Over the last few weeks, conversations about Afghanistan have been taking place in probably every home—at the dinner table or while watching the horrific images on television from Kabul, particularly during the evacuation of the airport. No doubt some of the comments made in these conversations have been along the lines of how 20 years of work has been wasted; how the United States could not have remained the country forever; how the Afghan government was ineffective, negligent, and corrupt; and how the Taliban today may be different from the Taliban of the past.
While there is a bit of truth in these comments, it is all too easy to get overwhelmed by the situation or lost in the politics of it, or worse to surrender to a general pessimism about the performance of the so-called international community or even democracy itself. However, in these moments we should never forget that, despite their imperfections and the unending demands to improve them, democratic systems have always served citizen’s needs and advanced human rights, human development, justice, and inclusive institutions better than any other.
Many of the world’s established democracies are themselves passing through very troubled waters: ascending populist and authoritarian leaders who assert nationalistic and xenophobic rhetoric, as well as eroding public trust in democratic institutions and the credibility of elections resulting from widespread misinformation and “fake news” disseminated across largely unregulated social media and other digital platforms. Global crises such as climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic have also triggered or exacerbated existing and overlapping social, economic, and political problems. Modern democratic societies, as well as multilateral organizations, are struggling to adapt and efficiently respond to all these challenges. It is thus rather unfair to expect nascent democracies, such as Afghanistan, to weather these same troubled waters, in addition to the tribulations unique to their transition without capsizing.
Democracies are not perfect and they require a tremendous amount of work, resources, and commitment, especially in countries emerging from conflict or repression and grappling with legacies of massive human rights violations. But, again, we must always remember that any alternative will be worse and in one way or another will fail to recognize and protect the rights of every citizen, uphold the basic principles of good governance and the rule of law, and uplift and defend the most basic value: that we are all equal and deserve the same rights and opportunities. Anything other than democracy will inevitably lead to further marginalization, exclusion, and human rights violations. These injustices, in turn, will continue to cause suffering and inequality from one generation to the next and plant the seed for another cycle of violence.
Afghanistan is a tragic example of how a country in transition can dramatically reverse course on the arduous path toward peace and democracy and return to an abyss of violence and repression at breakneck speed. In the span of a few short weeks, the Taliban regained control over the country. When they finally entered Kabul, the internationally backed Afghan government collapsed.
The fall of the Afghan government, however, was not surprising. Diplomats, human rights defenders, and Afghan civil society organizations had warned about it. Those of us working on Afghanistan knew perfectly well that the Afghan institutions were not ready to contain the Taliban. The withdrawal of US troops nevertheless proceeded, and the international community apparently made few if any contingency plans.
The past 20 years in Afghanistan should be cause for existential reflection on multilateralism and state building. Whatever lessons that are drawn will most certainly shape the international humanitarian and human rights policy for the decades to come.
The past 18 months also provide food for thought on how a group labeled and treated consistently only as terrorist organization—and thereby unqualified to engage in official political negotiations—could become a signatory to a political deal alongside international parties. Whether or not to engage a group proscribed by the international community in political negotiations can cause a dilemma in many places—with strong voices and opinions on both sides. But if this dilemma is somehow resolved and negotiations involving such a group begin, the key question is then how to conduct such talks within a framework that affirms justice and the respect for human rights.
More importantly, recent events leave us with a most urgent unanswered question: What does the future hold for Afghanistan and for the millions of people who, unable to escape, must now deal with the Taliban, a regime they know all too well? Despite initial declarations affirming a commitment to peace and human rights, the Taliban has lost no time in demonstrating their goal to re-impose the same extremist and oppressive rule. The often repeated and naive suggestion that this “new” Taliban may be different and more moderate have been quickly proven wrong by the reality on the ground. The Taliban has appointed only its most radical leaders to government, and there are reports of the Taliban brutally suppressing women on the streets and attacking members of civil society and journalists.
For years, civil society organizations, victims’ groups, and some state bodies, such as the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, have worked tirelessly to build democratic institutions and fight impunity in the country. They have to sought to uncover the truth about and demand justice and reparations for the crimes committed not only by the Taliban but also by Afghan government, US, and Australian forces.
Now we all worry that the Taliban will search out and destroy the evidence gathered by civil society and target victims and witnesses who came forward to testify. During these last hectic weeks, the fear was so great that human rights organizations in Afghanistan went to great length to erase the digital footprint of their work in an effort to protect staff members’ lives and the lives of their families.
As we have seen in other countries around the world, young people with their energy, tenacity, and hunger for freedom and opportunity will play a pivotal role in determining Afghanistan’s future. Over 60 percent of the Afghan population is under 25 years of age. They belong to a generation that was brought up and educated in an Afghanistan largely liberated from the Taliban regime, and they are now experiencing their worst nightmare. Their voices must be heard. Young Afghan activists inside the country or abroad will require our unwavering support. They alone—not the Taliban or international policymakers— hold the key to a peaceful, democratic, inclusive, and prosperous Afghanistan.
PHOTO: In the 20 years of relative calm before the U.S. withdrawal, youth experienced life free from Taliban rule, engaging in activities such as the annual Media Week organized by the Afghan Youth Voices Festival in 2011. (Afghan Youth Voices Festival/Flickr)