In Afghanistan's peace talks, those with the most to lose are least represented

Afghans are worried for any future involving the Taliban and what it could mean for basic freedoms

epa09078142 Afghan security officials show the bodies (not in picture) of suspected Taliban militants after they were killed in an operation after an attack on Pashtan Dam in Karokh district of Herat, in Herat, Afghanistan, 16 March 2021. At least three Afghan soldiers and eight Taliban militants were killed in the incident.  EPA/JALIL REZAYEE
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Najibullah Afghanmal is almost as old as the conflict in his home country of Afghanistan and in 20 years has lost seven family members in the violence.

"Two of my brothers were killed in the last five years alone during Taliban ambushes of our village. We were forced to leave the town during the most recent attack and are now living in Internally Displaced Persons camps," Mr Afghanmal, who used to work for a small business, told The National.

More than 100,000 Afghan civilians have died in the conflict, which began in October 2011, when US forces made strikes on Taliban and Al Qaeda forces in response to the 9/11 terrorist attack.

Since then, the steadily increasing violence, personal losses and displacement have left Mr Afghanmal, and hundreds of thousands more, with little hope for the outcome of the ongoing peace negotiations between the Afghan government and Taliban militants in Qatar's capital of Doha since August 2020.

The latest round of talks is due to begin on Thursday as high-level delegations from the Taliban and Afghan government visit Moscow. The US, Pakistan and China will also be in attendance.

“Had these talks been based on humanity and mutual respect, then there might’ve been some hope. But it is clear that this is only a power struggle between all sides – a crisis in which we, the poor Afghans, will continue to be sacrificed in their wars,” he said.

"They both [Taliban and Afghan government] want to control the country, and there is no best-case scenario here," he said, though if the Taliban returned to power, Afghan youth and women will be the biggest losers.

“The women in our family that either study or work will have to stop. I will also have to give up my dreams of going to university for higher education ... although those dreams already seem bleak,” he said.

Mr Afghanmal’s pessimism was shared by Basira Paigham, 24, from the northern province of Samangan.

“My biggest fear is that we will lose any progress we have hardly achieved in the last two decades in the negotiation happening abroad. The Taliban still don’t recognise that many of our values of human rights, gender equality align with our culture and traditions,” she said.

Ms Paigham, 25, who works as a gender specialist at an NGO, survived a major Taliban attack on the National Directorate of Security office in her province last year, and her inner scars hadn’t been healed yet.

“When the explosion happened, I was pushed down and passed out. I thought I was dead, and my only thought was, what about all my dreams, plans and hopes?” she recalled.

As young victims of war and stakeholders in the country’s future, neither Mr Afghanmal nor Ms Paigham find their voices represented at any of the international conferences.

“Those negotiating peace have themselves been party to the violence and conflict. How can they represent me?” Ms Paigham said.

Where the US-Taliban peace deal stands one year on

Where the US-Taliban peace deal stands one year on

“If the Taliban return I can lose my job, my freedom, my basic rights, my dignity. For me it will not be the end of a conflict, rather a continuation of our fight against fundamentalism, because I am not willing to give up my values and rights,” she said.

For Afghan human rights activists, achieving justice for the civilian victims of war is pivotal for any peace process.

“Any justice or peace installed in the absence of civilian victims of the war cannot be meaningful or sustainable,” said Mariam Atahi, a human rights activist from Kabul.

“Victims of the war should be the centre of the negotiation and peace process, otherwise there will not be a healing process, without which you can’t expect us to embrace, welcome and integrate the Taliban who have killed our loved ones,” she said.

With the violence still ongoing and at a far larger scale, the number of civilian victims who seek resolution is mounting daily.

“We should be able to discuss and debate this during the peace process, before any reconciliation is reached,” Ms Atahi said. “And that will not be possible without voices representing the victims.”