Every night, I lay on my bed, kept awake wondering: Who’s next? I think of a colleague of mine who makes his teenage son check his car every morning for magnetic bombs that may be hidden, and a husband saying goodbye to his wife while she is going to work, wondering if that is the day she will be killed on her way to her workplace.
It has been a year now since the United States signed an agreement with the “Taliban”. The Afghans were expecting peace, but one of the changes that they saw after this agreement was an escalation of assassinations, assassinations that are often not adopted by anyone, but which created an environment of terror and fear. These deadly attacks nearly tripled in number in 2020 compared to 2019, and injuries included the deaths of 11 human rights and media professionals during the past five months. Thus, some of Afghanistan’s most important gains – its activists, local leaders and experts – are being silenced at a time when the country itself is hoping, following the US-Taliban agreement, for a decrease in violence and negotiations between the Afghans that include everyone.
If the Taliban denies being involved in most of these attacks, they are taking advantage of the environment of fear and despair surrounding the peace process, and the absence of critical voices calling for a peace that includes everyone. Indeed, this era of terror in which Afghan civilians live must end in order for a true peace process to begin. While the United States is reviewing its Afghan policy, it still has influence – including the current UN sanctions on the Taliban, the Taliban’s desire for international recognition and legitimacy, and the presence of international forces in the country – to push for an end to these attacks and encourage a ceasefire. And a peace process that includes everyone.
My colleagues on the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, which I chair, know how to feel a sense of terror. In the past 18 months, we have lost three of our brightest and most dedicated employees. Colleagues like Fatima Khalil, who was at the beginning of her career, full of hope and determination. She could have chosen a comfortable life abroad, but she chose to work for human rights in Afghanistan. She was killed along with another fellow committee member, Javed Foulad, the father and local leader, in a horrific attack on their car. I cannot stop thinking about the loss that their death left, not only for their grieving families, but for our young democracy as well. Or our colleague Abdul Samad Amiri, whose killing left a big void in the protection of human rights in the Ghor region, where he was running our regional office at the age of twenty-eight. All of his family fled after his brutal killing, and they were one of the few families in the region that openly supported higher education for girls and women’s work.
But they are not the only ones to have left Afghanistan. Every day I hear about a friend, journalist, academic, feminist, or other businessman leaving the country. Leaving them creates a void that will require another generation to fill. This is while those who do not have the way to leave feel that they are doomed to silence because of fear, and that they have no opportunity to influence the peace process.
It has been years since Afghans last gathered en masse, fearing terrorist attacks. In the wake of the recent wave of assassinations, public debate has closed, even in the virtual space, especially in rural areas outside Kabul, where the war is taking its most brutal form.
President Joe Biden’s team has sent a message that it will not withdraw its last soldiers – according to the agreement the United States concluded with the “Taliban” movement – unless the movement reduces violence. This is welcome, but it is not enough because even with general levels of violence declining, assassinations silence the voices needed to build pressure for peace.
Of course, the United States does not want Afghanistan to collapse into a catastrophic civil war once it withdraws, after 20 years of aid. The narrow focus of the agreement between the United States and the Taliban, however, ignored the broader needs of the peace process, including the importance of civilian space and the protection of civilians. This approach must be urgently reconsidered as part of Biden’s review of US policy toward Afghanistan.
Public participation is not a luxury or a “good to have”. Any comprehensive process is a process that builds momentum for peace and strengthens the credibility of the process. Therefore, bringing traditional and unconventional civil society voices to the table from across Afghanistan will bring a sense of urgency and bottom-up pressure on all sides.
Of course, the best way to ensure public participation is through a ceasefire. Therefore, the United States and its allies should use their influence on both sides and the region to continue to push for a vocal ceasefire that creates an opportunity for national engagement. An immediate end to the assassinations, a cease-fire, and the restoration of civilian space would allow for a broader engagement in the talks, reviving hope and confidence in the process.
There is no doubt that the United States can encourage the Taliban and the Afghan government together to create this conducive environment for peace. Then the Afghans will be able to return hope to the negotiating table.
Certainly, we will not find peace in silence and fear.
* Chair of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission
To be published in a special arrangement with the Washington Post and Bloomberg News Service.
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