Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Rights and Freedoms

Afghanistan 1400: The dawn and decline of a political movement

Rachel Reid 23 min

Ten years ago, a group of bright young Afghan professionals formed Harakat-e-Afghanistan 1400 (Afghanistan 1400 Movement), aiming to break the mould of Afghan politics. With the new century of the Afghan calendar year 1400 (2021) as their horizon, they wanted to establish a political entity that – unlike existing Afghan political parties – was not based on ethnicity or the old blocks of Islamists or leftists. They wanted to reflect Afghanistan’s diversity, uniting people around democratic values, patriotism and civic duty. Now the new century has dawned, but the movement named after it is effectively defunct. It foundered over a feud about whether to step into the political fray from the outset, or first take time to develop its policies and membership. Guest author Rachel Reid* has been talking to key members and finds a mix of pride, disappointment and bitterness. Most conclude that although 1400 did not succeed, some version of what they attempted – an inclusive political platform based on shared democratic values – will surely be tried again.

The 'River of Blood' action by 1400, Kabul River, February 2017 [Photograph from 1400]

Conversations about creating a new political platform began in 2010 among circles of friends. At the time, the Taleban were on the rise, the war was intensifying and after the vitriol of the 2010 parliamentary elections, the shine was coming off hopes for Afghanistan’s new democracy. The group watched as the country’s political leaders failed to fight for the fledgling democracy, but rather looked intent on dragging it back into the conflicts of the past. Their response was to try to create a new, non-ethnic, non-ideological – meaning neither Islamist nor leftist – political platform. These two ideological tendencies have dominated Afghanistan’s politics for generations, while ethnic-based politics only deepened during the war. The group which first came together, around 40 men and women, most living in Kabul, were all well-educated and successful early to mid-career professionals. 

This report is based on interviews with ten of them, including two former chairs and multiple members of the leadership council. While they agree that their original idea was “brazen” and “courageous” in the words of one member, narratives diverge over what brought about the group’s downfall. But they agree that what they once began is still necessary today, with Afghan political leaders mired in the most vicious and dangerous discord. 

Phase One – Inspiration and Launch 

There was a raw emotional sincerity to the first action of Afghanistan 1400, which took place a few months before the group’s launch. It was a response to a horrific attack on the Spozhmai restaurant on 21 June 2012. Over 200 people were trapped in the restaurant beside Qargha Lake, a popular destination for Kabulis, in a battle that went on for hours and killed 21 civilians. The Taleban claimed responsibility, saying the restaurant served alcohol, was used by foreigners for parties and was also frequented by Afghans. Without using the name of 1400, members put out a call on Facebook for people to gather a week after the attack. They were moved to action by the horror of the attack, but also wanted to test the waters for some of their early ideas about mobilisation and resistance. 

Afghanistan 1400 Movement launch, 6 December 2012. Photo: 1400

Around 150 people gathered to offer prayers and a minute’s silence for those killed. A rose bush was planted in their memory. Public acts to honour the victims of war, often involving planting, would become a trademark of 1400’s work in the years to come. Abdul Ali Shamsi, one of the group’s founding members, told the Guardian at the time that the aim of the gathering was not just calling out the wrongdoing, but also projecting courage: “We enable people to stand up against violence, people who in many ways have been passive because of fears instilled among the population.” Shamsi’s death in an attack in Kandahar in 2017, five years later, would later rock 1400 and help shape its trajectory. 

1400 launched in December 2012, with around 40 members. There was broad agreement about what the group represented, but they had not yet dug into political substance or tactics, in particular with regard to the timeline of their political endeavour, which many would come to regret. There was a general sense of urgency within the group: the war was escalating fast, with the Taleban present in increasing numbers of districts and civilian casualties almost doubling between 2007 and 2011 (UNAMA’s 2011 protection of civilians report shows 1,523 dead and injured in 2007, which rose to 3,021 in 2011). The 2010 parliamentary elections had been a disillusioning experience for many. While the elections of 2004 and 2005 had been flawed, they had also brought the emergence of some new faces, including a significant number of women and independents in the new parliament.[1]For an analysis of the first parliament, including a breakdown of independent candidates and former mujahedin factions, see Andrew Wilder: “A House Divided? Analysing the 2005 Afghan Elections,” … Continue reading This had reassured people that future elections might bring in more progressives. But the presidential and parliamentary elections in 2009 and 2010 had been riddled with corruption allegations and the electoral bodies had been unable to resolve disputes without them descending into further allegations of vote-rigging and factionalism.[2]For an analysis of the 2010 election, see Martine van Bijlert: “Untangling Afghanistan’s 2010 Vote: Analysing the electoral data,” 19 February … Continue reading   

