Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

International Engagement

Towards a More United Voice of Afghan Civil Society: Step Two

Fabrizio Foschini 11 min

During the last week of May a delegation of Afghan civil society activists visited Italy in a follow-up to the Kabul conference of two months ago, by the title ‘Promoting Dialogue and Peace in Afghanistan: Strengthening Afghan Civil Society’. AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini followed to Rome the members of the steering committee composed of several Afghan civil society organizations he has been working with in Kabul.

Presented by the Afghan participants as the first international conference specifically focused on the Afghan civil society(*), the three-days of meetings offered indeed a unique opportunity to listen to a wide range of different, though not at all discordant, voices, ranging from trade unions workers to journalists, from lawyers to women activists.
Together with the organizers of the event, the Italian civil society networkAfgana and the NGO Intersos, the main objective of the Afghan delegation however was not merely to portray their various activities to an international public, but rather to make their concerns about the current political situation felt to it.

The themes dominating all speeches were in fact those of the ‘peace talks’, reconciliation and foreign withdrawal, and the delegates showed an impressive cohesion in dealing with these topics, although from the different points of view of their specific position or sector. The real focus of the conference, more than in its misleading title, is in fact reflected in the conference’s statement (main points reproduced below).

However, civil society theories and practice also found place in the schedule. During the first day, in a closed door session, the Afghan delegates met some of their Italian and European counterparts, and shared past experiences and current approaches(**).

Two of the Afghan delegates gave long and detailed historical introductions, tracking the origins of the Afghan civil society back to the popular movements of ‘ayyaran (roughly ‘social bandits’, in the Hobsbawmian sense, a term used for different popular rebellious movements) who stood against external invaders since ancient times and to the Roshaniyya sect (followers of the reformer Pir Roshan during the XVI-XVII century). Coming closer to our age, the beginning of the modern civil society’s activities was identified in the protest march of the gas workers of Shiberghan towards Kabul, which forced the monarchist government of Zaher Shah to yield to their requests when they were just in sight of Pul-e Khumri, and in the street clashes that led to the dismissal of Prime Minister Muhammad Yusuf in October 1965, after two students had been shot by the German-trained police.

It was then the time of highlighting what did not work in the establishment and strengthening of civil society in the last nine years. As a research on Afghan civil society carried out by the University of Milan in cooperation with Afgana also showed, one of the major problems is that civil society is mainly exploited as a distributor of services by the state (***). An unbalanced support from foreign donors, the combination between military intervention and development aid under the PRT format and the subcontracting of social welfare to NGOs on part of the state have benefited those organisations which provide services or work on emergencies, far less those active in promoting political debate, participation or cultural projects. On the contrary, civil society activists argued that the institutional framework should be improved to allow for a greater participation in the political decision-making processes, also because of the need to counter popular perception of an externally-directed power, a perception which is alienating large portions of the Afghan population from their government.

While acknowledging that traditional civil society institutions such as jirgaand shura have at least slowed down the social disruption inside the country during the war years, the refusal to legitimate unfair and undemocratic practices (bad, the tribal custom of giving a girl in compensation for a murder, being the single most-cited instance) carried out at the judiciary level by these institutions was remarkably one of the strongest stances taken by the Afghan delegates. They particularly criticised the new ‘relativist’ approach of some international organization and think tanks, who have come to view the important role of informal justice mechanisms in Afghanistan as a sign of their efficiency and rootedness in Afghan society, and not as a token of failure on part of the state and the international community in building and implementing the official legal system.

The delegates also expressed a desire to create the conditions for a more effective unity of purposes among Afghan civil society; in the words of Hamid Zazai from Mediothek: ‘Before anything else, civil society must have an independent joint centre in which proper coordination takes place. This centre can act as a consortium which would take decision on behalf of the Afghan civil society.’

The public conference’s opening, on 24 May, bore a strong imprint of king Amanullah’s democratic legacy, both in the presence of many of his family members – his daughter Princess India delivered an inaugural speech as cultural ambassador of Afghanistan to Europe – and in the words of the Afghan ambassador to Italy, Musa Marufi. The memory of Amanullah re-surfaced often during the two days of the conference, as when Najiba Ayubi of the Killid Group, talking about the role of the media, mentioned the first Afghan women magazine, Irshad al-Niswan, created during his reign.

A more critical reference – made by almost every Afghan speaker – pointed to the negative role played by the neighbouring countries in the Afghan crisis. Starting with the introductory speech of Mir Ahmad Joyenda, who regretted that a friendly country like Italy was situated in the middle of Europe and not in the place of one of Afghanistan’s troublesome neighbours, instead. He went on condemning Pakistan and Iran for oppressing their own people, besides thwarting the development of a democratic and independent Afghanistan for their own political purposes(****).

