Sahar Halaimzai is an advocate and human rights campaigner working for PEN International. Zarlasht Halaimzai is director and co-founder of Refugee Trauma Initiative (RTI). Quhramaana Kakar is a peace activist, a development practitioner, and the founder and director of Women for Peace and Participation. Rahela Sidiqi is the founding director of Farkhunda Trust for Afghan Women’s Education.

In recent weeks, Afghanistan has been making headlines across the world. Political commentators, analysts and editorial boards of leading newspapers, particularly in the United States, have been speculating on what the latest peace negotiations might mean for the country’s future.

The people of Afghanistan have watched these developments with bewilderment and concern. As the United States sits at the negotiating table with the Taliban and other warlords but not our elected representatives, we worry whether a society can survive when its voice has been disregarded. According to a recent national survey, Afghans consider the Taliban a “discredited actor” and do not believe that it has any intention of making peace. It is hard to imagine how a democracy can endure when the safekeeping of its institutions has been handed to violent forces.

We fear that the opportunity for real peace is being squandered and that the people of Afghanistan will bear the consequences. The lives and the future of our young people are being negotiated away.

And yet, while power brokers talk behind closed doors thousands of miles away, Afghans in the country and abroad are mobilizing. Communities are coming together across ethnic, religious, gender and geographical lines. Women’s organizations such as the Afghan Women’s Network have released a plan for negotiating peace. Across different provinces and in Western capitals, Afghans are protesting the current negotiation framework, all with a common purpose — to share their vision of peace in Afghanistan.

Our coalition, Time4RealPeace, is joining these voices by launching an appeal, led by more than 500 women, civil society organizations and rights groups in Afghanistan and supported by more than 30 prominent figures and international rights groups worldwide. We are demanding a legitimate process that includes our interests and safeguards our democratic structures and institutions.

Afghanistan of today is not the Afghanistan of two decades ago. In 2001, when the United States arrived in Afghanistan to put an end to Taliban rule, the people of Afghanistan welcomed the intervention, hoping for a durable solution to the Afghan war. Afghans wanted peace. It was their sacrifices, leadership and optimism that enabled President George W. Bush to declare victory over the Taliban shortly after the first U.S. soldiers arrived on Afghan soil.

Since then, Afghans have been fighting against extraordinary odds to rebuild their political, cultural and social institutions. Afghanistan’s gross domestic product has grown fivefold since 2002, and per capita GDP increased nearly 64 percent over the same period. Socially and politically, Afghans have rebounded from decades of war and reclaimed public life and space for themselves. Just 18 years ago, under Taliban rule, women and girls were not allowed to be educated. Now we have a constitution that protects the rights of women and minorities. Women account for 14 percent of university lecturers, and more than 780 women lead classrooms in Afghan institutions of higher learning. We have female mayors and district governors.

Critically, in a country where 68 percent of citizens are younger than 25, our young people have risen to face the challenges of this legacy of war and are taking responsibility for implementing the changes they want to see. In 2018, more than 60 percent of parliamentary candidates were younger than 40. In recent years, more than 500 young leaders have been appointed to positions of power within government, and many others have become successful entrepreneurs and activists.

Now these hard-won battles are being threatened by those who claim to represent our interests but do not. The United States is negotiating only with the Taliban ancien regime — men who have been enriched by war and are far removed from the goals and aspirations of the average Afghan citizen.

They seem determined to reenact the cycle of violence and corruption that so many Afghans have dedicated themselves to ending. We know that stability is achieved through generational change rather than deals between elites. Young people’s sense of optimism, belief in democracy and determination to rebuild the country have been Afghanistan’s most valuable resources.

As newspaper articles are filled with hand-wringing, and as negotiating rooms are filled with hollow assurances that our rights will be protected, we know what is at stake: the right to work, the right to walk the streets without fear, our access to basic education, access to health care, the ability to remain in the light and not return to the shadows. There’s no need to speculate about what will happen if the people are not heard. We are raising our voices to tell you.

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