Maiwand Rahyab was a founding member and, for a time, part of the leadership council (professionally he is a commissioner at the Independent Administrative Reform and Civil Service Commission), said the group emerged at an important moment for him, when corruption and the election morass was making him lose hope: “I was feeling so frustrated about the country and how things were moving, I was at a point of thinking maybe I should give up.” For Rahyab, the prospect of what 1400 was trying to do “offered a chance to hope that as a generation we could potentially change the course of what was happening.” Another founding member, Omar Sharifi (Country Director of the American Institute of Afghanistan Studies), also recalls his sense of growing despair at the time: 

Things started to feel vulnerable. The conflict was worsening. We were losing faith… Nobody was protecting the new Afghanistan… We were all aware of the importance of human rights in 2003 and 2004 as concepts, but by 2009, we had started to really feel it make sense. We knew that we needed to defend human rights and women’s rights and democracy in order to move into the next century. 

This sense of alarm was combined with frustration about the narrow focus of the political discourse of the time. Founding member and leadership council member Haseeb Humayoon, (now Director of Qara Consulting) recalls the main debate in Kabul at the time was “fixated” on the transition of responsibility for security in Afghanistan from ISAF to ANSF and the rapid reduction in the presence of international military,[3]The US ‘surge’ took place in 2009, raising American troop levels to 100,000. However, by February 2013, in president Obama’s State of the Union address, he announced that the then US troop … Continue reading whereas: 

We wanted to look further ahead and be less reactive to decisions in big capitals, to think instead about what we needed for Afghanistan and about a realistic moment in time by which we could instigate some change. So [choosing] the year 1400 [as the name of the group] was a very deliberate choice. 

At its launch, on 6 December 2012, the group had around 40 members, with a 14-member leadership council and chair. The first elected chair, Shaharzad Akbar (now Chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission), describes their goal: 

The idea was to build a youth political movement that reflected the diversity of Afghanistan and brought people together around the values of a democratic Afghanistan. The common themes were a sense of responsibility for Afghanistan and commitment to an Afghanistan based on values of political participation, human rights and women’s rights.

Akbar describes their concept of diversity as going beyond gender and ethnicity and including the desire to overcome the “ideological divides of our parents’ generation” whether mujahedin or leftist. The group actively tried to embody this pluralism within itself – members interviewed spoke warmly of the space that the group created for open discussion and disagreement, at least in the early years. There had been a push from some members to cohere around calls for Afghan ‘unity’, but the concept was too resonant with Soviet rhetoric for others and was rejected in favour of a firm commitment to pluralism. “This country is a collage of colours,” says Humayoon. “We recognise diversity as a strength.” 

Shoaib Rahim, was the third and final chair, following Akbar and Sonia Iqbal, and now senior advisor at the State Ministry for Peace, says of their ambition: “The idea was so brazen, so courageous: to try to get into politics from a non-ethnic, non-ideological platform.” A common response from the political class was: “This is Afghanistan. Your platform will fail,” said Rahim. “They told us ‘People will not be able to relate to you. You will not connect to the masses,’ because we were not on these two broad lines, meaning we weren’t ethnic or Islamist/leftist.” However, among the various problems on the horizon, lack of popular appeal would not be one of them – particularly with young people.

