Historic peace talks between the Taliban and Afghan government began in early September, opening a window for peace after four decades of conflict. Afghans, overwhelmingly weary of war and craving an end to violence, are watching closely. This urge for peace is the most important force motivating the talks, and Afghanistan’s burgeoning community of artists articulate it especially powerfully.
Many fear the peace talks with the Taliban will trade away the basic freedoms that have allowed such a community to emerge since 2001. Those of us who have worked for years to support the talks are motivated by the exact opposite: the notion that peace is the way to solidify Afghanistan’s gains. There is legitimate disagreement on this point, but great artistry can rise above the politics and passions of the moment to elevate peace as a universal human need.
To that end, USIP recently hosted a group of elite Afghan musicians for a ”virtual conference for peace.” The Institute organized this event, in partnership with the Rumi Consultancy in Kabul, as part of our much larger effort to advance Afghan peace. Much of this work takes the form of more traditional policy briefs and roundtable discussions, but we believed that highlighting the right group of artists could help peace efforts in four specific ways.
First, with negotiations having newly begun, the time could not be more ripe for a reminder that Afghans almost universally want to end this war. Though many diplomatic maneuvers made this breakthrough possible, its real origin was arguably a three-day cease-fire for the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Fitr in 2018, when cities across Afghanistan erupted in jubilant scenes of celebration among citizens, government soldiers, and Taliban fighters. The outpouring made undeniable the thirst for peace in every quarter of Afghan society, and remains a primary reason the talks are moving ahead. This is the popular sentiment the assembled musicians channeled.
Second, artists have propelled movements for peace and justice throughout history. They often provide the spark of inspiration that galvanizes a movement in the first place (consider Upton Sinclair’s contribution to labor reforms, or Harriet Beecher Stowe’s to abolitionism); the intellectual ballast that helps hold a movement together; and/or the sense of community that keeps a movement cohesive and committed.
Musicians thrive especially in in this latter category. Among countless examples, consider the role of gospel music in the American civil rights movement of the 1960s, rock and roll in the movement that brought down the communist bloc, or the guitarist who called in Egypt’s Tahrir Square for Hosni Mubarak’s once-unfathomable ouster. In Afghanistan, musicians embody everything the peace process needs to protect—the freedoms, open discourse, and cultural ferment since 2001. They can simultaneously galvanize the movement for peace and embody its highest ideals.
Third, even a successful political settlement in Afghanistan will not survive unless it takes real account of voices across Afghan society. A torrent of international practice supports this. One notorious example is the 2016 referendum on Colombia’s historic peace agreement, which narrowly failed despite substantial public consultation during those negotiations. The inclusion of an entire society is a daunting task requiring disparate efforts, but the irreplaceable value of great artists is often that they can express what scores, thousands, or millions are thinking.
In this concert, Hamid Mazari improvises the lines “tired of war, we long for peace, the children of Adam are the same … may God bring peace, our people are in pain.” Jamal Mobarez proclaims, “I may die and never see peace, but I fear for the next generation—that they will see the same injustice as me.” One can imagine how many in these artists’ home areas, or across Afghanistan generally, might proclaim the same.
Finally, for all the thought we put into specific linkages between artistry and the peace process, we found the most resonant audience reaction was simply joy at the depiction of Afghanistan as a place of beauty and cultural bounty, in a world that constantly associates it—falsely—with endless warfare. Afghanistan experienced decades of stability before the 1978 communist coup, including a cultural golden age in the 1970s that produced top musicians like the beloved Ahmed Zahir. Another such age began as soon as the Taliban fell in 2001; a teenage female piano prodigy like Maram Ataee, a Hazara rapper like Mobarez, preservers of traditional music like Saida Gul Maina, and a collective of younger girls with musical ambitions like the Miraculous Love Kids are quintessential products of the era.
In the final performance, the young female guitarists of the Miraculous Love Kids stand in the ruins atop one of Kabul’s iconic hills. As their performance ends, one offers us a smile and a peace sign, guitar and scarf both slung over her shoulder. In that moment a musical current seems to drift in from the wider world, and a plea from Kabul for humanity to radiate back out. Both the ruins and the beauty of the city form the peak on which she stands; both Afghans and foreigners had their roles in making it so. The cry is for an end to violence, as for every artist preceding her. One hopes that enlightened decisionmakers on each side of the conflict hear it.