The newly established “Peace Council” for negotiations with the Taliban does not yet have a plan and it also still is lacking the chair. Yet, 70 of its members have been nominated, leaving open only two seats. While there are many well-known faces, these are not from civil society. No activist from that societal sphere has been included, only one media personnel and hardly any person who is positively renowned in Afghanistan. While politically it is debatable which legitimacy civil society enjoys in Afghanistan, it is inconsiderate to exclude important societal actors through which the process could gain support.
Last week, President Hamid Karzai released a list of 70 members of the “Peace Council”. The establishment of this institution was agreed upon at the Peace Jirga in summer 2010 and it will be in charge of negotiations with the Taliban. The names of 70 members of this council were announced, and holds few surprises. On the list these are numbers of prominent figures, respected elders as well as power brokers. Why include these if there are prominent figures? Needless to search for a human rights activist on the list. The same for prominent women: Even though the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission without difficulty compiled a list of recommendations which female participants to include, the government in the end opted for eight who are hardly known even by an informed audience.
This is part of a pattern. Civil society groups have only reluctantly been invited to the London Conference in January 2010 and months later, they were not present at the Kabul conference. The Peace Jirga of which the government claimed that it demonstrated national unity and its result showed broadly based popular support for the conclusions of the event, also largely excluded civil society actors.
There is some uncertainty about the role civil society activists should play. For many people, a central question is from where civil society takes its legitimacy. In Afghanistan, most organizations active in the field of citizens or human rights are not the output of broad popular movements – that are rare in Afghanistan, anyway – but a small group tackling selected issues. Mostly they are dependent on foreign donors and thus it is debatable to what extent they can be seen as representatives of the Afghan people. However, among them there are prominent personalities. In radio and TV, the expertise of civil society activists is often requested. Thus, in an utmost important and at the same time risky political process, it is short-sighted to exclude societal actors. A deal to bring peace cannot rely only on closed-door meetings among the mighty. It also requires that people have a reason to believe in it.
Civil society groups, convinced that they can make a difference and concerned about how negotiations will be handled, now released a resolution on the peace council. They criticize the selection of members and point to some flaws in the process. The group, representative for more than 500 civil society organizations, offers its services and raise the question of a mediator in the peace talks. Furthermore they are concerned that these negotiations will suffer the same fate as previous attempts. In this case, failure would be a major setback.