In fact, the group was quickly gaining attention in the public space. It was catapulted into the limelight thanks to its activities and an idealism which seemed to appeal to younger people, but also because of the status of some of its members, many of whom were already political “high flyers,” as AAN’s Reza Kazemi observed in this article about 1400’s formation. [4]High-profile members listed by AAN’s Reza Kazemi in December 2012included several in government positions, as well as others well-known in civil society, research and business. Kazemi’s … Continue reading The presence of so many members who had substantive mid-level positions in government made it an unusual entity, particularly since those members clearly straddled different political leanings. While this political diversity would later pose challenges for the group, it was also part of their strength and appeal, both in terms of the impressive array of emerging leaders they had gathered, but also because it demonstrated a commitment to inclusivity. It certainly distinguished 1400 from other youth groups at the time, many of which tended to align to one or other of the main political factions.[5]For more on other youth movements, see Reza Kazemi’s earlier mentioned article on 1400, which includes an analysis of youth movements of the … Continue reading

At the 6 December 2012 launch, the 1400 leadership laid out their vision, mission and goals (for the full text see AAN’s 2012 report). Their mission was: 

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.

Their goals included: 

– 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

What was not clearly articulated was what the “political space” and “national platform” would do, or how the group would achieve its goals. It was these strategic questions that would later bedevil 1400. 

Externally, however, they were engaged in some high profile actions, following the Qargha gathering in June 2012. On 13 April 2013, members travelled to Farah in the wake of a Taleban attack on a court house, which killed 33 civilians and injured 105. They donated blood as an act of resistance and solidarity for the huge numbers of injured people in hospital after the attack, and installed a memorial plaque in memory of those killed. For Haseeb Humayoon this Farah trip was a profound experience. He recounts how they had gone to the mosque to offer commemoration prayers for the victims; the 1400 representatives were a group of 7 or 8 men, with Shaharzad Akbar the only woman. On entering the mosque they assumed it would not be appropriate for her (as their chair) to join, because she was a woman in a conservative province, so Shamsi was designated to speak for them in the mosque. Then some others spoke until an elder called on the men to stop, inviting Shaharzad to speak, who had quietly slipped into the mosque to join them. Humayoon went on: 

The mic was transferred to her. She stood up. A few dozen men in a mosque in Farah were sitting down and looking up to her. It was a short message from her, a heartfelt one and it resonated. We raised our hands for the closing prayers after she spoke. Some of us walked out of that mosque door having learned a deep lesson about the new public space in Afghanistan and the need to never ever again operate with unchecked assumptions. Some of us learned that we must walk this country as much as we can, to see, hear and feel it much more up close, before we decide for, or on behalf of, anyone other than ourselves.

Such provincial outreach was not systematic, but sub-groups and individuals would dedicate time over the years of 1400’s existence to trying to engage and mobilise young people. All of it was a volunteer effort. Also looming, however, were the 2014 presidential elections. 

Phase Two: Election fissures and stagnation 

All ten members who were interviewed for this report saw 1400 as being – or aiming to become – a political entity. When it should start acting as one, beginning political engagement, proved to be the primary fault line within the group, and was brought to the fore by the pending 2014 presidential elections. One group wanted to dive straight into the election, either backing a ticket or forming their own slate. Another group said it was too soon – they did not have the organisational capacity, resources, or a political manifesto ready. But Afghanistan 1400 as a group was an attractive prospect for any presidential ticket – youthful, multi-ethnic and including some already well-known faces. For a group of politically ambitious professionals, the campaign – with its patterns of political courtship and promises of influence – offered endless temptations. Perhaps inevitably, the group started to break into sub-clusters. Two or three people on the leadership council leaned towards Abdullah Abdullah, but knew they could not carry the rest of the group. Meanwhile, a handful of 1400 members had breakfast with Ashraf Ghani, before he’d announced his candidacy, without clearing it with the wider membership. 

Among those who argued passionately for the group to play a role in the election campaign was Haseeb Humayoon. He said he cared more about making sure that 1400 was politically relevant, than which candidate they endorsed:  

Some of us thought it was an opportunity to test our capabilities. We didn’t want to be indifferent. We wanted to make a cohesive decision and go into the campaign as a group, as 1400, supporting any candidate we decided on, somewhere we could have a positive impact.

Humayoon also suggests that the reticence of some members to get involved in a campaign owed as much to the restrictions of their employment status at the time, as their assessment of timing.  

