Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Political Landscape

The ‘Afghanistan 1400’ Movement: Changing Youth Politics in Afghanistan?

S Reza Kazemi 11 min

Afghanistan 1400, a new civic-political youth organisation, recently declared its existence in what is, in practice, a scattered and largely manipulated youth landscape in Afghanistan. Established by a number of highly educated and diverse young people, the group pursues an ambitious and forward-looking agenda of contributing to the emergence of a ‘prosperous and democratic Afghanistan’ in the context of increasing uncertainty, if not despair, in the country. AAN’s researcher Said Reza Kazemi explores how different the new initiative is from previous ones and if it is a harbinger of change and growth in youth politics in Afghanistan.

‘A prosperous and democratic Afghanistan based on the rule of law, with responsible leadership, banking on her diversity, and buttressed by the energy, commitment and creativity of the new generation within [the] political, social, cultural and economic spheres’ is the ambitious and complex vision of Afghanistan 1400, a new youth group that refers to itself as a ‘civic-political movement’ (see its newly developed English website). The movement was launched in Kabul’s high-end Safi Landmark hotel on 6 December 2012 with the motto ‘our country, our responsibility’ (for reports in Afghan media, see here, here, here and here; for photos of the event, see its Facebook page here). ‘As for now, we are not a party and we are not opposition’, Elham Gharji, a founding member of Afghanistan 1400 and head of the privately run Gawharshad Institute of Higher Education, emphasised when talking to AAN.

Media coverage of Afghanistan 1400’s launch was initially cursory, but started to get more detailed within a week afterwards. Several media outlets (see previous links) highlighted this ‘political movement of the new generation’ in contrast to the two main opposition groupings, namely the National Coalition and the National Front, which are led and dominated by long-standing jehadi figures. ‘Their goal is to give youth a bigger role in politics – a segment that constitutes the majority of the country’s over 30 million population but has always been kept away from important political decision-making processes’, the BBC Persian service reported (AAN’s English translation). Further detail was, later on, provided by Hasht-e Sobh and The Guardian. In a largely upbeat tone, both newspapers focussed on Afghanistan 1400’s emphasis on the crucial period of the coming eight years until the year 1400 (2020/21) – the opening of the fifteenth century in the Afghan calendar – and beyond, during which Afghanistan is, in the group’s standpoint, to face three, not two, transitions: political, military and generational. This period includes the upcoming elections in 2014 and 2015 in the short-run, the ongoing international military drawdown and transfer of security responsibility to Afghan security forces culminating at the end of 2014 as well as the strong likelihood of an elite change.

Although Afghanistan 1400 was officially inaugurated in the first week of December 2012, it has been informally active for at least one year. Co-founder Gharji further told AAN:

We knew one another and used to meet and talk on the Internet, in offices and in cafés. It took us around a year to come up with the idea of Afghanistan 1400. We realised that a new generation of Afghans with leadership potential has come into being, scattered in various places, but which could be connected.

Prior to its opening, Afghanistan 1400 had launched, or been involved in, at least two campaigns. Under the rather broad and non-descriptive title of Az Su-ye Jawanan-e Afghanistan (By Afghanistan’s Youth), some of the members of the group, among others, praised Afghan police and commandos who neutralised several reportedly concerted insurgent attacks on the Afghan parliament, foreign embassies and NATO’s headquarters in Kabul on 15 April 2012 through publicity on the Internet as well as by printing and distributing posters of an injured, but walking, Afghan commando, depicting Afghan security forces as the ‘homeland’s soldier, homeland’s dear, homeland’s honour, homeland’s beloved, homeland’s hope, homeland’s credibility’. (The 18-hour-long battle left two Afghan soldiers and 17 insurgents dead.) On 28 June 2012, parts of the group’s membership were among some 150 people who gathered at Kargha Lake, near the capital Kabul, to condemn the attack by the Taleban on the resort’s Spuzhmai Hotel during the night of 21/22 June and commemorate several civilians who were brutally killed in the attack (read AAN blogs on the incident here and here). It seems that growing sentiments of patriotism and peace-seeking emerged as two consensual values of what later resulted in the creation of Afghanistan 1400.

