The EU has made no secret that it wants to stand out as an ideological beacon in its own right, and not be fully aligned with any other global power. One way to achieve this would be an increased development role in Asia, and indeed the EU has declared its continued partnership with Afghanistan. A very suitable area of focus for the continued relationship is by supporting an inclusive peace within the context of Afghanistan’s cultural wealth.
In one of the EU Commission’s 2018 Joint Communications, the “European way” is described as sustainable, comprehensive, and rules-based connectivity. Afghanistan is listed as one of the countries with which the EU hopes to “expand dialogue.”
In EU documents and speeches, sustainability also means the inclusion of women and youth, marginalized communities, and the socio-economically vulnerable. This is extremely valuable for Afghanistan with its variety of gender, ethnic, and regional distinctions.
In addition to expanding dialogue on connectivity, the EU and its members have tied themselves to Afghanistan in a more immediately critical way: as overseers of the intra-Afghan peace talks. In a recent communication in May, the Council in no uncertain terms placed itself within the peace process as protectors of human rights and democratic values. “Opportunities should not be wasted, and there is one now,” declared Roland Kobia, EU Special Envoy to Afghanistan. “To support it in a long term way, the EU has taken a principled and values-based stance reflecting the unanimous position of the 27 EU Member States, but also upholding the UN Charter. Peace should not be at any cost, and our support will not come unconditionally.”
Kobia is signaling that the EU will remain rhetorically consistent with their previous plans and agreements on Afghanistan regarding the protection of an inclusive society.
One area where the inclusivity agenda has found obstacles is answering “how” to accomplish inclusive development in Afghanistan. One answer is to look at how those Afghans who are “marginalized” and “vulnerable” (to use the EU lexicon) are currently making a living, or have in the past. It’s no secret that a significant portion of women were and are highly involved in Afghanistan’s artisanal crafts and commodities even though they may not currently profit from their labor.
The value of these crafts and commodities is well known internationally: cashmere, jewelry, saffron...no small trifles, these. Thus another way for the EU to live up to its inclusive and sustainable model is to court what the different ethnic and cultural groups of the country can bring to the connected markets the EU hopes to build.
Taking the rich Afghan cultural diversity into account is key when speaking about inclusivity. Culture is at the center of Afghan identity and is defined as shared values and beliefs that shape behavior and influence creative artistic expressions in art, literature, music, language, architecture and define customs for cultivation and goods production.
Despite the Afghan people’s overall sense of national identity, Afghanistan has 14 different ethnic groups that proudly display individual group identity in distinctive embroidery, jewelry, food, language and traditional ceremonies and festivals. Music, dance and poetry are other notable areas of cultural wealth dating back to the pre-Islamic era and-- quite importantly-- areas where Afghan women have found fame and fortune.
The question, of course, is how to bring these groups together into the broader national discussion.
The Farsi-speaking German diplomat, Markus Potzel, who is currently the Special Representative of Germany for Afghanistan, recently met with the Political Office of the Taliban in Doha and assured them of his country's support for the peace-process. He believes a sustainable Afghan peace is a huge challenge in the face of Afghanistan’s diversity.
“Sustainable peace is more than just the absence of war,” Special Representative Potzel warned. “Social cohesion is more than just fighting a common enemy. It requires a new social contract between those who govern and those who are governed. Traditional values have to be reconciled with individual rights as laid down in the constitution. Sustainable peace requires respect for each other, respect for the rights of women, young people, minorities. Finding some common ground would need compromises by all parties.”
But nobody is under the illusion that a peaceful future will be an easy road.
EU Special Representative Kobia is currently skeptical of the Taliban’s actual willingness to show a spirit of compromise, noting the continued attacks. He is equally explicit regarding what European states want to see from the negotiations: “The EU Member States stressed the need for the political and social achievements of the last two decades to be preserved, notably in terms of human rights and fundamental freedoms, particularly for women but also minorities, vulnerable and minority groups.”
Broadly speaking, a way forward is to acknowledge Afghanistan’s cultural wealth.
The Norwegian diplomat and writer, Kai Eide, has spent a decade working in the country and served as the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Afghanistan. In terms of what he’d like to see from sustainable peace, he says that it is important to include a discussion of what the land and culture of Afghanistan can offer in terms of a basis for future shared prosperity. “Afghanistan’s culture is so rich and multi-faceted,” Mr. Eide explained. “During war and conflict, people’s attention is focused on survival - from day-to-day and from week-to-week. When the conflict is over I hope there will be time to discover and explore its riches and to build on this as a source of strength and pride.”
Mr. Eide is not the first to note both the untapped natural resources of the country as well as the untapped potential of Afghan crafts and cultural goods, although he believes this will ultimately serve to enrich the world as much as Afghanistan itself. “I certainly hope to be able to show to my own people that Afghanistan is so much more than war and suffering. There is a cultural heritage that could enrich us all.”
The division of power in the country, and decisions that will determine who will ultimately have control over national resources, will of course be a central topic of discussion in the coming weeks.
Ultimately, however, a functioning Afghan government must accept and embody the multiculturalism of the country. There can be no long-lasting peace without a multicultural understanding of Afghanistan.
As the intra-Afghan talks appear imminent, a shift must take place away from perceiving Afghan multiculturalism as a burden or obligation, but as a path towards renewing the nation’s place as a cultural crossroads.
Nancy Hatch Dupree, one of the most notable Western historians on Afghanistan, wrote that for centuries Afghanistan as a central zone for intercommunications attracted conquering armies, intellectuals, missionaries, pilgrims, traders, artisans, nomads and political exiles. These diverse influences have made Afghanistan--and the Afghan culture--as we know it today.
The many previous regimes in Afghanistan were easily destabilized by their inability to fully include the full breadth of Afghan society, and whatever new entity comes out of the intra-Afghan dialogue must acknowledge this historical pattern.
Understanding Afghanistan's rich heritage and recognizing the older Afghan culture of peace, tolerance and loyalty of centuries past is highly important in communicating peace with Afghans.
At the same time, parties should acknowledge the Afghan pride that comes with Afghan ownership - an ownership created through inclusion. This is why this seemingly over-used word “inclusivity” is so crucial to peace and why it must be given a substantial meaning rather than abused as a buzzword. This is where Europe’s own unique historical experience and positive system of development can be of great use.
A multicultural, multilingual entity full of potential does not have to be a doomed backwater theater of proxy conflict. Europe knows this better than most.
Samina Ansari, is the Founder and CEO of Avyanna Diplomacy, a Kabul based consultancy firm focusing on public diplomacy. She holds a Law degree and a MA in International Public Management with focus in Diplomacy. Ansari has worked on Afghanistan's transition since 2014 through UN, NATO, Aga Khan, and a number of research and rule of law organisations and can be found on twitter @viasamina
Elliott Memmi has an academic background analyzing political communications, social movements, and international politics particularly with regard to Asia and the United States. His most recent research covers the EU and Asia.
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