Others argued that getting involved in the elections was premature for 1400. Sharifi again: “I thought we were too vulnerable institutionally and structurally.” Rahyab notes that they had not yet formulated positions on the major political questions: “We had avoided the issues that might polarise us… As soon as they came up, it was clear that there were different opinions, so the general consensus was to park those issues.” Assad Nissar also felt that they were far from ready: 

Lots of people were impatient, they wanted to be in power, they wanted to be in the major football league. But you need to graduate from one league to the other – then you can join the champions league. We had nothing against it, people could [join political campaigns] as individuals, but we could not do it as a group, we didn’t have a consensus on a belief, or see a leader at that time who could represent our values.

Akbar says she was conflicted. On the one hand, she says, 1400 was political: “Let’s be real – it was about political participation, influence and change through politics. We could fail or succeed. But we needed to try.” On the other hand, she was not convinced that they had the candidates who could represent their values, nor the money or influence to compete. “[We thought:] What we have is our skills. So we can give them [a political campaign] our skills, but will we be able to shape their agendas and platforms?” 

Ultimately the group decided on a compromise: members could join a political campaign without leaving 1400, but members of the leadership council would have to resign their positions if they did. Akbar recalls around three resignations from the leadership team (one to Ghani, two to Zalmay Rasul, one of whom then went to Abdullah Abdullah in the second round). Beyond the leadership team, many others joined one of the presidential campaigns. 

Some describe the split on what role to play in the election as a civil-political divide, between those who saw 1400 as the start of a political party and those that wanted it to remain politically independent, a part of civil society. Elham Gharji, a founding member who was, at the time, president of Gawharshad University, was asked by the group to try to clarify the concepts involved:

There were some strong voices who would argue against 1400 being politically active, but still want to call 1400 a civil-political movement. I took issue with the concept of a civil-political movement. A civil society movement is the opposite of a political party. A party has a will to power. Civil society puts limitations on power.

In fact, all members wanted 1400 to be politically engaged. It was just a question of timing, says Rahim. The suggestion that some wanted to stay within the realms of civil society “belittled the debate,” according to Rahim: 

It was dismissive to say one side was civil society. It created a culture where people did not genuinely engage, which became toxic as we moved forward. People felt they weren’t being heard. This piled up over the years.

This matches the perspectives of all the interviewees; none saw 1400 as ‘only’ civil society over the long term.

The 2014 election was a bitter experience for the whole country, with a highly personalised campaign, followed by a long drawn-out fight over the results. The polarisation infected families, workplaces and civil society. In that sense, the struggles within 1400 reflected what was happening in wider society. In addition to the discord over their positioning in the election, there were inevitably personality clashes and questions of trust, which were highlighted by the most disillusioned among those interviewed. But it was the core disagreement over tactics that brought the group close to collapse. They had been at their peak membership, with between 200 and 250 members, in the run-up to the election. By 2015, the group was down to around 70 members, according to Akbar, though there was no formal process for resigning, so the numbers are not precise. Nissar recalls that after the election: “We remained out of touch with most of the members.” It took a long time to persuade people to return, and even when they did, “they brought pain and hurt with them,” says Akbar, who remains unsure about the compromise they struck for the campaign: “I still don’t know if we made the right decision.” 

Humayoon and others lament their failure to tackle and resolve the strategic question about their political engagement from the start: “We may have done better if we had cooked the idea for a little longer and then launched after the 2014 elections.” Others, like Rahyab, wonder if it might have been more realistic, given the intensity of the election divisions, to split into two or more groups, but that conversation did not take place. Instead, they tried to revive the group, but this time, with a more overtly political ambition. 

Phase Three: revival and political evolution 

The remaining core group worked hard to repair relations through 2015 and 2016, encouraging members to return and trying to finally resolve their strategic difference. They produced a document, “Arrival: Afghanistan’s New Generation at the Political Forefront”, which committed 1400 to becoming a political platform. It also pledged to “field a candidate, if elections become a key event ahead of the year 1400,” said Humayoon. “This commitment was built on the clear idea that, from now on, no one from 1400 should rally behind an existing political actor outside 1400.” The document was endorsed by the leadership council. In the end, 1400 did not field a candidate, in either the 2018 or 2019 elections, but more on this later. 

