A recent grassroots peace movement in Afghanistan began in late March 2018 as a series of sit-ins and a hunger strike in Helmand province demanding that both the government and Taliban implement a cease-fire. Similar sit-ins began across the country in solidarity, and on May 13, seven citizens from Helmand province began marching to Kabul to advocate for peace. Over 37 days, they walked from sun up to sundown in the sweltering heat, benefiting from Pashtun traditions of nanawati (sanctuary) and hospitality from local residents while observing the Ramadan fast during the daytime. By the time the marchers reached Kabul on June 18 after 700 kilometers, their numbers had swelled to over 70, they had drawn significant international attention and received a highly publicized audience with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. USIP’s Maria Stephan and Johnny Walsh discuss the significance of this nonviolent movement, how its bottom-up approach can strengthen the push for a peace, and what to expect from the movement going forward.

Members of the peace march walk to the edge of Ghazni, Afghanistan on June 11, 2018. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)
Members of the peace march walk to the edge of Ghazni, Afghanistan on June 11, 2018. (Jim Huylebroek/The New York Times)

Why did this happen now?

Walsh: This peace movement began most immediately in reaction to a particularly heinous Taliban attack on March 19 near a sports stadium in Helmand. Its rapid rise owes much to parallel developments in the Afghan peace process that have become mutually reinforcing: President Ghani’s widely applauded peace offer to the Taliban on February 28; a series of high-profile conferences that have consolidated support for peace among Afghan religious scholars and key international actors; and (most importantly) the remarkable three-day cease-fire between the Afghan government and the Taliban across Afghanistan this month to celebrate the Eid holiday. Having started in an overwhelmingly Pashtun area that is largely controlled by the Taliban, the peace movement probably also benefited from the concurrent growth of a human rights movement among Pashtuns living across the border in Pakistan. At the broadest level, the peace movement owes its success to widespread war weariness among the Afghan population that has simmered for years but rarely been as visible as it is now.

What is the movement’s significance thus far?

Walsh: First, as noted above, the peace march has helped expose a pervasive public desire to end the war, which has bridged ethnic, regional, gender, and age divides and bolsters pro-peace voices on all sides of the conflict. Second, the peace marchers have positioned themselves as credible, politically neutral voices in their own right (opposing U.S., Afghan government and Taliban violence equally); at least for now, they can call for bold steps (such as additional cease-fires or the start of formal peace discussions) that will command attention across Afghanistan and internationally. Using traditional Pashtun and Afghan forms of protest they have also gained credibility and independence from specific political or international actors. Third, they have highlighted the importance of bottom-up, civilian-led peace efforts as a necessary and unavoidable complement to peace talks at the national level. Finally, though the marchers avoid taking a side in the conflict, they have helped put rare public pressure on the Taliban. The Taliban initially tried to deflect marchers’ demands, and more recently to discredit the group as a U.S. front, but the insurgent group ultimately cares deeply about its popular image and is struggling to counter the message that Afghans of all stripes are tired of the war.

Have there been similar movements in times of civil war?

Stephan: The emergence of the Helmand peace march and growing grassroots peace movement demonstrate that ordinary Afghans are willing to turn war weariness into mass action. It is not the first time that unarmed civilians in civil war contexts have used nonviolent direct-action tactics to demand peace. In Liberia, Muslim and Christian women formed the Women’s Mass Action for Peace and organized vigils, sit-ins, demonstrations and even sex strikes to put pressure on the government and armed insurgency to sign a peace deal in 2003. During the civil war in Colombia, communities mobilized and engaged in collective action targeting government security forces, insurgents and paramilitary groups to deter violence against civilians.

What lessons can be draw from these successful movements?

Stephan: Research shows that nonviolent resistance has been twice as effective as armed struggle in achieving major political goals. Although violence targeting unarmed protestors is not uncommon, nonviolent movements are most successful when they attract large and diverse levels of participation, innovate their tactics—alternating between methods of concentration (protests, sit-ins, blockades) and methods of dispersion (consumer boycotts, go-slow tactics, stay-at-home actions)—and when they maintain nonviolent discipline in the face of violence and repression. (Training, preparation, and codes of conduct were integral to the Khudai Khidmatgar nonviolent movement against British colonial rule led by Pashtun leader Badshah Khan in the 1930s.) Building organizational infrastructure and decentralized leadership can help movements remain resilient and keep momentum. A movement leadership’s ability to articulate an alternative vision for society along with a plan for getting there is an important way to maintain support and commitment—particularly important in a society that has endured decades of civil war.

What can outside actors do to help the movement?

Stephan: While local Afghans will ultimately determine the fate of the peace movement, and while the movement’s credibility depends on the public believing it acts independently of any outside political force, there are a few ways that outside actors can help the movement succeed:

  • First, they can amplify the peace movement’s demands and activities in media outlets, diplomatic cables, and public statements. 
  • Second, diplomats and government officials can urge the inclusion of movement leaders and representatives in formal and informal peace process initiatives, carving out space for their active participation.
  • Third, respected third parties can provide safe spaces and facilitation support to help movement leaders strategically plan for the future, building on early successes. They can help them anticipate challenges and plan for sustainability
  • Fourth and related, they can support education and skills-building in organizing and strategic nonviolent action, working with Afghan-led organizations and universities that are already providing such training using materials that have been translated into the local languages.

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