Editorial note: Some of the Afghan and international sources interviewed for this article refused or were reluctant to go on record for fear of repercussions.
“Much has happened in Afghanistan, both good and bad, since 2001,” says Hassina Syed, a small but forceful dark-haired former refugee, referring to the US-led invasion of her mountainous and desert Central Asian homeland in October 2001 to oust the Taliban. “When the Americans came, we had a lot of hope that things would get better. This hasn’t happened. But now there is a whole new generation of Afghans who want something different. People are tired of war. They are tired of the killing. They are tired of the power games. They want a country of peace with jobs and a future. No one can go back to the way it was before. Not even the Taliban.”
Now 40 and a mother of three girls, Hassina, who was named a Young Leader of Tomorrow by the World Economic Forum in Geneva in 2016, speaks in words chosen not to offend. “It is important not to blame people but always to keep a door open for honest discussion,” she says. “Only by talking frankly can we find a real political solution to Afghanistan. But this also means involving women. We need to be fully part of the process. This is how I have always done business. Resolving our country’s problems are no different.”
For numerous Afghans, but also informed foreigners, one of the biggest problems with Afghanistan’s – and the international community’s – current approach to democracy is that the scheduled elections for the end of September 2019 do not hold legitimacy. Many perceive Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank technocrat whose own 2014 election was highly questionable with votes bought and people intimidated, as arrogant and doing everything possible to remain in power.
One key critic, Atta Mohammed Noor, a former governor of the northern province of Balkh whom this writer first met in the 1990s and who is currently head of the Jamiat-e-Islami party, warned of “severe consequences” if the proposed elections are once again marred with incidents of vote rigging and fraud. “Such an election will push the country toward new crisis,” he added, also maintaining that he would join the Taliban if this were to happen.
If this occurs, one of the only possibilities, many believe, is to seek the creation of a new interim or transitional government, possibly with United Nations oversight. Even sources within UNAMA (the UN Assistance Mission to Afghanistan), which is supporting the 2019 elections whose campaigning officially kicked off with a field of 18 candidates on 28 July, admit that this may have to happen.
For the moment, however, they are assuming – ‘hoping’ might be a better word – that Ghani and other presidential hopefuls will “play the game” as one UN official put it. The Afghan Independent Election Commission, which has been criticized in the past for some of its representatives being involved in campaign rigging, has called for fully transparency and for all candidates to “respect the law.” Another problem is basic security with the Taliban and other insurgent groups already seeking to disrupt the election process with armed attacks.
Basically, as one respected analyst in put it: “Candidacies are up for sale. The power-brokers are seeking to ‘buy’ the next elections. Many Afghans know this and that is why there is no trust.” As he and other experienced observers suggest, Americans and Europeans within the NATO and international aid community are fully aware of this, and yet they are still pushing for the elections to happen, regardless of the consequences. This is the political backdrop against which Hassina Syed and other concerned activists are seeking to express themselves.
One significant issue, however, is Ashraf Ghani himself. According to human rights critics, he and his cohorts have been consistently seeking to threaten or otherwise silence the opposition. The Kabul authorities have been steadily eroding the rights of journalists to report openly about what is happening in Afghanistan.
Initially one of the country’s post-Taliban success stories, the development of an independent press – significantly supported by both the United States and Europe – and crucial to any vibrant democracy, is now being effectively shattered as journalists are threatened, beaten up and even killed by various factions, including the Taliban, or unknown assailants. With campaigning barely underway, Ashraf bodyguards reportedly assaulted a cameraman for trying to film a woman who had criticized the president’s running mate, prompting angry journalists to boycott the event.
Highlighting the importance of Afghan women
Over the past year, Hassina, who grew up in Peshawar, Pakistan, after her family fled as refugees from Kabul in 1983 when she was four, has been meeting with both Afghans and internationals to explore the possibilities of a follow-up plan to avoid violence or popular dissent, notably an interim administration, should the elections fail to provide the confidence Afghans need in their country. Such a transitional government, she argues, should represent all Afghans, including the Taliban. It would also give ordinary Afghans “the chance to have a real voice.”
As an ambitious entrepreneur-turned-advocate, Hassina returned to Afghanistan in 2002 following the collapse of the Taliban, where she began setting up her own businesses, The Syed Group. These include companies dealing with Afghan marble, food production and distribution, mattresses, drip irrigation and travel. But she is also involved with local NGOs whose aim is to help Afghan women through educational and other capacity-building initiatives. For example, Hassina plays an active role in Afghanistan’s National Organization for Women (NOW) promoting training and women’s rights. She later become one of six female members of Afghanistan’s 3,000-strong Chamber of Commerce.