The “Arrival” document also proposed a focus on a firm call to end the war. Highlighting the human toll of the war had always been a feature of 1400’s rhetoric and actions, with a strong focus on defying attempts by the Taleban to silence dissent. But as with many Afghan progressives, the notion of a political settlement with the Taleban – a group antithetical to their democratic and liberal values – was something many members found unpalatable. On 19 June 2013, in the early phase of its existence, the group had made a robust statement against the opening of the Taleban office in Doha, something some of the members were coming to regret.

While some members still stand by the 2013 statement as a reaction to clear provocation by the Taleban, Assad Nissar acknowledges that at that time, “many of us failed to see beyond the narrative of the Taleban as a proxy of Pakistan, we failed to see that there could be another reality.” Nissar says the group later moved to a more complex position, as the war escalated and its members spent more time in the provinces: “We started to understand the magnitude of tragedy across the country.” Akbar also says that her own political priorities began to shift as she grew to understand more deeply the full horror of the conflict. 

The group as a whole found its greatest unity and cohesion when members were involved in evocative pro-peace actions, with 2017 as one of their most active years. One of the most memorable actions was when they turned the Kabul River into a ‘river of blood‘ running through the city in February 2017. 

This action was intended to commemorate those lives lost in the war, citing UNAMA’s reporting of record levels of civilian casualties in the previous year, with over 11,000 killed or injured. Nargis Azaryun who took part in the action, said: 

We were always hearing that 10,000 or 11,000 people have died, but we don’t feel it, because it is so numerical, it doesn’t hit us. It’s a river of blood that we can’t see. So the river action was to make it real and ugly and close.

Throughout the year the group also ran a tree planting campaign, planting over 3,000 trees in prominent places in provinces all over the country, with dedication stones memorialising those lives lost in the war. They also spent time travelling around the country, identifying new potential members among young people in the provinces.

Tree planting in Kandahar, March 20119. Photo: 1400

In December 2017, five years after its launch, the group publicly articulated its call for an end to the war in a statement published in Hasht e Sobh (8am) newspaper. They called for a ceasefire, for greater inclusivity in the negotiations, for the protection of the gains of the post-Taleban era and for the Taleban to recognise the voices and values of women and the new generation. The statement acknowledged that it was the result of internal discussion and deep reflection on the magnitude of the bloodshed in the country. Akbar recalled:

We had become less certain about some things that we had been very certain about, and more certain about the destructive force of the war – and that we needed to contribute to ending this war. This evolution in our thinking was a good sign. It was a reminder of the fact that we were a movement that cared deeply and was willing to reconsider our views. 

Humayoon says that in 2017 there was not yet the same degree of political consensus in favour of peace talks within the country, which meant they faced some criticism: 

We were very counter to the main drumbeats of the time with our position, and it was at a minimum confusing actors who operated within the classical comfort zones of condemning one side and cheerleading another. 

The killing of founding member Abdul Ali Shamsi in early 2017 made the cost of war very personal for the group. Shamsi, who was deputy governor of Kandahar at the time, was among 11 killed in an attack on the governor’s compound on 10 January 2017. By this stage, regardless of their political divisions, 1400 was a very tightly-knit group of friends. They were badly shaken by Shamsi’s death. Akbar remembers him as among their most inspirational leaders: 

He was very patriotic and very progressive. He was one of the most passionate among us. When we had hesitancy or felt down, he would always try to energise everyone. He really believed in engaging with the public and bringing the public along, and frankly he was better than many of us at doing it because of his experience in local governance and working with communities. 

Humayoon says that the group’s focus on ending the war had come from a realisation of how much of the burden of conflict was being born by the younger generation: 

The number of young men killed each day was brutally inhuman, and also not without severe social and humanitarian implications in immediate, near-term and long-term. In many places the war had turned into blood feuds, and blood feuds were increasing.

Elections, again

With the 2018 parliamentary election on the horizon, the group restarted discussions about its approach, this time with a clear policy committing 1400 to engage with the election. When it became obvious that they were neither adequately prepared or had the resources to field a candidate in the 2018 parliamentary elections themselves, they decided to focus on a campaign for non-secret voting inside parliament. The idea was to tackle the notorious corruption of the Afghan parliament, some of which is enabled by secret voting. While the law has not been changed, the group claim some impact, since several parliamentary candidates, including 1400 member Ashraf Naderi in Helmand and Sami Mehdi in Kabul and, took up the cause in their campaigns. It was later debated at the start of the new parliament.