The new youth initiative is somewhat different from previous ones. Most members have high educational qualifications and are diverse on professional, geographical, ethnic, gender and other grounds. High-profile participants have previously held, or are currently holding, significant government positions: former presidential spokesperson Waheed Omar, former chief electoral officer Abdullah Ahmadzai, former security advisor in Helmand provincial administration Abdul Ali Shamsi, director-general of Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ fifth political division in charge of the Americas and Australia Ershad Ahmadi, Ministry of Interior spokesperson Sediq Sediqi and Afghan National Security Council’s foreign affairs director Hekmatullah Foushanji, among others. Other prominent members are involved in civil society, research and business: civil society activist Bari Salaam, chief executive officer of Investment Promotion Agency of Afghanistan Najlla Habibyar, director of American Institute of Afghanistan Studies Omar Sharifi, director of Qara Consulting Haseeb Humayoon, Afghanistan Analysts Network’s researcher Gran Hewad, director of Wakht news agency Farida Nekzad and journalist Hashmatullah Radfar, among others. Of the group’s reportedly 80 members, 15 members (including chairperson and chief executive officer) constitute its Central Council(1), which is led by chairperson Shaharzad Akbar, who did her BA in anthropology in Smith College in the US and MA in development in Oxford University in the UK and is currently a senior consultant at Qara Consulting, and chief executive officer Salem Shah Ibrahimi, an advisor in the Ministry of Education. Although members maintain that they are part of the initiative in their personal, not institutional, capacities, the varied membership can make Afghanistan 1400 a potentially influential political youth group in the country. Moreover, it may indicate an emerging segment of Afghanistan’s elite who have burgeoning ambitions in terms of increased participation in the country’s public and political life.

Following many debates over the year of preparation, the members of Afghanistan 1400 agreed to unite around a platform they call their ‘vision, mission, values and goals’.(2) An initial understanding of the group’s stance on Afghanistan and its future can be garnered from its so far only position paper titled ‘Transfer of Political Power in the Spring of 1393: Opportunities, Challenges and Recommendations’ (read the group’s English translation here). The basic line of their ideas is this: ‘the crisis of political distrust among Afghanistan’s unarmed and organised political forces, on the one hand, the continued threat from armed opposition forces, on the other hand, and the danger of economic and security disintegration after the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan have weakened hope in Afghanistan’s future and its political and economic development’, but ‘the continuity of the political process [ie, acceptable elections] is principal in reversing the deteriorating situation and deterring a political crisis’.(3) ‘Afghanistan’s institutional continuity as a state is central to our vision. We think that as Afghanistan’s ultimate national interest, the core of the political system should be maintained, institutions should be strengthened and any subversive thought should be countered’, Gharji stressed, using oft-heard terms in modern political science.

Although youth are a huge segment of Afghanistan’s demographics – the under-25-year-olds constitute, according to the UN, around 70 per cent of Afghanistan’s over 30 million population –, the country’s youth landscape is patchy and largely politically instrumentalised and manipulated. Active Afghan youth are aligned on a wide political spectrum, including secularists, Islamists and ethnically oriented political party activists, to say the least. Major youth groupings include the formerly UN-supported Afghanistan Youth Parliament, social organisations like Markaz-e Hamahangi-ye Melli-ye Jawanan-e Afghanistan (National Coordination Centre of the Youth of Afghanistan), its offshoot Shabaka-ye Fa’alan-e Jawan bara-ye Eslah wa Taqir (Network of Young Activists for Reform and Change) and Ettehadia-ye Jawanan-e Afghanistan (Union of the Youth of Afghanistan), formerly a governmental institution, and the recently established Jirga-ye Melli-ye Solh-e Jawanan-e Afghanistan (Afghanistan National Youth Peace Jirga). There are also Islamist youth groups such as Nahad-e Jawanan-e Mosalman (Institution of Young Muslims) that are providing Muslim Brotherhood-inspired ‘Islamic awakening’ education specifically for young people, in addition to rendering social service, across the country.(4) Most important political parties in Afghanistan also have youth wings in their organograms, which bring together their like-minded youth who then try to attract an even larger pool of young party sympathisers and members. A visible example is Jombesh-e Jawanan, the youth branch of Uzbek commander-turned-politician Abdul Rashid Dostum’s Jombesh-e Melli-ye Islami-ye Afghanistan (National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan) (read a recent AAN paper on latest developments in the party here).

