Like every Afghan, I’m watching with fear and hope to see what will emerge from last month’s agreement between the United States and the Taliban. My hope is that it can help end more than 40 years of war. My fear is that the current process may not result in a just and dignified peace where all Afghans are considered equal citizens, regardless of gender, race or ethnicity. I fear that the Taliban’s rigid interpretations of Islamic laws will undermine our country’s gains of the past 18 years: an open media, women’s presence in public spheres, and more.

Afghan students display awards from a debate tournament at the Netherlands’ embassy in Kabul. Debate training builds respect across communal lines and youth constituencies whose participation is vital in a peace process, the author writes.
Afghan students display awards from a debate tournament at the Netherlands’ embassy in Kabul. Debate training builds respect across communal lines and youth constituencies whose participation is vital in a peace process, the author writes.

As Afghanistan moves toward intra-Afghan peace talks, I see that the discussions so far—involving the U.S. and Afghan governments and the Taliban leadership—are attempting to make a peace from the top of these power structures that will then filter down to Afghan society. Yet these Afghan power structures are historically dominated by old men, while almost two-thirds of Afghans are roughly my age (I am 25) or younger. Any real peace for our country must be built not only from the top down but also from the bottom of society up.

And as a first principle, no real peace can be built through any agreement that sacrifices the rights—to education and to opportunity for an equal and open society—for which our generation has been striving. The old, patriarchal idea of the Taliban that women and girls should be denied these rights can have no part in the new Afghanistan envisioned, and fought for, by our country’s women and youth. Afghan society has transformed enormously since the Taliban’s rule ended in 2001. It will not tolerate a return to an extreme, harsh Taliban ideology.

Afghans and the international community have heard this statement from many Afghan women, but it is also the understanding and commitment of Afghan men of my generation. Our country would not have achieved what we have today if it weren’t for the contributions of brave, competent Afghan girls and women, working shoulder to shoulder with men. How could we sacrifice the futures of women and girls with some unjust compromise? I cannot make that decision for my sister. A peace deal that compromises the rights of women is no less a danger than the current conflict.

A second principle for real peace is that it can be built only by restoring justice and strengthening the Afghan values of social acceptance and coexistence. Throughout my life, much of Afghanistan’s violence has been caused by the narrow ideas of tribalism and the narrow-minded pursuit of power by warlords or politicians or religious figures who are willing to exploit it. Afghanistan’s political parties are built mostly around differences of race rather than of ideas. This has distanced our ethnic communities—Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks or others—from each other. While people can use this kind of competition to build power or wealth, no one can use it to build peace.

My own work, with an organization that I co-founded, Mastooraat, uses art, education and critical thinking to promote social tolerance among our communities. Other civil society organizations that I have worked with are doing the same. Over the past three years, I have led in training hundreds of youth in debating, organizing dozens of youth debate events in Kabul and Afghanistan’s provinces. By learning to debate their differences, these youth build tolerance for opposing ideas. In recent years, I have used trained from USIP, through its Generation Change Fellows Program, to include community-based peacebuilding techniques in our work. We are designing programs to help young Afghans contribute—from the community level—to that necessary process of building peace in our country from the base of society upward.

I have been much luckier than many Afghans of my generation. Like many, I began my life in a family displaced by warfare, studying more than seven years in classes held under tents or in the open air, with only a blackboard and a teacher. In the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, my brothers and I worked on the streets, selling chewing gum and hand fans to make a little money to help our parents care for our family.

As with any human being, what has allowed me to build a life for myself and contribute to my community has been an education and the freedom to pursue my dreams without being blocked by the prejudices and injustices of tribalism or gender bias. I can only work for—and indeed can only see—a peace for my country that allows the same opportunity for all Afghans.

Sharif Shah Safi is a co-founder of the Mastooraat Art Organization in Kabul and a USIP Generation Change fellow.

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