By 2019, with presidential elections on the horizon, 1400 once again broke up over an internal fight over election strategy. Four members of the leadership group resigned, three of whom were in government. Some described the tension as being between those who believed it was most important to focus the group’s energy on an election campaign, versus those who saw the peace process as the overarching imperative. Others say the underlying conflict was in essence a division between those who supported the Ghani government (including prominent members inside the government) and those who opposed it and felt a transitional government was necessary as a step towards peace, which would have made elections redundant. One member (who preferred this quote not to be attributed) described the divide bitterly: 

In the end, self-interest trumped everything else. Immediate self-interest, not even long-term interests. This might have been presented as a discussion for or against elections or peace, but really it was about being pro or anti-Ghani. 

Others describe it as the gradual result of the erosion of trust within the group over the years, with some of the ‘old politics’ of ethno-political affiliations creeping in: “It wasn’t explicit,” said Gharji, “but you could sense the divides.” Once again, the group disintegrated, unable to rise above the wider polarisation of Afghan politics. 

1400 at 1400 

With the new century now upon us, Afghanistan 1400 is effectively defunct. On 24 July 2020, the group declared on Facebook that they were donating furniture and other items to the People’s Peace Movement (PPM), a movement which they saw as sharing many of their values.[6] De Sole Wulusi Harakat (People’s Peace Movement) began in Helmand province, with a sit-in by relatives of victims of a Taleban suicide attack on a sports gathering in Lashkargah in March … Continue reading This wrapping up of effects is a far cry from the optimism about what the group might be able to achieve, back in 2012, when it first launched: “Ten years is not much in the life of a nation, but we hope we can ensure our political and economic development will be irreversible by then,” Ershad Ahmadi told the Guardian at the Qargha event in June 2012. 

Many members interviewed expressed a sense of personal regret and loss, with one politely declining a request for an interview, saying it was still “too painful.” Akbar said she has a sense of personal failure: 

I feel we set our mission too high, we couldn’t change the rules of the game, so far. The game continues as it was. Although young people are more prominent in politics now, they are often [still] at the service of the same or similar ideologies, or they are focused on their own professional or political careers. 

Rahyab said that at his most pessimistic, he feels “We disappointed a generation… What we had was thousands of young people who were following us with interest and optimism.” He wishes they had spent more time getting to understand each other before launching a collective effort: 

We became too excited about these nice well-written slogans about the new generation and diversity as strength – three or four sentences that nobody can disagree with and that we could move forward with. We should have spent more time in the beginning and not launched so soon. We should have really figured out if our personal political ambitions and our timelines were compatible with our collective goals.

Rahim agrees that ultimately there was not enough to bind them together: 

For me, the big lesson learned is that age and level of education alone do not make a political platform. It isn’t enough to mean that when you get together, you can do politics as a collective.

However, he feels that what they demonstrated was that: 

The public is thirsty for a platform that is not bound to the traditional pillars of power, a genuine platform which does not smell of the old patronage. That thirst is there, we tapped into that. Such huge optimism was created.

Gharji agrees that the original problems the group responded to are as pressing as ever. He had argued for more investment into the development of 1400 as a political organisation: “The art of politics is not something that is innate – it’s professional work. From running campaigns to developing a party, we needed to develop our capabilities.” It is hard to envisage a political platform building a national constituency, purely through the efforts of volunteers with busy full-time jobs. However, building the group’s organisational strength would have drawn them into the terrain of fundraising or accepting support from external organisations, something which remained too sensitive for the group to contemplate. Gharji also advocated for them to develop and articulate their political ideology, perhaps publishing position papers or newsletters, as a means of building support and trust. With sufficient time, he feels they could have found this consensus in the core of the group, even if not every member stayed. 

Assad Nissar says the movement is merely “dormant” and that it will return, in some form, at a more conducive political moment. However, the current climate requires them to be patient: 

There’s so much noise… Top of people’s priorities is to stay alive in the ongoing war. The second priority – people are poor – they are out of work, they need to feed their kids… That’s the reality of the country. The space is not there. 