There are, however, serious questions about the independence and inclusivity of Afghanistan’s youth groupings. Although most youth groups vocally maintain their independence and their representation of Afghanistan’s youth, they have either been politically instrumentalised or they have been repeatedly subjected to political manipulation on ethnic, religious, ideological and other grounds, mainly due to their fundamental need for funding and due to dividing political infiltrations in and political pressures from within and without these groups. Most recently, the youth peace jirga ended up, not just with a split, but also in controversy over funding and over the role of the government and of Hezb-e Islami in it and has almost vanished since then, albeit gradually and quietly (read this author’s previous blog here).

Afghan government’s response to youth’s political activism, particularly of an extra- or anti-governmental nature, has been discouraging. President Karzai has time and again vociferously urged Afghan university students, a key group among the country’s youth, to stay away from politics, probably because of students’ role in Afghanistan’s upheavals in the 1960s and 1970s. Besides, few youth groups have been able to maintain their momentum over time and across the country to leave their mark felt in the life of the Afghan people.

Karzai and his administration are yet to respond to the creation of new politically active youth groups such as Afghanistan 1400, however. Afghanistan 1400 has indirectly acknowledged its political stance by carefully avoiding placing itself as a party and/or opposition. The question is whether or not the Afghan government will believe them. On the other hand, there are many former and current government officials in the group’s membership (eg, 8 out of its 15-member Central Council have previous or current government work) and it is at least questionable if Afghanistan 1400 has a latent pro-government leaning.

Although it is premature to judge if Afghanistan 1400 can change young people’s status quo in the country, the group aims exactly at doing this. The change may actually happen if the new initiative effectively succeeds in addressing key challenges that negatively affected, if not defeated, previous attempts such as the youth peace jirga. A first fundamental challenge is if the group can demonstrate that it is genuinely self-motivated and truly independent. The group’s extremely careful, reformist approach that takes up some of the government’s unfulfilled rhetoric about reforms might just as well be appropriate, given that the government so far has treated any critical group as a potential enemy, as the case of the Rights and Justice Party, which had tried to position itself as a ‘constructive opposition’ party, has demonstrated (read a previous AAN blog here).

Parts of the political opposition and of previously established youth groups have already raised doubts about Afghanistan 1400’s motives. ‘If it [ie, Afghanistan 1400] has been set up for attracting specific assistance and support and is, therefore, project-driven, it is neither useful nor will it endure’, Sayyed Agha Hossain Fazel Sancharaki, spokesperson of National Coalition, told AAN. Zmaray Baher, secretary-general of the youth peace jirga, and Sangar Amirzada, head of National Coordination Centre of the Youth of Afghanistan and of Network of Young Activists for Reform and Change, warned that Afghanistan 1400 was being used as an instrument by what they called its most influential and connected member, namely former presidential spokesman Omar, for ‘certain election-related purposes in the near and far future’, which they stopped short of explaining. Afghanistan 1400’s Akbar, however, rejected the criticism:

We are a highly diverse group. Our shared objectives are to overcome distrust in the potential of the new generation, provide the youth with a collective voice to speak for themselves rather than for those in positions of power and make decisions based on our collective will, compatible with our values and through open discussion.

Some other youth groups have cautiously expressed their optimism about and support for Afghanistan 1400. Azizul Rahman Tayeb, head of Afghanistan Youth Parliament, and Mohammad Khan Daneshju, head of Union of the Youth of Afghanistan, told AAN that they welcome Afghanistan 1400 as a positive and promising youth movement with its experienced and highly educated members, provided that it avoids falling victim to political and other manipulation.

Financing the work of an organisation like Afghanistan 1400 is a second important issue, particularly in an impoverished country like Afghanistan. Afghanistan 1400’s Radfar told the media (see the links above) that the group is funded through membership fees. Akbar said that the monthly membership fees are Afs 500 (approximately US$ 10) per person (this currently should make Afghanistan 1400 an approximate total of US$ 800 per month), which can decrease for university students. But as the experience of political parties have shown, running provincial offices and country-wide campaigns will be extremely difficult from membership fees only. ‘Nevertheless, strict requirements will apply for external funding for the group. Funding from governmental and foreign sources will not be allowed, but can be received from the Afghan public and businesspeople under rigorous conditions’, Akbar said.

Finally, Akbar told AAN:

Survival [of the organisation] is a key issue. We have seriously thought about it and will continue discussing it. We have identified our vulnerabilities. The fact that we did not start with 1,000 members is because we value quality at this stage rather than sheer numbers. As a principle, we tolerate and value the dynamic and even opposing views of our members, because we want to turn Afghanistan 1400 into a national and Afghanistan-wide movement of youth. Ultimately, we want to be driven by our ideas rather than by individuals.