And, of course, the delegates had brought with them a much impending worry from Kabul, namely that of witnessing a staged comeback of the Taleban on the political scene after the foreign troops’ withdrawal, without having any means of counteracting it. Soraya Pakzad from the Voice of Women Organization, whose main topic covered women’s organizations, dealt thus very effectively with the peace process:

‘The peace process should not be influenced only by pressures made from external countries, but rather by the will and vision of men and women of Afghanistan. A peace without rights is not peace. Men and women enjoy the rights that they have built by themselves and for themselves, and peace is not when the firing ceases, but when rights are established and enjoyed by all.’

After many hours of lively though inevitably concerned reports, Sayyed Muhammad Niazi of the Civil Society Development Center cut it short by saying that: ‘Even if we were to employ the whole two days of the conference we won’t be able to describe the Afghan situation in a detailed enough way, we would only obtain to make you heartsick and say: let’s leave this wretched country and its people to their insoluble troubles and go away.’

An answer to the not so remote possibility introduced by the joke of Niazi, came in the words of Elisabetta Belloni, head of the Italian General Directorate to Cooperation and Development, who reassured that the economic commitment of the Italian government will not dwindle even after the transition has started, that the latter will just entail ‘re-modulating our military presence in favour of our civilian commitment’, and that even the funding of a ‘house of civil society’ has been included in the recently passed budget for development missions.

Also, the message of the Afghan delegation was repeated in the post-conference private meeting with the Italian president Giorgio Napolitano. Both the addresses made by Emanuele Giordana of Afgana and by Nargis Nehan (Equality for Peace and Democracy) contained a request for his personal attention and guarantees that with the transition of security to the Afghan government the commitment of European and other foreign countries will not wane, and that fundamental values will not be forsaken in view of a peace deal. Again, President Napolitano reaffirmed the shared commitment that Italy, the European Union and the UN(*****) have regarding Afghanistan, and even promised to personally represent the grievances of civil society to President Karzai, due to Rome for the Republic Day celebrations on 2 June.

A last motive of the Afghan delegates’ criticism was that civil society has not been consulted so far by the Afghan government or by the international community regarding preparations for the much talked of Bonn II conference, scheduled for December 2011. Hopefully, there will be time and scope for discussions over that at the NGOs networks meeting on Afghanistan taking place in Berlin on the 27-28 of June. This is in turn specifically organized to coordinate the NGOs’ planning in view of Bonn II and aimed at supporting a strong role for Afghan civil society there, as in the future political negotiations.

As for the Rome event, even the more cautious judgements on the outcome of the conference were positive on at least one point, a very vital and difficult one indeed: ‘We are aware of necessity to unite, but we are always afraid to be unable to do so and that our work will loose in efficiency as a result. One of this conference’s merits is that it has reminded us that unity is possible.’

Although, as another Afghan delegate pointed out: ‘We, civil society, need to be united, but we will not become united just by saying it. To be really united will require shared values. Now, we have 50 TV channels in Afghanistan, but not a single one engage in defending democracy and democratic values. All the emphasis is on the security developments and the military operations.’

Consolidating united action and voice of Afghan civil society able to lobby for more attention both at Bonn and on the Afghan political scene seems indeed to be a very necessary step to guarantee that the concerns expressed in Rome are taken into account by Kabul and allied countries’ capitals in the future. And, as political developments may unfold in an unpredictable and sudden way, a start needs be done soon. The network presently arising, even if some may decide to consider it still not fully representative of the Afghan civil society universe (but what is ‘fully representative’ in Afghanistan), is a good start in this direction. Now, it needs be supported by many sides, both Afghan and international, and protected from the dangers of falling apart or fading away.

Read a blog about the first conference held in Kabul here and thoughts about how Afghan civil society should be included into the process leading to Bonn II, during Bonn II and after in the following blog here.

(*) Germany had invited Afghan civil society actors in late 2001, parallel to the Petersberg conference, where they had much more interaction with the ‘main’ conference then ever after. From Berlin 2002 onwards to Paris and London, the civil society ‘events’ venues moved away ever more from the ‘main’ event.

(**) For example, the Afghan delegates were favourably impressed by the achievements of the Italian association Libera in targeting the economic assets of the mafia bosses and not only their personal freedom; although they may still harbour some doubts as to converting lands confiscated from criminal kingpins into wine farms, following the Sicilian example. Furthermore, as one Afghan put it: ‘In Italy, at least, if it becomes pretty clear to everybody that someone has close links to a criminal association, he will be put under investigation and prosecuted. In Afghanistan, as soon as such a link becomes known, nobody will dare inquire that person, and, on the contrary, his political career will be guaranteed.’

(***) Narrowing the type of involvement of the civil society organizations to three main fields of activities, that of service delivery comes first with 43%, before cultural activities with 39% and social and legal aid with 18%, according to figures given by Mediothek.

