As Afghanistan’s nearly four-decade old war seems to have no end in sight, a former first daughter traces her father’s footsteps toward reconciliation among Afghans as the roadmap to peace in the country.
Heela Najibullah, the daughter of late Afghan President Najibullah, takes a look at the past and current approaches to peace in her new book, Reconciliation and Social Healing in Afghanistan.
“One of my main reasons for writing this book is to highlight the repeated efforts of Afghan governments to forge peace and reach reconciliation,” she said. “[They have attempted to do so] despite the complex nature of Afghanistan’s relations with superpowers, the United Nations, and regional countries.”
Heela says the often anemic and unsuccessful peace efforts have followed the various phases of conflict since the 1978 bloody military coup ushered in the first chapter of Afghanistan’s seemingly unending war.
Now an aid worker based in Switzerland, Heela says conflicts won’t be resolved overnight. Such a process could take years and, in Afghanistan’s case, generations.
“In order to bring about reconciliation and heal Afghanistan’s traumas, it is important that the process is not only top-down but that Afghans at the grassroots level are able to express themselves,” she noted. “Their voices are a powerful tool for understanding their needs, fears, frustrations, and desires so they can feel empowered and eventually be acknowledged.”
Heela’s research looks at Afghan approaches to reconciliation in the 1980s and more recently in 2010. She vividly recalls how her father used to discuss his National Reconciliation Policy at the dinner table.
‘ “It is not Afghanistan’s history or culture that is its impediment but rather its geography,” ’ she remembers her father saying in 1990 as he pushed for reconciliation with Islamist rebels, most of whom were based in Pakistan and bankrolled by the United States, its European allies, and Gulf states.
Her book is relevant for crafting peace today. As U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration struggles to frame a new strategy for Afghanistan, Kabul is trying to hold on to the countryside and reeling from devastating attacks in cities amid a widening Taliban assault that Afghan officials say is made possible by sponsors near and far.
Heela, however, argues that such an overwhelming emphasis on war is misplaced. She sees hope for ending the conflict through reconciliation but sees formidable roadblocks as most peace efforts have focused on negotiations between the warring sides.
She recommends the Afghan government separate domestic reconciliation from the international aspect of the peace process.
“My father did this successfully. For example, he talked to Pakistan through the UN to conclude the Geneva accords,” she noted.
Heela says the only sustainable path to peace in Afghanistan is to focus on its people, who have endured great suffering in recent decades. More than 1 million Afghans have been killed and more than 10 million exiled since the late 1970s.
“The peace process in Afghanistan has yet to become people-centric,” she said. “Reconciliation in Afghanistan can be sustainable when its people are also given the opportunity to own the process and heal.”
Heela’s personal journey illustrates how generations of Afghans have suffered because of the endless violence in the once peaceful mountainous nation.
Weeks before her father prepared to relinquish power under a UN-sponsored peace deal in early 1992, Heela flew to the Indian capital, New Delhi, with her mother and two sisters. Najibullah, however, was unable to join them and stayed at a UN compound amid the chaos. The UN’s failure to establish an interim government paved the way for mujahedin factions to begin a fratricidal civil war.
“I remember asking my mother why our father couldn’t come. She said he didn’t want to leave his country in limbo,” Heela said.
For more than four years, Najibullah stayed in Kabul as the civil war destroyed most of the once-beautiful capital. Heela recalls him painting the situation in a poignant letter in 1995.
“Afghanistan has multiple governments now, each created by different regional powers. Even Kabul is divided into little kingdoms.… Unless and until all the actors [regional and global powers] agree to sit at one table, set their differences aside to reach a genuine consensus on noninterference in Afghanistan, and abide by their agreement, the conflict will go on,” Najibullah wrote to his family in a letter delivered by the UN.
The Afghan leader was killed during the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul in September 1996, when members of the hard-line militia dragged him and his younger brother, Ahmadzai, from the UN compound. Their mutilated corpses were later hanged on a main square in Kabul.
His family learned of his fate from news on the radio. “We were in touch with our father through letters and sometime satellite phone while he was at the UN compound,” she said. “We stayed in touch with him like that for almost four years until he was killed by the Taliban.”
Heela says Kabul fortunes are not much different from the times when her father first attempted reconciliation in 1980s. She sees Afghanistan still trying to balance its relations and rein in the competition between global powers and regional states.
“Unfortunately, Afghanistan was a victim of the Cold War in the 1980s. Today, it is a victim of the war on terror,” she said.