As the Kabul government sits down with the Taliban in ongoing peace negotiations in a day that many did not think would come, one group of Afghans in particular is watching the country's historic political journey unfold from a bird’s eye view.
The Afghan diaspora in the United States, exiled from their nation because of war and persecution, find themselves witnessing their home country grappling with the idea of concluding nearly four decades of war in a meaningful manner.
For many Afghan-Americans, the current peace talks elicit mixed feelings, concerns, and questions of legitimacy. Despite the distance from their homeland, diaspora Afghans are keen to voice their opinions on the future of Afghanistan. Many have lived their whole lives outside of Afghanistan, while others have only recently left.
Baktash Ahadi, an Afghan-American in Washington D.C, was born into the war, escaped the war, and later found himself going back to the war as a combat interpreter with the U.S. Marines for three years. His biggest concern about the peace talks is the need for a comprehensive reduction in violence above anything else.
“Reduction of violence will do many things,” Ahadi told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website. “It will show good will on behalf of the Taliban -- they have an interest in actual peace in Afghanistan -- [and] it will demonstrate that the Taliban leadership has command and control of their troops, which will give them true legitimacy and give the entire peace process legitimacy. A country without a sense of physical security will continue to live with a scarcity mindset, which will continue to halt human progress, including democratic values.”
Recounting his time as an interpreter, Ahadi says local and international interpreters sacrificed their personal safety in the hope for a conclusion in sight, which is why the current negotiations are so important.
“Our lives were in danger on and off the battlefield, especially if our identities were known,” he said. “Fortunately, I am a U.S. citizen, so I was able to come back to the United States after my service. That isn't the case for local interpreters, who risked their lives to serve the needs and interests of the U.S. government on combat missions against the Taliban and other insurgent groups across the country.”
He adds that he is hopeful about the intra-Afghan peace talks, which began in Doha on September 12. “Every war comes to an end,” he said. But others in the diaspora community aren’t as optimistic.
Ajmal Stanikzai, a civil engineer who lives in the United States, says the talks are just for show, a cat-and-mouse game with little potential to end the bloodshed in the country.
“These peace talks have only strengthened the Taliban, and we will notice this strength in their spring 2021 offensive,” he told RFE/RL Gandhara, referring to the beginning of the Taliban’s annual violent campaign, which typically sets off in April.
Instead of peace talks, he says, further military action is required. “The Taliban can only be defeated with brute force,” he said. “As long as Pakistan is allowed to harbor them, this menace will not disappear from the region.”
Islamabad, however, has mostly rejected claims that it supports the Taliban insurgency militarily. But in March 2016, Sartaj Aziz, Pakistani PM’s foreign affairs adviser, said his country had considerable leverage over the Taliban because its leaders lived in the country. In a recent op-ed, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan expressed full support for the Afghan peace process. “Pakistan will continue to support the Afghan people in their quest for a unified, independent and sovereign Afghanistan that is at peace with itself and its neighbors,” he wrote in the Washington Post.
Lida Azim is the co-founder of the Afghan Diaspora for Equality and Progress, a grassroots nonprofit in the United States that aims to empower young Afghans toward a more equitable future. She says she and her organization are particularly concerned about the rights of the most vulnerable people amid the talks in Doha.
“We are particularly worried about the protection and rights of women, minorities, and people with disabilities,” she told RFE/RL Gandhara. “The first step toward securing rights and protections for these groups is having meaningful representation at the negotiating table, which is not currently happening.”
Azim says that if they are willing and active in the process, Afghans abroad are uniquely positioned to effect change in the peace agenda. “Afghan-Americans have a responsibility to use their position in the diaspora and as citizens of the U.S. to leverage and pressure their representatives and politicians on behalf of Afghans in the homeland whose voices are silenced or sidelined,” she said.
“It is important to uplift the voices on the ground, to ensure a seat at the table, and guarantee any peace is led and owned by the Afghan people themselves, not the United States, not the Taliban,” she added.
Azim says true peace can only be achieved alongside justice. “Afghans have seen conflict and violence for far too long now, including a failed 19-year American occupation that contributed to that violence,” she said. “We believe in a peaceful resolution of the conflict that is led and owned by the Afghan people. Any other outcome imposed by the Taliban or the West will not be legitimate or address the grievances of those most affected by violence, including the Hazaras and the dwindling Sikh population in Afghanistan.”
Afghans began to migrate to the United States in large numbers during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Washington then supported and celebrated the Islamist mujahedin as freedom fighters for taking on the Red Army. But the 9/11 attacks by Al-Qaeda once again drew the United States into another Afghan war with the avowed aim of replacing the hard-line Taliban Islamist regime with a pluralistic democracy. This prompted many from the diaspora to return to Afghanistan. Current Afghan President Ashraf Ghani renounced his U.S. citizenship to run in the 2009 presidential election.
These days, the global dialogue around Afghanistan has largely shifted, and peace has become the new buzzword. Kabul’s ongoing negotiations with the Taliban represent a new chapter for the country, and Afghans abroad are witnessing the process with desperation, hoping that perhaps one day they can return to a safe and prosperous nation that they were forced to abandon years ago.