It’s now been a year since the United States signed an agreement with the Taliban. Afghans were expecting peace, but one of the most tangible changes has been an increase in targeted killings, mostly unclaimed, that have created an environment of terror and fear. There were nearly three times the number of such attacks in 2020 compared with 2019; the casualties include the deaths of 11 human rights defenders and media workers in the past five months. Some of Afghanistan’s most important gains, its activists, community leaders and scholars, are being silenced at a time when, after the U.S.-Taliban deal, Afghans had hoped for a reduction in violence and for inclusive intra-Afghan negotiations.
While the Taliban denies involvement in most targeted attacks, it benefits from the environment of fear and hopelessness around the peace process and the lack of critical voices demanding an inclusive peace. This reign of terror for Afghan civilians must end in order for a real peace process to begin. As the United States reviews its Afghanistan policy, it still has leverage — including the existing U.N. sanctions on the Taliban, the Taliban’s desire for international recognition and legitimacy, and the presence of international forces in Afghanistan — to help stop these attacks and encourage a cease-fire and an inclusive peace process.
My colleagues at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC), which I chair, know what it is to feel terror. In the past 18 months, we have lost three of our most dedicated and brilliant staff. Colleagues such as Fatima Khalil, who was just at the start of her professional life, full of hope and determination. She could have chosen a comfortable life abroad, but she chose to work for human rights in Afghanistan. She and another AIHRC colleague, Jawid Folad, a father and community leader in his own right, were killed in a horrific attack on their car. I cannot stop thinking of what a loss their deaths are, not just to the grieving families, but to our young democracy.
Or our colleague Abdul Samad Amiri. His murder left a hole in the protection of human rights in Ghowr province, where he ran our regional office at just age 28. His entire family fled after his brutal killing. They were one of the few families in the province to openly support girls’ higher education and women’s employment.
They are not the only ones to leave Afghanistan. Every day I hear of another friend, journalist, academic, women’s rights activist or businessperson leaving the country. Their departures are creating an absence that will take another generation to fill. Those who can’t leave feel silenced by fear and have little chance of influencing the peace process.
It has been years since Afghans gathered en masse, for fear of attacks. Following the recent wave of assassinations, public debate has closed down, even in the virtual sphere. This is even more true beyond Kabul, in rural areas where conflict has been the most savage.
President Biden’s team has signaled that it will withdraw its last troops — per the agreement the United States struck with the Taliban — only if the Taliban reduces violence. This is welcome but not enough. Even with overall violence levels down, targeted killings are silencing the voices needed to build pressure for peace.
The United States does not want Afghanistan to collapse into a catastrophic civil war as soon as it withdraws, after 20 years of assistance. But the narrow focus of the U.S.-Taliban deal ignored the wider needs of the peace process, including the importance of civic space and the protection of civilians. This approach should be urgently reconsidered in Biden’s review.
Public participation is not a bonus that is “nice to have.” An inclusive process builds momentum for peace and boosts the credibility of the process. Bringing traditional and nontraditional civil society voices to the table from across Afghanistan will bring a sense of urgency and bottom-up pressure on the parties.
Public participation can best be guaranteed through a cease-fire. The United States and its allies should utilize their leverage with both sides and the region to continue to push for an interim and immediate cease-fire that will create an opportunity for national engagement. An immediate end to targeted killings, a cease-fire and the restoration of civic space will allow for broader inclusion in the talks, reviving hope and confidence in the process.
The United States can encourage the Taliban and the Afghan government to create this enabling environment for peace. Afghans could then force hope back onto the table.
We will not find peace in silence and fear.