Speaking in Afghan-accented English learned while running Gandamack Lodge, an international boutique hotel in Kabul, and other businesses, Hassina feels comfortable dealing with expatriates, whether aid workers or diplomats. She understands how they think. This includes helping foreigners better grasp why Afghan women are so crucial to both the peace process and long-term recovery. She also acknowledges her refugee experience in Peshawar as invaluable for cultivating contacts amongst the Pakistanis, many of whom, she notes, want nothing more than to see an end to the war. This, she says, would open up of the region to more expansive trade.
As Hassina points out, the situation in Afghanistan has improved significantly for women, even if they still represent a small minority in leadership positions. Much of this has been helped by the extensive progress achieved over the past 18 years in nationwide education and health care, particularly for girls and women. Many such initiatives were massively backed by western donors ranging from the United States and Canada to the European Union proving to be one of the most effective programmes of all outside aid support.
“There are now far more women in the ministries, the parliament and in business. But we have had to overcome a lot of obstacles. And we still need to constantly prove that we are just as capable, if not more. We’re not just decoration for gender-equality initiatives. We want to have full influence in the rebuilding of our country.” After all, she adds with a twinkle, “women do represent more than half the population. You can’t ignore that.”
Hence Hassina’s efforts to ensure that ordinary Afghans, both male and female, have a decisive say not only in the electoral process but also the development of their country without being hijacked by incumbent political interests. As human rights and other groups point out, this needs to include free and fair elections.
Switzerland could hold the key to a peaceful future for Afghanistan
Over the past year, Hassina has been meeting with numerous organizations and individuals from all walks of life, whether Afghan or foreign, among them elements close to the Taliban. Her purpose, she says, is to listen but also to outline her own views on what needs to be done in order to help bring about peaceful change and end to over 40 years of conflict coupled with genuine national reconciliation.
One option, she suggests, is for neutral Switzerland to assume a mediation role by hosting talks in the Alps with the Taliban and other players (“Afghans love mountains,” she explains) as a means of bringing everyone to the table. The Swiss Foreign Ministry in Bern has said that it is willing to do this if asked. Some Afghans are also looking again at the Swiss cantonal model, a process dismissed by the 2001 Bonn Agreement and the new constitution of 2004, giving regions and local populations a far greater say in the running of their country.
Hassina considers the promotion of a better economic future to be part of this process. Based on her business experience, one aim is to persuade the international community to provide ‘smarter’ investment and development as part of their commitment to Afghanistan’s long-term recovery. “Why do so many young Afghans want to migrate?” she asks. “Because they see no future in Afghanistan. They just see more war and no jobs.” In addition, as both she and others point out, the lack of employment is one reason why the insurgents, including outside groups such as ISIS, can attract support, notably by paying fighters. Or claiming to hand back Afghanistan to Afghans without the presence of foreign military forces.
Hassina’s very deliberate but low-key outreach approach includes establishing contacts with internationals ranging from United Nations agencies, NGOs and European Union development teams to the Pakistanis and visiting US officials. This past summer, for example, she has travelled both to Europe and the United States to meet with players interested in what is really needed to help forge an end to the war. For her, the key issue is to bring on board what ordinary Afghans, such as farmers, health workers, mullahs, or local business people, have to say because, as she maintains, it is very much a different message from what many politicians purport to be on the agenda.
Afghanistan: an enormous food supply potential
“I want our foreign friends to understand what is at stake,” she explains. “Afghans want them to be part of our future, like helping to set up new businesses, rebuilding infrastructure, buying our products. There is no reason why Afghanistan should not become a key trading partner for the entire region.”
For example, Hassina has already helped establish more than 1,000 drip irrigation initiatives. She believes that with proper development, drip access in areas where there are no traditional rainfed or irrigation water options will enable Afghanistan to open up new land for young entrepreneurial farmers, many of whom would otherwise have no access to farming. Afghanistan, she insists, could become “a major supplier” of quality fruit, vegetable and other food products to places such as the Gulf countries.
Furthermore, given Afghanistan’s strategic position on the cusp of Central Asia and the subcontinent, new roads and railways could open the country to China, Iran, Turkmenistan, Pakistan and even Europe. “But this will only happen if there is peace and proper investment as well as with good relations with all our neighbours,” she adds. Pakistan, for example, recently declared plans to build a railway from its northwestern border post of Chaman to the Turkmenistan frontier, a project that would help both Pakistani and Afghan exports.