Gran Hewad (now spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) says that he, like many in 1400, has matured politically over the years and that this bodes well for some kind of revival in the future: “If we were to go through a remobilisation, we will have evolved… I am, conditionally, optimistic.” 

While some might have regrets, all members interviewed spoke with great pride about much that 1400 stood for. “I learned to adapt to political diversity,” said Hewad, “to respect others’ views in a way that previous generations hadn’t done.” Nissar also spoke positively about the past:

Regardless of where we are now – we are proud of the values and process and the fact that [1400] was never corrupted. Yes, there were sometimes individuals bigger than the movement that threatened it, but the idea of the platform was not corrupted or co-opted even until today. And it still stands. We produced many ambassadors representing our values, for example, Shaharzad [Akbar, now Chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission]. 

Akbar echoes the importance of the group’s independence: “We remained a volunteer effort… All activities were fundraised for among ourselves, which was very unusual.” Omar Sharifi says “The legacy of 1400 will be this group of people who remain committed to these ideas and values.” The effort they made to extend their networks throughout the country brought Sharifi an enduring lesson: 

Our commonalities are often overshadowed by violence and war, but beneath the surface, without the curtain of violence and terror, there are so many of us around the country who share the same values. 

Those values remain critical in the “current political chaos” says Gharji: “We wanted to transcend that politics and make it about citizens and about Afghanistan as a country, not a hierarchy within the state core.” Humayoon is proud of what they attempted, against the odds: 

We chose the hard path of not pitting our people’s distinctiveness against each other as a political tool, but rather focused on helping weave the country together as war continued to shred it. And when the pain became unbearable for Afghanistan, 1400 was not indifferent, but rather initiated a liberal call for an end to the war and the search for healing.

Akbar says she hopes others will come forward: 

I can’t wait for the day that those ideas will be a success – that we will have a strong political movement informed by democratic values, tolerance and inclusion, representing the new generation. I feel that I have run out of energy and ideas right now. But I really hope someone does something about it.

Conclusion

It is sobering to reflect on the optimism and idealism of the original ambitions of 1400 in this time of deep crisis for Afghanistan. The dominant political factions remain as polarised as ever, with ethno-political factionalism and political survival all too often trumping any sense of value-driven politics and at a time when cohering around the national interest could not be more pressing. While personality clashes and personal ambition were inevitably a feature of the disputes within 1400, the fundamental differences were political. Afghanistan 1400 may have suffered from ‘too much’ inclusion in its original formation. Many members in hindsight felt the tent they had put up was too large to be effective and that their focus on inclusion created a wariness to tackle the issues that divided them. This was a political initiative aiming to transcend the old fractures of the country, including an unspoken ‘ethnic hierarchy’ that places Pashtuns above Tajiks and Tajiks above Hazaras, Uzbeks and other minorities. But they could barely bring themselves to debate potential policy positions let alone find a consensus on these sensitive questions, a sign of how deep the wounds are, even among this most forward-thinking generation. 

1400 did, however, bring together and nurture an impressive array of political thinkers. That some were focused on the urgency of now is understandable in a political environment where so many moments are ‘pivotal’ and ‘historic.’ However, the challenges they responded to – the political self-interest of the dominant political actors, ethnic and ideological polarisation and factionalism, and the immense barriers to inclusive political involvement – remain as pressing as they were ten years ago. One can only hope that Elham Gharji is right to hold on to some optimism: 

The vast majority of us were really serious about trying doing something very significant for the country – many of us will try again in some form. We must. What is happening now is endangering our nation. Our identity as a nation has to be together.

Edited by Martine van Bijlert 

* Rachel Reid is a writer and former human rights researcher and journalist who was previously based in Afghanistan. 

