By Syed Zafar Mehdi

'Ceasefire, trust-building key to effective peace process in Afghanistan'

March 5, 2019

TEHRAN - The Afghan Taliban and U.S. officials have been engaged in hectic negotiations in many countries reportedly facilitated by the Pakistan government. Currently, the two sides are holding talks in Doha, with Taliban deputy chief Mullah Baradar also in participation.

Despite the series of talks over past many months, the two sides have failed to produce a draft agreement. President Ashraf Ghani has been sidelined by the Taliban and cold-shouldered by the U.S., undermining the credibility of his government.

Farkhunda Zahra Naderi is a former Afghan parliamentarian, N-Peace awardee, former advisor to Afghan President on UN affairs and a strong voice in Afghanistan. In an interview with Tehran Times, she talks about the prospects of ongoing peace talks, importance of ceasefire and trust building, inclusion of women and the road ahead.

Following are the excerpts:

Q. Another round of negotiations between the Afghan Taliban and U.S. officials is underway in Doha. Have the two sides made any progress so far?

A.There are claims of progress, but to me so far only the consistency of their meetings seems positive. However, we need a ceasefire to see real progress on the ground.

Q. The central demand of the Taliban is complete withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan. Do you see that happening?

A. Ending the war is something we all want to see in Afghanistan, at least the majority of people. It means not just what Taliban demands but also what Afghan people ask for. Therefore, these are common demands of both sides and consensus should be prioritized and supported by all.

However, the complete withdrawal of foreign troops is conditional to emergence of a sustainable peace where we would not need any further presence of foreign troops in our country to fight terrorism. This means we need to build trust in terms of defining sustainable peace before making it happen.

Q. Afghan Taliban has refused to talk to Ghani led government but has appeared more than keen to engage directly with the U.S. Do you think these talks somehow undermine the credibility of democratically elected government in Kabul, as indicated by President Ghani and his aides?

A. Taliban certainly should have talked to Afghanistan's elected government and Afghan people. Unfortunately, for four-five years where the Afghan government was involved in peace process, it monopolized the process. National activities and national interests was in the hands of a small designed group at the top (even in most cases these people were not experienced or even known by Afghan people/politics before).

 The misuse of power on the top, the turbulences of national unity within the government and nation and the manipulation of the concept of confidentiality into a secretive peace process (for the benefit of few on the top), undermined the legitimacy and credibility of an elected government in the eyes of people and various political groups including its opposition.

This poor calculation of individual interests at the top weakened the government and broke the invested trust within its system. Now, US must realize that the sustainability of democratic regime and the inter-Afghan dialogue are the key to sustainable peace. US' direct talks with Taliban must not undermine the democratic government and people of Afghanistan where women and youth are important stakeholders.

Therefore, peace talks and negotiations cannot happen in the absence of a democratic government to nourish inclusivity (women, youth, political groups, civil society and more importantly victims of 18-year-old war).

Q. While the talks have been going on between the Taliban and U.S., attacks have been reported from different parts of the country, including the one in Helmand that came on the eve of Doha talks. Can dialogue and violence go together?

A.War and dialogue together mean competition over power to encourage revenge where both revenge and aggression weaken the idea and the intention for peace. Therefore, attacks refresh anger, frustration, bitter feelings to spread the conflict further.

An effective dialogue needs to build trust in order to make peace a reality. Hence, we must not forget that this dialogue does not need only trust building between negotiating teams but also as an inclusive peace process it must build trust in the minds and lives of our people. Therefore, war and dialogue must not go simultaneously, one must stop to allow the other to move forward. Therefore, peace must prevail genuinely.

Q. It's not only the government that feels sidelined. Women in Afghanistan have also spoken about the lack of representation in peace process. What needs to be done to make sure women are adequately represented and their voices are heard?

A. It has been the government that sidelined women in the peace process for almost 4-5 years and failed to make them an important part of peace process. The government was after the decoration of its table by women’s presence for donor credits and international attraction rather than the true and meaningful participation of experienced, strong and capable women.

 We must not forget that anyone who tries to fail democracy (for benefit of few on top), women and children will be the first victims of that failure. Democracy is important because it has important and strong values, not because of its decoration and attractive shows. In the absence or ill representation of women in peace talks, the process will turn into another phase of deep and complicated war. Therefore, it is important to have the inclusive, true voices of Afghan women rather than the so-called government’s pieces of decorations.

Q. Relations between Kabul and Islamabad have shown signs of improvement since the political transition in Islamabad last year. How important is the role of Pakistan in Afghan peace process?

A. Pakistan plays an essential role in bringing peace in Afghanistan, but it must realize that Afghan ownership of peace is not only for the benefit of Afghan nation but it is for the good of Pakistani people too.

Afghan ownership must bring responsibility not only towards its own nation but towards its neighbors and region, as the termination of the war of terror in Afghanistan will benefit our neighbors and our region since true peace gives chance to everyone and every nation to compete in a healthy atmosphere.

Q. President Ghani's eventful first term is coming to an end in a few months. While he is seeking re-election, where do you see the peace process heading under the new government?

A. The reason this peace season is turning complicated than it was in 2014 is because of undemocratic and secretive peace that has been developing so far. Our peace process was monopolised by a small group at the top and the rest including the involved institutions were unaware of its process and their concerned figures were mainly used as guests of the events for the celebration of the phases of unknown and excluded peace processes.

A democratic and sustainable peace process does not come from monopoly and discrimination within its process and surely a small group unrelated to people cannot decorate democracy on the surface by ignoring the real voices of people or ignoring other groups or political views wanting/demanding the share of their ownership to build their future.

In order for Afghanistan to achieve real and sustainable peace it needs a strong leadership to allow the big umbrella of democracy to grow within its government and beyond to attract Afghan Taliban, where under this umbrella all Afghans (different ethnicities, religious branches, women, children) can exercise their basic human rights freely, to define coexistence and move towards prosperity

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