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Building a strong civil society is among the greatest US successes since the occupation began. Can it last when the US leaves?
KABUL, Afghanistan — Aziz Rafiee knows how tumultuous times of change can be in Afghanistan. As a young activist who protested against the Soviet occupation, he was imprisoned during the 1980s.
He then found himself living amid the chaos that followed when the communist government collapsed, before later witnessing the harsh reality of the Taliban regime's determination to impose law and order.
Now, with NATO troops leaving the country after more than a decade, a new dawn is again approaching. Some are worried that one of the few tangible achievements of the US-led occupation — the building of a thriving civil society — may be lost.
Rafiee is executive director of the Afghan Civil Society Forum organization, which started work in 2002 and has 120 member groups nationwide.
Looking back at more than 30 years of violence and unrest, he found it difficult to identify the darkest time because “we have passed through many.” But in contrast to his overwhelmingly bleak recollections of the eras that came before, he gave a mixed assessment of the current situation.
Hard-won gains in the areas of freedom of expression and human rights have been "two major successes" for him and his colleagues, he said. But he warned that they are being threatened by a mainstream shift toward religious fundamentalism, most clearly seen in faltering efforts to negotiate with the Taliban.
Speaking at his office near the heavily guarded Interior Ministry in Kabul, he said, "The Europeans, the Americans, the Afghan government and the regional actors are pushing political agendas rather than the social agenda for change and development.”
Nevertheless, Rafiee is confident the country is slowly heading in the right direction, largely because of a new generation’s desire for an end to the fighting. He doubts the withdrawal of foreign troops will cause the Taliban to return to power or provoke a civil war.
"I think more or less we will have the same situation, with a corrupt government, corrupt elections, a corrupt state, a corrupt economy — something in between," he said.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has sought to reassure people here that their basic rights will not be forgotten as America and its allies leave.
During an international summit in Kabul in 2010, she warned that if women and civil society groups "are silenced and pushed to the margins … the prospects for peace and justice will be subverted."
In July this year, she met with Afghan activists in Japan, telling them "we want to continue to stand with you."
As part of the same conference in Tokyo, the international community reaffirmed it would give the government here a greater role in choosing how donor money is used, including a commitment to channel at least 50 percent of development assistance through the national budget. Washington has also agreed to that in its strategic pact with Kabul.
Some civil society representatives worry that in the future, substantially less aid will trickle down to a grassroots level because Afghan officials are inefficient, have other spending priorities or are corrupt.
Mirwais Rahimzai is executive board director for the Civil Society Coordination Center (CSCC), a nationwide network. He said there has already been a sharp decrease in funding as NATO troops begin to withdraw, investment is cut and the world turns its attention elsewhere.
"What we would have expected in 2014, we are seeing it — experiencing it — now," he said.
In the Taliban era, civil society was severely curtailed. Now, tens of thousands of Afghans are employed in the sector and the Economy Ministry alone has 1,755 local, nongovernmental organizations — including civil society groups — registered on its books.
But Rahimzai fears the country could suffer from a “brain drain” that sees young Afghanswho have benefited from the last decade moving abroad because the government is “not willing or ready” to recruit them to appropriate jobs and the opportunities within civil society are limited.
Another problem is growing insecurity. Although this effects much of the general population, it has left activists feeling more vulnerable to attacks from rebels and criminals.
Rahimzai comes from Maidan Wardak province, bordering Kabul. He told GlobalPost the Taliban’s strong presence in the area means he “cannot dream of going” there.
With time running out before all conventional foreign combat troops are due to depart at the end of 2014, activists are still waiting to see if the United States and its allies share their hopes for the future.
“If civil society does not find its place within the next two years, then Afghanistan will once again be in the hands of people who do not care about it,” said Malalai Shinwari, an executive board member of the Civil Society Coordination Center. “Once again Afghanistan will be in crisis and we will lose everything.”