Recognize, fund and support Afghan peacebuilders now
During Monday’s statement to the nation, President Biden candidly remarked that the “mission in Afghanistan made many missteps over the past two decades.” Following 20 years of U.S. military presence and trillions of dollars spent in the country, the Taliban advanced to take control in just under two weeks.
The U.S. and its allies approached Afghanistan as a military operation in the belief that preventing “a terrorist attack on American homeland” required an entirely militarized approach. And yet, just as Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) foresaw in 2001, Biden now says that this is “sadly proof that no amount of military force would deliver a stable, united, secure Afghanistan.”
For years, the peacebuilding sector has called on the U.S. and the international community to shift from over-militarized approaches to focus on actively working with and alongside local peacebuilders. Local communities that are directly affected by cycles of violence and extremism are best positioned to sustainably address the root causes of such fragility. Not only through their proximity to the causes of conflict, but also their abundance of local knowledge, insight and will to create positive, sustainable and lasting peace. Yet, time and again, their agency and insight are ignored.
A military-first approach to counterterrorism and outbreaks of violence has become a reflexive response. Policymakers the world over have leaned on those who proudly serve in the military to take on responsibilities beyond their job roles. Recently, the United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres echoed this by calling on the world to work together to combat the “global terrorist threat in Afghanistan.” He urged nations to “use all tools at its disposal to suppress the global terrorist threat in Afghanistan and to guarantee that basic human rights will be respected.”
Under President Obama, the U.S. sent an additional 17,000 troops, on top of its existing 36,000 personnel and 32,000 NATO service members already in Afghanistan in what became known as “the surge.” Biden suggested that counterinsurgency was outside the focus of U.S. interests and its counterterrorism strategy, even though Obama’s efforts centered on a “protect-the-population” strategy. This sought to turn the tide of the war in favor of the U.S. by protecting civilian populations to win over the hearts and minds of the Afghan people. Even though the strategy focused on the local populations, the U.S. forgot to include the very people it was trying to win over.
The rising humanitarian and human rights concerns brought about by the Taliban’s new insurgence may certainly require the expertise of the military. But it would be a mistake to minimize or overlook the role that Afghan civil society has played in recent years. And yet, to truly recognize the contribution of civil society in bringing about peace, we must be open to change. The international community must shift from established models of international aid to be more locally-led and inclusive and to involve local communities from the outset.
Afghan peacebuilders, including women and youth, were not included in the previous U.S. strategy, outside of hiring them as cultural guides and interpreters. Much of the aid which was earmarked to support civil society in Afghanistan was awarded to international NGOs, who are now evacuating, or to the previous Afghan government. Meanwhile, local activists and peacebuilders, many of them young people and women, have continued to lead humanitarian and peacebuilding efforts alongside the international community. But where do they turn now?
As our military withdraws from the country, protecting those who hold relationships with the U.S. government and international organizations remains rightly at the fore of the conversation. The notion of turning to local organizations to respond during the transfer of power to Taliban rule might seem unfathomable. But to discredit the potential impact of local communities is to ignore the decades of resistance and peacebuilding in Afghanistan.
It is not too late to support the Afghan people. The U.S. and the international community must courageously and rapidly fund local efforts to protect Afghan civil society. We must accelerate this work now so that local communities can defend human rights, protect their communities and keep the hope of millions of people alive. Peace Direct, the organization we work for, is actively communicating with peacebuilders in the region to develop a strategy to complement local efforts.
After 20 years of military response, today the Taliban is once again in power. The international community cannot default to the military responses of the past if it is serious about building peace. The impact of Afghan peacebuilders must be recognized, their efforts must be supported, and communities must be protected so that the country can build hope and prosperity in the next 20 years.
Vahe Mirikian is the assistant director for U.S. policy at Peace Direct. Follow him on Twitter @vahemirikian.
Shannon Paige is the policy associate at Peace Direct. Follow her on LinkedIn.