This is the reason why ordinary Afghans need to be part of both the political and peace process, Hassina stresses. There can be no “ifs and buts”, she adds, pointedly contradicting the arguments often raised by western diplomats or Afghan politicians that women cannot play an influential role in traditional society, notably Pushtun areas where the Taliban rule. Hassina further observes that female leadership is nothing unusual, even for countries with dominant or large Muslim populations, such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Turkey.
“What about Indira Gandhi or Benazir Bhutto?” she maintains. “They were very successful female prime ministers.” At the same time, she points out that much of this reticence among conservative circles has more to do with culture than religion. “Yet things are changing. Women are far more outspoken today than before. And they don’t want to lose their rights. Or return to the past.”
Demographically, times have changed, too, Hassina points out. Well over 60 per cent of the country is now under the age of 25. These are young Afghans with no experience of the Jihadist period against the communists during the 1980s and 90s, or even the post-1996 Talib regime. “Afghanistan is a much different country today. People want to feel that they are part of the future and that the government is listening to them. This includes any arrangements with the Taliban. No one wants deals imposed from the outside. This is why we need to involve ordinary people more, and to listen to them.”
For the moment, as some observers note, the current US-led talks with the Taliban do not represent the movement as a whole. Not unlike the mujahideen (holy warriors) who rose to power during the Soviet-Afghan war, there is no one overall Talib leadership. Instead, the Taliban consist of a broad movement of numerous semi-autonomous factions based on local, regional, military or tribal affiliations. Some, too, are criminally-based, making fortunes out of trafficking, such as opium production, or extortion. Certain groups also maintain close contacts with outside players, such as the Pakistanis, Iranians and Saudis. The end result is that, even with a ‘deal’ in Doha, no one faction can claim to represent all of Afghanistan’s Taliban.
What we need to do now, says Hassina, is to try and influence such processes in a positive manner. “Peace cannot be imposed. There are no quick fixes for Afghanistan’s future.” Nor will more military intervention achieve long-term peace. People want security, but this cannot be done artificially. “The grass roots need to be part of it, so One Afghan, One Vote, would be a great start.”
Even the Taliban want a good future for their families
Responding to criticisms that such a broad sweep of nation-wide representatives would be difficult if not impossible to convene, Hassina shakes her head. “People need to feel that there is something in it for them. A better future for their families. Or proper education for their children. Or marketing support for farmers. Everyone needs to feel that they can look forward to a better life. Even the Taliban.”
Part of the problem, analysts maintain, is that Afghanistan is now paying for the misguided efforts of the international community since Bonn, which sought to impose a top-down, western-style solution on the country. Not only did much of the US-led intervention ignore basic on-the-ground realities but it also failed to listen properly to the concerns of ordinary Afghans. This then encouraged a military rather than a development or investment-inspired approach to resolve Afghanistan’s security problems.
Hence the call for an interim – and, above all, accountable – government with no one faction or group of politicians in control. For Hassina, such a transitional government could include UN or international involvement, not unlike Cambodia’s interim administration during the 1990s following the collapse of the Khmer Rouge. “But it has to be seen as an administration operating in the interests of ordinary Afghans,” she maintains. “It also needs to include a cross-section of Afghans, and to involve the Taliban, but more as individuals representing their own communities than a political movement.”
This is the message that Hassina and other concerned Afghans are now seeking to put across. One seemingly basic key to credible elections is the urgent need for a fully-implemented electronic voter or national biometric ID. Initially proposed during the early 2000s, the idea was abandoned as “too expensive” or “inappropriate” but there has also been political opposition to the concept. For the moment, there are only some biometric IDs but no properly computerized electoral procedures, a system that could have saved billions of dollars in pointless military or development outlay and avoided even more war. The current approach with the use of printed registration cards (with an estimated 13 million eligible votes, some 24 million voter cards were produced) still invites abuse.
As Hassina argues, biometric IDs would enable women to take a more active part in the elections. “They could finally vote without someone looking over their shoulder telling them what to do. If women are involved properly in any election, we will see a dramatic change throughout Afghanistan. Women are the ones who have to deal with their families, particularly if their menfolk are killed or unable to work.”
For a successful entrepreneur and women’s rights advocate, Hassina strongly believes that Afghan women can make a difference. She also maintains that it is time to confront a new reality.
“Everything has changed with education, the internet, mobile phones, satellite television…Ordinary Afghans, particularly young people, can see the benefits of peace and contact with the outside world. Afghans now know what real development can bring, namely a future.”
Global Geneva editor Edward Girardet is a journalist and writer who has covered Afghanistan since just before the Soviet invasion in December 1979. He is author of several books, including “Killing the Cranes: Reporting 30 years of war in Afghanistan,” as well as co-editor of “The Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan.”