Civil society (Jameya-e-Madani or Madani Tolana in Dari and Pashto), its understanding, and its relations with the state have evolved over time globally and also in the contemporary Afghan context.
In the case of Afghanistan, civil society as a concept and as a discursive practice has evolved throughout the different phases of the country’s historical trajectory. For instance, Senzil Nawid points out that in the nineteenth or early twentieth century, the clergy or religious actors, as “the guardians of the Islamic order and the representatives of civil society in Afghanistan, […] did play an important role in domestic politics and in Afghanistan’s relations with foreign powers.” Later, especially from the mid-twentieth century onwards, with the emergence of educated urban elite networks, the concept of civil society evolved with a new understanding. In this period, under the influence of broader global as well as regional political changes, civil society became equated with the secular intelligentsia, that is, professionals, politicians, and artists with a background in the modern systems of higher education. This particularly changed earlier dynamics, as some of the religious scholars and groups were sponsored by external networks (the US and Pakistan) in order to antagonise the progressive urban intelligentsia.
The 1978 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan could be seen as a turning point in terms of these shifts in the definition of civil society actors. Throughout the anti-Soviet war and the Mujaheddin and later the Taliban ruling periods, the space of civil society filled mostly with non-governmental organisations, both national and international. Although in most cases, during intense war periods, in the absence of functioning state operations, these organisations also filled the service delivery gap by providing development and humanitarian assistance for people across the country and remote areas. NGOs and community-based organisations or groups remained active and evolved as an amalgamated form of classic and modern civil society in the case of Afghanistan, where some with religious educations and knowledge and others with secular joined hands to help provide public services to people.
In the post-2001 context, Afghan civil society entered a new phase of operating in a much more open environment, its members fulfilling their role with more recognition from state institutions and the public. They have worked in promoting civic education, advocating for legal reforms and policy issues. The role of media and women-led organisations, among other segments of civil society, became more salient after 2002. Hence, in the current context, civil society consists of community organisations, NGOs, academia, voluntary groups and individuals, women’s organisations, unions, social organisations, cultural organisations and also individuals who advocate for religious enlightenment, human rights, women’s rights, freedom of speech, accountability, peace and justice, and so on.
As a vibrant part of Afghan society, members of civil society not only follow and assess the peace process, but are also engaged in local peace building and advocating for an immediate ceasefire and lasting peace. What makes the role of civil society organisations even more significant is that while most political groups involved in the peace process are there for power-sharing interests, civil society groups are advocating for transparency, issue-based peace talks and addressing the key drivers of conflict and violence. There are thousands of organisations and groups as well as individuals across the country, in rural and urban areas in Afghanistan with views that are not necessarily partisan to any side of the conflict. These are today’s civil society actors who raise their voices for justice, human rights and dignity as well as accountability from any ruling power. Some of the key messages that civil society is conveying to the peace process are to listen to Afghan voices, support democratic values, promote accountability and inclusivity and include war victims and women among peace builders, mediators and members of the negotiating team, as no peace effort can succeed if it overlooks the individual rights of those who lost their loved ones in the war (or half the population).
Since the US-Taliban agreement last February, the Afghan peace process entered a ‘new’ phase that not only failed to bring any improvement to overall security in Afghanistan, but resulted in the continuation of military offensives, bombings and attacks by both parties in conflict (the government and the Taliban, alike); additionally there has been an increase in targeted assassinations across the country claiming the lives of some moderate religious scholars, journalists and civil society members, in addition to the continuation of killing government officials such as judges, prosecutors and security personnel. A quick overview of the situation since February 2020 highlights that the Afghan peace process has not so far resulted in any tangible outcome that serves average Afghans in terms of better security or not being threatened.
Consequently, Afghan civil society, as a progressive, vibrant and diverse part of Afghan society, plays an important role in the peace process, which deserves recognition by the Taliban, the Afghan government and Afghanistan’s international allies. Their strong presence as observers of the ongoing peace talks can rebuild the frail bridges between the people who are caught between some of the corrupt, inefficient and incapable government officials failing to deliver basic services and the Taliban’s indiscriminate violence against them.