(****) The non-diplomatic outspokenness of his intervention caused the Afghan ambassador to comment that these views were not necessarily consistent with those of the Afghan government. Joyenda, an MP from 2005 to 2010, of course, is not a representative of the government.

(*****) Special Representative Staffan De Mistura, speaking over a video link to the conference from Kabul, described the important role that the UN attributes to civil society in the reconciliation process and in improving the performance of the government in a number of fields.

Statement of Afghan Civil Society International Conference

Rome, Italy
23 – 25 May 2011

We, the Steering Committee of Afghan Civil Society representing civil society organizations have gathered in Rome to discuss the role of civil society in peace, reconstruction and development process in Afghanistan. This conference which is the follow up of a two-day conference hosted by the steering committee of civil society in Kabul, Afghanistan on 30th and 31st March 2011 where the civil society discussed on strengthening its capacity to work together and to be more unified to influence national and international decision making processes related to Afghanistan.

Today as result of two-day international conference, preceded by a day of study and exchange of experiences with Italian and European civil society organizations, we are delivering our unified point of view to voice our people’s recommendations to the international community related to peace and development process to ensure sustainable development of Afghanistan.

Since the establishment of the Interim Administration of Afghanistan till now, we have re-established and strengthened state and democratic institutions, civil society, media, private sector ensuring human and women’s rights in all our policies and strategies.

We believe that we would have not had the above achievements without the presence, support and cooperation of our international partners, however we have yet to end the culture of impunity, combat corruption, promote good governance, rule of law, human rights and transparency and accountability.

We therefore came up to with the following recommendations and suggestions;

1. We call on the Afghan government and its international partners to be more transparent about the political reconciliation process and to regularly communicate and share with the Afghan people all developments regarding reconciliation with the Taliban and other armed groups. The peace process must not happen behind closed doors. We also urge the Afghan government and its international partner to ensure that all segments of Afghan society (women, minorities, the business community etc.) are fully represented both in the High Peace Council and in all peace negotiation forums.

2. We understand that the presence of international forces in Afghanistan is very costly for the international community and, at some stage, has to eventually come to an end. However, security sector reform cannot succeed in an environment of weak and failing government institutions. A realistic transitional strategy is required so that the ANSF are fully trained and able to carry out their duties effectively. The transition process must be matched by improvements in governance as the two go hand in hand.

3. As we move towards channeling more resources through the government system, the proposals and demands of Afghan civil society on good governance, transparency and accountability in the management of public affairs must be taken into account.

4. Afghan civil society has been very active and committed and ready to take on more responsibilities. We want the international community’s civil society to continue supporting us in voicing our concerns and recommendations, as well as influencing Afghan government and international community’s decisions.

5. We have been hearing from different sources about Bonn II, however both the government and the international community has yet to consult with Afghan civil society. We demand active, extensive and meaningful participation of Afghan civil society in Afghanistan Conference in Bonn so that our concerns are fully reflected in all peace negotiating forums.

6. We recognize and appreciate support of international community towards rebuilding of Afghanistan which is so far treated as a project. We ask the civil society of international community to advocate to its policy makers to revisit their modalities of funding in channeling resources to Afghanistan and have Afghans take the lead and ownership of this process.

7. We believe that at the institutional level, as in many other countries, civil society should have a clear recognition and be involved in the preparation of proposals for the future of the country. We recommend the creation of an Economic and Social Committee which sees the social partners, including civil society organizations, constitutionally recognized as subjects of political and social debate allowing them to address proposals to other state institutions.

We thank the network of Italian civil society organizations “Afgana” for having established a fraternal relationship with us and sincere cooperation, for having hosted the International Conference of the Afghan Civil Society in Rome 23 to 25 May 2011 and the commitment to build in Afghanistan the “House of Civil Society. We also would like to thank Intersos and Link 2007 for having prepared and organized the Conference and have ensured that with dedication and professionalism necessary to its success. Furthermore we thank the Coordination of European NGOs “Enna”, the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the DGCS for having supported and contributed financially, along with Afgana and Intersos, the realization of the Conference, we thank the Special Representative of the Secretary General of the United Nations in Kabul for sharing from the outset the importance of the Conference, we thank the European External Action Service for its continued participation in the Conference demonstrating care and sharing. Special appreciation from the National Council for Economy and Labour, CNEL, which has provided its prestigious venue and gave us suggestions on political debate between social parties. We thank the media that provided wide coverage of this international event, broadening and strengthening our voice.

A special thanks to the Ambassador of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, which represents our country in Italy and brought his greeting at the conference’s opening, along with HRM Princess of India of Afghanistan. Final gratitude, to the President of the Italian Republic, Honorable Giorgio Napolitano, who has received us at the Quirinale, giving us a sign of personal attention, sensitivity and affection and encouragement to continue on our way to express unity and defend with ever greater force instances, expectations and aspirations of the Afghan population.


Italy Kabul


Fabrizio Foschini

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