans need to set the Afghan agenda

The Afghan perspective is about incorporating a moderate version of Islam. There is still time to bring Afghanistan back onto the right course.
Haroun Mir Heidi Kingstone
9 February 2011

For the last nine years the international community, along with President Karzai, has set Afghanistan's political and social agenda while moderate Afghans, of which there are many millions, have not been able to contribute to the domestic debate. The Afghan perspective should not be only that of the president and the power-brokers. It should come from the majority of Afghans. At present the global focus is on Egypt, but when the Nile revolution settles down, attention will return to Afghanistan in time for the traditional start of the Spring fighting season, which in Kandahar and Helmand begins in March. 
 
Popular consensus believes that the Taliban now has to be brought on board. But this should be a process not a deal. A process means that the Taliban also needs to accept a certain commitment to human rights, women's rights and freedom of speech, and men must be allowed to go beardless if they choose. The Taliban must disband its violent militias that continue to mete out its brutal justice in areas under its control. 
 
Until now the international community has kowtowed to the extremists sacrificing democracy for stability despite the blood spilled by thousands of Nato soldiers and innocent Afghan civilians. In President Obama's speech to the US military in Bagram, he talked about eliminating al Qaeda and breaking the momentum of the Taliban. However he omitted talking about democracy and other values that have been achieved since 2002. General Petraeus reiterated this. He has said that the objective is no longer to eliminate the Taliban, but to weaken them enough to force them to the negotiating table. For the first time Pakistan has said that there can never be stability in Afghanistan without Pakistan's help, and they are negotiating their price tag both with Kabul and DC. 
 
Yet the government in Afghanistan shares the same extremist agenda as the Taliban, and both have powerful tools at their disposal which along with the international agenda, has let moderate Afghan voices fall by the wayside. Since the re-election of President Karzai in 2009, extremists are dominating the political space in the country. Karzai’s coalition with power brokers and the set-up of the High Peace Council are two examples of the political resurrection of old political figures. The Afghan peace initiative, which was launched by President Karzai during the London Conference on January 28, 2010, has gained some recent momentum both at the domestic and international levels. President Karzai, after convening the Peace Jirga in Kabul on June 2010, recently formed the High Peace Council. The council started its activities by sending a delegation to engage Pakistani officials in their plans. The international community endorsed the ‘peace process’ as an Afghan-led initiative towards a political settlement between the Afghan government and its armed opposition groups such as the Taliban, Hezb-e-Islami of Hekmatyar, and the Haqqani Network.  

However, despite high optimism within the Afghan Government, the Afghan people are left in the dark. Little information emanates from the government or the High Peace Council. Lack of transparency, not only adds to ambiguity and people’s confusion, but has also created fear among major regional stakeholders in Afghanistan. In his recent trip to Kabul, India’s Foreign Minister expressed India’s concern about Pakistan’s growing influence in the reconciliation process. People fear that the reconciliation will become another political deal instead of a transparent and inclusive process. The Afghan people remember previous failed political deals under the auspices of the Pakistani authorities, which further prolonged the Afghan civil war.

Civil society is unable to stand up against these powerful radical groups because it is so weak. Civil society relies on donor support and donor support has its own donor driven agenda/initiative, while radical groups have their own base and their own resources. Donor communities have misspent billions of dollars in supporting a corrupt government whereas they have ignored the promotion of democratic institutions outside the government.

The international community has invested too much in personalities in government, instead of strengthening democratic institutions both at the national and local levels. This is what Afghanistan needs. For a long time that community has listened to Afghanistan's elite who dominate the political arena, but who have over time enriched and empowered themselves at donor community expense. They have looked to this minority for the Afghan perspective when in reality Afghans themselves are unable to engage because indirectly the international community has disempowered them and empowered the very people it has originally sought to displace. 
 
The bulk of support goes to the Afghan government. In addition, millions of donors’ dollars are spent by the government to gain the favours of power brokers.

The question is how can a new generation of educated, smart, more liberal and ambitious young Afghans and grassroots movements compete? The truth is that they can't. This was clear at the last election when the rich dominated, spending millions. In a country as poor as Afghanistan there was no way for the younger generation or intellectuals to raise money for their campaigns.  As a result the international community makes most of its decisions in consultation with this political clique in Kabul. Both those in the government and the Taliban are brutal and violent. If these other voices cannot be heard either, these violent ways will come to dominate, and Afghanistan will be right back where it was just before Nato arrived. 

If the process is to be durable, and the international community is to have an honourable exit, then the process must be inclusive and transparent. Dealing with the Taliban requires scrutiny. A recent impostor, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who claimed to be a Taliban leader, fooled not only President Karzai but also the US military and NATO countries top intelligence services. There is also no clarification from President Karzai of who would be at the table and who would be a terrorist. Once this group is in power, it is easy to amend the Afghan Constitution. If they dominate they could easily withdraw all Afghanistan's hard won but still nascent values. 

The Afghan perspective is about incorporating a moderate version of Islam, which is how Afghanistan was in its heyday in the 70s before the Soviet invasion. Then Afghanistan was tolerant, before a deliberate radicalization campaign turned it into a haven for radicals and terrorists.  
 
There is still time to bring Afghanistan back onto the right course. The international community has committed itself until 2014, which is ample time provided President Karzai wants to change course as well. He needs to marginalize the current political clique, and to create a vision for the country. He could easily gather moderate Afghans around this vision and transform them into a formidable political force.  

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