After the Afghan Taliban failed to extend the ceasefire with the government, peace activists are now aiming to push the United Nations, global powers, and Afghanistan’s neighbors to actively contribute to restoring peace to their country.
On June 25, scores of Afghan marchers who trekked some 700 kilometers on foot for peace recently spent their third day on a barricaded Kabul street in front of the United Nations Assistance Mission (UNAMA) office.
Their sit-in protest is part of a plan to attract the attention of countries and international organizations, which the activists say are vital to peace in Afghanistan.
“What’s the benefit of their presence in Afghanistan?” asked activist Bismillah Watandost. “If they have come for peace and security for the Afghan people, what have they achieved during the past 17 years?”
As the marchers’ signature slogans "We want peace," "Stop the war," and “War is ugly” echoed in the background, Watandost continued posing hard questions. “During the past 17 years, if their defective plans [for peace] have failed and fighting has only expended, then what’s the benefit of their presence?”
Watandost, the spokesman of the marchers, and eight fellow activists kicked off their protest march last month from Lashkar Gah, the capital of restive Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan.
They trekked to Kabul through an Afghan countryside devastated by fighting and plagued by insecurity. Along the way, they picked up hundreds of more supporters and reached Kabul after 40 days following an unprecedented three-day ceasefire between the Taliban and Afghan forces.
In Kabul, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani met them and backed their demands. “I have already announced a ceasefire. If the Taliban accept it, I am ready to announce a one-year ceasefire,” he told the marchers on June 19.
The Taliban, however, failed to respond to the demand of extending the ceasefire, which prompted the marchers to take their grievances and demands to the UN and countries they view as vital to the conflict in Afghanistan because of their direct role in the fighting, support to Kabul, or covert assistance to the insurgents.
“Our people know that some embassies [representing their countries in Kabul] have influence over leaders in both in the government and the Taliban,” activist Pacha Khan Mauladad told Radio Free Afghanistan.
Mohammad Iqbal Khyber, who leads the peace march, named the U.S., Russian, Pakistani, and Iranian embassies as potential sites for their future protests.
UNAMA welcomed the peace marchers’ protest. “UN in Afghanistan is committed to support Afghan peoples will for the extension of a ceasefire and the beginning of Afghan-led Afghan-owned peace talks to end the war,” the organization wrote on Twitter. “Our door is open to discuss extension of ceasefire and getting intra-Afghan peace talks started.”
General John Nicholson, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, says they are willing to discuss the “role of international actors and forces” and are encouraged by the strong international support for Ghani’s peace plan. In February, the Afghan leader offered unconditional negotiations to the Taliban. He also offered recognizing them as a legitimate political entity.
“What we are seeing now is a strong mobilization of international support for peace in Afghanistan,” Nicholson said. “We are very encouraged and think that the conditions [for peace talks] are right now.”
He said that the international backing for the Afghan peace efforts also involves a dialogue with Pakistan. Western and Afghan leaders and officials frequently blame Islamabad for supporting the Taliban.
“We hope that they play a positive role going forward and encourage the Taliban to participate in a ceasefire and participate in the peace negotiations,” he said.
The Taliban, however, are not impressed. In a June 24 article on the insurgent Voice Of Jihad website, they questioned the peace marchers’ motives.
“We ask clerics, activists, and marchers deceived in the name of peace: Why are you so deaf, blind, and insensitive that you cannot even comment on the real cause of conflict and war in Afghanistan?” the article asked. “Don’t they understand that without the American occupation in Afghanistan and in the presence of a pure Islamic system, what can prompt the Taliban and the mujahedin to continue fighting?”
The mood across Afghanistan, however, is different. Mawlawi Abdul Samad, a cleric in the remote eastern province of Nuristan, says this month’s ceasefire marking the Muslim festival of Eid al Fitr showed them what is possible.
“Everyone among the masses was happy, and they all want peace,” he said.
Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Roohullah Anwari contributed reporting from Kunar, Afghanistan.