Afghanistan 1400’s ideas certainly are lofty in an Afghan society that continues to suffer from some of the world’s highest poverty and illiteracy rates. This author walked around and talked to a number of people, particularly youth, on Kabul streets and in Kabul University. Few had even heard about Afghanistan 1400. One student, Asadullah Azarakhsh, who had heard about it, made a thought-provoking remark, ‘Our only hope to make Afghanistan a better place is the youth of this land. They have the force, the outlook and the motivation. But youth groups have kept forming and collapsing. Let’s see what happens to Afghanistan 1400’.

If everything goes well and, as Akbar says, Afghanistan 1400 manages to survive, its approach of inter-organisational pluralism of opinion would make the organisation more a youth parliament than a cohesive organisation. But even to achieve this, it will have to fight to prove that it is better and more resilient to takeover attempts from outside than earlier attempts to set up a structure like this.

(1) Composition of Afghanistan 1400’s Central Council (based on information from the group’s website here and its Facebook page here; AAN’s additional information within [square brackets])

Chairperson: Ms Shaharzad Akbar [partner and senior consultant at Qara Consulting, Inc], for one year

Chief Executive Officer: Mr Salem Shah Ibrahimi [advisor at the Ministry of Education], for one year

Members:
1. Ms Sonia Eqbal [employed in the private sector*], for three years;
2. Mr Omar Sharifi [director of American Institute of Afghanistan Studies], for three years;
3. Mr Waheed Omar [former presidential spokesperson], for three years;
4. Mr Haseeb Humayoon [founding partner and director of Qara Consulting, Inc], for three years;
5. Mr Abdullah Ahmadzai [former chief electoral officer at Independent Election Commission], for three years;
6. Mr Bari Salaam [civil society activist], for two years;
7. Mr Assad Zamir [employed in the government*], for two years;
8. Mr Abdul Ali Shamsi [former security advisor in Helmand provincial administration], for two years;
9. Ms Najlla Habibyar [chief executive officer of Investment Promotion Agency of Afghanistan], for one year;
10. Mr Hashmatullah Radfar [journalist], for one year;
11. Mr Noorkhan Haidari [employed in the government*], for one year;
12. Mr Khyber Farahi [employed in the government*], for one year; and
13. Mr Ershad Ahmadi [director-general of fifth political division (the Americas and Australia) at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs], for one year.

(*) Akbar did not specify their positions.

Besides, Akbar, for unknown reasons, refused to share with AAN the list of Afghanistan 1400’s founding members (reportedly 40 people) and all members (reportedly 80 people), but said that the two membership lists will be released on the group’s website and Facebook page ‘in the coming weeks’.

(2) Afghanistan 1400’s vision, mission, values and goals:

Vision: A prosperous and democratic Afghanistan based on the rule of law, with responsible leadership, banking on her diversity, and buttressed by the energy, commitment and creativity of the new generation within political, social, cultural and economic spheres.

Mission: We aim to build confidence, instil enthusiasm and promote acceptance of responsibility for Afghanistan’s present and future through creating a political space to mobilise the new generation, so that they take an active part in the political, social, cultural and economic life of the country.

Values: Belief in Islamic values, respect for the Constitution of Afghanistan, democracy, freedom of speech, gender equality, pluralism, equality and meritocracy

Goals:
– To create a national platform to mobilise and bring together the new generation
– To create opportunities for the young citizens to have an influential and determining voice
– To depolarise politics in Afghanistan through encouraging understanding, moderation, and tolerance and through institutionalising politics based on moderation and tolerance
– To depoliticise civil service in Afghanistan
– To present a responsible and realistic perspective on Afghanistan in domestic and international debates
– To instil a culture of appreciation for the sacrifices and services of Afghanistan’s security forces
– To encourage and strengthen a sense of acceptance of responsibility among the new generation

(3) AAN’s translation of a part of Afghanistan 1400’s original Dari-language position paper.

(4) The youth wing of Muslim Brotherhood-inspired Jamiat-e Eslah-e Afghanistan (Community to Reform Afghanistan), the Institution of Young Muslims currently runs offices in Kabul, Herat, Mazar-e Sharif, Kunduz, Nangarhar, Jawzjan and Kandahar (for their activities, see their website) and is reportedly one of the most active youth groups in the country.

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Democratisation Youth Government

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