A peace process to end the 18-year war in Afghanistan is underway, but its legitimacy has come under question due to the initial and surprising exclusion of the Afghan government and the sidelining of women from the process. The U.S. government is holding talks with the extremist Taliban, which refuses to recognize or directly engage with the current Afghan government. Amid concerns about the inclusiveness of the process, I sat down with Lida Azim, a young Afghan-American leader and grassroots organizer who has been involved in the peace process as a member of the Afghan diaspora in Washington, D.C. We discussed her thoughts on how the process has unfolded so far and why the diaspora’s involvement is critical to lasting peace. Azim is a first-generation Afghan-American woman, grassroots organizer, and the co-founder of the Afghan Diaspora for Equality and Progress (ADEP), a non-profit organization that fosters civic engagement among Afghan-Americans. Interview responses have been lightly edited for clarity.
What is your overall assessment of the peace process to date?
Lida Azim: Over the span of 18 years, there were many lives sacrificed and plenty of money spent, so a U.S. withdrawal is understandable. Our main concern in the Afghan-American diaspora community is that this will be a rushed process at the very end of a costly and painful war. There’s still trust-building that needs to be realized, tough compromises that need to be made, and most of all, a reconciliation process that has yet to be established. It’s not just Afghan women who are asking to be part of these negotiations: the country’s youth, which makes up around 63 percent of the total population, as well as its disabled and its ethnic minorities, all want their voices to be heard.
Another concern is the Taliban’s refusal to recognize the Afghan government as legitimate, which has meant that the Afghan government is sidelined from one of the most important historical processes in its own country. The lack of control the Taliban leadership has over their members is also worrying, and there has been an alarming wave of violence all across the country in recent months, especially in the capital, Kabul. I believe in peace and a successful negotiation but only if it’s done right. If it’s not, then what has the struggle of the last 18 years been for?
What do you see as the role of the Afghan diaspora in the peace process?
Azim: I think the diaspora has a unique role in the current Afghan peace process. We are in a position where we can lobby the different branches of the U.S. government in order to help the Afghan people. For example, Afghan-Americans can call their local representatives in Congress and send them messages on social media to ask that they uphold the Women, Peace, and Security Act, which President Donald Trump signed in 2017. That law states that women are required to be at the negotiation table at any U.S.-led peace process. So why is there an absence of Afghan women in this negotiation? This specific work of interfacing with elected representatives is at the crossroads of what we want to do: build an engaged Afghan-American community that realizes its own power and is able to effect change.
How did you and your organization get involved with the peace process and why did you think it was important that your voices be heard as members of the Afghan diaspora?
Azim: A member of the Afghan-American community who works at the United States Institute of Peace was communicating with Afghan women who were working to get a seat at the negotiating table. When these Afghan women came to the United States to meet with members of Congress and other parts of the U.S. government, we were invited to meet with them as part of a broader cohort of engaged Afghan and Afghan-American women working here in the U.S. The Afghan women explained some of their struggles in getting their message out effectively here in the U.S. about the importance of including women in the peace process. The issue wasn’t the substance of their messaging—it just wasn’t reaching the right U.S. stakeholders because the Afghan women did not have enough of a grassroots power base here in the U.S. ADEP was able to help them with their messaging, partly by creating an interactive toolkit for the diaspora to use to call their representatives about the peace process.
Finally, it was important for the diaspora’s voices to be heard because we have a direct stake in the peace process. We also have an emotional connection to the country. Even though we are physically disconnected from Afghanistan, events there still affect us and our families, and the U.S. military’s involvement in Afghanistan means our connection to this process is even deeper and more complicated. We also have a unique ability to affect the process through grassroots organizing and people power. We can vote based on these issues and ask our congressional representatives to make the right choices.
If and when the Afghan government and the Taliban hold direct talks, how might the Afghan diaspora, especially women, be involved?
Azim: The time to be involved is now. As women and as Afghan-Americans, we will continue to advocate for congressional oversight and enforcement of the Women, Peace, and Security Act, and we need the diaspora’s help to do that.
What do you think diaspora populations from other countries with a recent history of civil strife, like Sudan and Venezuela, can learn from the Afghan diaspora in terms of peace processes and reconciliation?
Azim: In our time advocating for an inclusive peace negotiation, we have learned that women’s involvement in peace processes is a requirement that needs to be met in order to achieve peace. Short-term solutions that leave out key stakeholders will not lead to long-term stability. There are years of grievances that must be addressed and the best individuals to speak about these issues are Afghans themselves, so our role as members of the diaspora is to support them over the long term.
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