Originally posted December 2009

Civil Society (CS) consists of various kinds of community-based, non-governmental movements that, without waiting for or requesting government orders or assistance, come together mainly to solve problems and effect change. CS actors in Afghanistan exist at the local, district, and national levels. They are engaged in resolving problems and in calling upon people to contribute to, or participate in, community-based activities.

Because for many years Afghanistan has not had a widely accepted and effective national government, people have traditionally relied upon CS approaches and mechanisms to tackle problems. Social and community-based movements in Afghanistan consist of the shuras (councils) and the jirgas (gatherings of community elders). There are various types of Shuras, ranging from those that are clerical and educational to those that are ethnic-based. Jirgas, which are convened only occasionally, deal with problems or issues that impact a large number of people, and thus include representatives from different groups. Shuras operate daily, weekly, and seasonally.

At the beginning of the new era in Afghanistan (i.e., after 9/11), Afghan CSs proliferated and thrived. As the Afghan Constitution was not practicable in all parts of the country, CSs became very active in almost all villages. Linking up with international actors, CSs expanded into new areas and provided fresh opportunities for ordinary Afghans to improve their lives. However, in recent years, all of these CSs have been subjected to the negative influences of the government and the warlords.

Afghan CSs currently face major challenges. In some parts of the country, all such movements have ceased to function. Those that continue to operate are doing so underground. Fundamentalists and warlords have branded independent community movements as un-Islamic, Communist, or Christian and have sought to use communities as weapons, shields, and slaves through coercion and intimidation. Meanwhile, the Afghan government has been unable either to curb the influence of warlords or in other ways assist CSs. In fact, many important government figures are themselves fundamentalists or warlords. Non-governmental organizations, especially international NGOs, have tried to support CS activities. Nevertheless, the CSs are suffocating, especially in rural areas.

These forces exploit the fact that Afghanistan is a traditional Islamic country, a majority of whose population is illiterate, by seeking to persuade people that those who are open-minded, favor development, and work to mobilize CSs are un-Islamic. By using religion as a tool in this manner, such forces try to shut the door to literacy, education, and productive links with the outside world — antidotes to the root causes of violence and terror.

It is important to emphasize that violent conflict and terrorism in Afghanistan are attributable to community-based problems such as poverty, injustice, underdevelopment, illiteracy, and ethnicity. CS approaches and mechanisms have played, and can play, a significant role not just in conflict resolution, but also in alleviating the conditions that give rise to conflict. And in areas of Afghanistan that fortunately enjoy some measure of peace and stability, progress has been achieved partly because of the efforts of national and international forces, but mainly because of the work of informal CSs.

Unfortunately, national and international forces have made mistakes that have had a detrimental effect on CSs. The lack of cooperation and coordination among these forces has caused community members in non-peaceful areas to lose confidence in them. Fearing that these forces will soon leave, community members remain passive and the potential of CSs is squandered. Of necessity, many communities have grown accustomed to tolerate and adapt to whatever armed group is present in their midst.

The negative effects of war are wide-ranging and long-lasting in social, economic, cultural, and educational terms. In Afghanistan, where only 27% of the population is literate and the quality and quantity of higher education is very low, most youths are unskilled and jobless. At the same time, however, there is a high demand for workers to help the country recover from years of conflict-driven devastation and to lift society out of poverty. Most importantly, there is still great hope for change and mobilization.

The challenge is to find ways to remove the influence and coercive power of fundamentalists and warlords from the face of the community in order to unleash the potential of communities. It is necessary and possible to accomplish this aim, while at the same time helping to mobilize Afghan communities. NGOs and other friends and partners of the Afghan people would do well to support this effort. There are several critical ingredients to ensuring that local communities are responsive to such support, and that this collaboration leads to CS activities that are both productive and sustainable in the long term:

First, the community should be involved, well aware, and educated patiently to cooperate and coordinate their efforts. If community members can be convinced to take “ownership,” they will be encouraged to take further steps.

  • The objectives should not be imposed on local communities, but freely chosen by them.

  • Those seeking to empower and support CSs should not work for them, but work with them. Patient explanation rather than paternalism and dependency works best.

  • Receptiveness to the views and concerns of marginalized community figures and broad inclusiveness should guide these efforts.

  • Continuous, incremental steps should be taken to neutralize the “stick wielders” by transmitting power and knowledge to community representatives, ordinary people, and socially marginalized figures and families.

  • Close attention must be given to ensuring that the work (morally and materially) undertaken is of the highest quality, which is likely to engender trust and the willingness to further cooperate.

  • CSs should be encouraged to dare to accept new challenges and responsibilities.

Afghan communities today are living in cages — held captive by the warped views and values as well as the coercive power of warlords and fundamentalists. Both the Afghan government and the international community have been complicit in this. But ordinary Afghans, while vulnerable, are not powerless. Nor is the international community powerless to help them. Rather than offering to substitute the golden cage of dependency for Afghans’ current imprisonment by warlords and fundamentalists, the international community should do all that it can to liberate Afghans by supporting CS activists and activities.