References

References
1 For an analysis of the first parliament, including a breakdown of independent candidates and former mujahedin factions, see Andrew Wilder: “A House Divided? Analysing the 2005 Afghan Elections,” Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU), December 2005.
2 For an analysis of the 2010 election, see Martine van Bijlert: “Untangling Afghanistan’s 2010 Vote: Analysing the electoral data,” 19 February 2011, https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/en/special-reports/untangling-afghanistans-2010-vote-analysing-the-electoral-data/. See also this report on the fallout of the 2010 elections by Noah Coburn and Anna Larson: “Undermining Representative Governance: Afghanistan’s 2010 Parliamentary Election and its Alienating Impact,” AREU, 22 February 2011. https://areu.org.af/publication/1104/ 
3 The US ‘surge’ took place in 2009, raising American troop levels to 100,000. However, by February 2013, in president Obama’s State of the Union address, he announced that the then US troop level of 64,000 would be reduced by 34,000, with full withdrawal contemplated by the end of 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/feb/13/state-of-the-union-address-obama-live#block-511ad7c895cb417f9375bc77 
4 High-profile members listed by AAN’s Reza Kazemi in December 2012included several in government positions, as well as others well-known in civil society, research and business. Kazemi’s original list is used here, with some updates on more recent professional positions:

  • Wahid Omar, then a former presidential spokesperson, later advisor to Abdullah Abdullah, now Director General of the Office of Public and Strategic Affairs, government of Afghanistan;
  • Abdullah Ahmadzai, then a former chief electoral officer, later Chief Electoral Officer of the Independent Election Commission, now Country Representative of the Asia Foundation; 
  • Abdul Ali Shamsi, then a former security advisor in the Helmand provincial administration, later deputy governor of Kandahar, killed in an attack in 2017 on the Kandahar governor’s office;
  • Ershad Ahmadi, then director-general of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ fifth political division in charge of the Americas and Australia, later deputy foreign minister, presently director of Kabul Compass (a private company); 
  • Sediq Sediqi, then Ministry of Interior spokesperson, later presidential spokesman;
  • Hekmatullah Fushanji, then the National Security Council’s foreign affairs director, now based in the United States; 
  • Barry Salaam, then a civil society activist, now a senior communications advisor in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; 
  • Najlla Habibyar, then chief executive officer of Export Promotion Agency of Afghanistan, now based in the US; 
  • Omar Sharifi, then (and now) Director of American Institute of Afghanistan Studies;
  • Haseeb Humayoon, then (and now) Director of Qara Consulting;
  • Shaharzad Akbar, then co-founder of Qara Consulting, later presidential advisor, now Chair of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission;
  • Gran Hewad, then Afghanistan Analysts Network’s researcher, now spokesperson and Director General of Communications at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; 
  • Farida Nekzad, then director of Wakht news agency, now director of the Centre for the Protection of Afghan Women Journalists;
  • Hashmatullah Radfar, journalist, later advisor to Abdullah Abdullah and part of media department of the High Council of National Reconciliation. 
  • Salem Shah Ibrahimi, then an advisor in the Ministry of Education, now Deputy National Security Advisor. 

5 For more on other youth movements, see Reza Kazemi’s earlier mentioned article on 1400, which includes an analysis of youth movements of the time. https://www.afghanistan-analysts.org/en/reports/political-landscape/the-afghanistan-1400-movement-changing-youth-politics-in-afghanistan/
6  De Sole Wulusi Harakat (People’s Peace Movement) began in Helmand province, with a sit-in by relatives of victims of a Taleban suicide attack on a sports gathering in Lashkargah in March 2018. The protestors’ slogan was Jang bas dai, sola ghwaru, (Enough war, we want peace). The protestors wanted to march to Musa Qala to meet Taleban leaders, but their requests for a ceasefire to enable the march were rejected by both the Taleban and the government. They turned to a hunger strike in response and as national attention grew, similar protests sprang up around Helmand, in neighbouring Kandahar, and eventually spreading to 16 provinces, including in the north. The People’s Peace Movement marched to Kabul for 30 days in May-June 2018, through highly insecure districts, sleeping in mosques along the way, taking their demand for peace talks to the Afghan government. The group marched again in June 2019 to meet the Taleban. See AAN’s: “Going Nationwide: The Helmand peace march initiative,” 23 April 2018 and Fahim Abed: “

,” New York Times, June 10, 2019. The group is still active.

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Peace Politics Youth Civil Society War casualties

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