Afghan civil society speak out on US policy

by Lisa Schirch
03 February 2009
Washington, DC - As policymakers in Washington assess the best way forward in Afghanistan, they should heed advice from thousands of Afghan civil society leaders working to improve their country. While divided in their support for a troop surge, Afghan civil society leaders are unanimous in wanting a shift in the US approach to their country. Afghanistan needs a "3D" strategy with a better balance and better divisions of labour between military defense, diplomacy and development.

Expensive, short-term solutions, such as the proposed additional 20,000 troops, might help quell violence in the short term. But without more promising policy options – such as a diplomatic and development surge – these civil society leaders say a troop surge won't build a foundation for Afghanistan's future.

In the last month, I sent out a survey via email to nearly three dozen Afghan civil society leaders working across Afghanistan in Herat, Kandahar and Kabul, as well as those working in Pakistan, the United States and Canada, about the proposed US troop surge. I received dozens of responses to questions about whether they agreed with the proposed US troop surge and how they wanted the United States to engage their country. Citing security concerns, these organisations preferred to remain anonymous.

First, Afghan civil society leaders want a shift in military strategy. They warn a troop surge alone will result in more civilian casualties, more village raids, further alienation of the local population and growing local resistance to foreign troops. The leaders also fear that the Taliban could use a troop surge as an opportunity to recruit local people to their cause.

Taking public perceptions into account in military planning is important. It matters whether the Afghan people believe that US troops kill civilians in their pursuit of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, whether true or not. It matters that there is a public perception that US forces drop bombs – including white phosphorous – on civilians in Afghanistan, whether true or not.

Civil society leaders advise coalition forces to focus on protecting civilians in Afghanistan from insurgent attacks, dismantling the narcotics industry and doing more to support the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the National Police.

Second, economic development, rule-of-law programmes and anti-corruption activities are the bricks and mortar that can help build good governance and peace in Afghanistan. Economic factors like unemployment and poverty drive support for insurgent groups like the Taliban.

International NGOs and coalition forces garner the bulk of development funds to do short-term "hearts and minds" programmes aimed at winning over the local population. But locals are often critical of these highly paid experts who know little of local culture and design projects with minimal long-term impact.

A more cost-effective strategy would be to offer direct support for Afghan organisations that understand local languages, cultures and religious dynamics. There are many Afghans doing frontline work in economic development, human rights, good governance and independent media. Yet they receive little recognition or financial support for their work. In their almost exclusive focus on building the Afghan government and attacking the Taliban, the United States is providing far too little aid and support to Afghan civil society.

Third, real democracy within Afghanistan and principled diplomacy with opposing forces are essential to achieving sustainable stability. Successful negotiation requires all stakeholders to be involved, both moderates and extremists. Careful diplomacy needs to identify and address core Taliban grievances while not legitimising their cause. Afghan women want to see dialogue with the Taliban, coupled with assurances that successes like the constitution and gender equality laws are non-negotiable.

Achieving good governance and stability in Afghanistan requires equal attention to the Afghan government and civil society, which tends to be a moderating force in history. Only this mix of a citizen-oriented state and civil society leaders who hold the government accountable will churn out democracy and stability.

Civil society tends to view international actors as backing and upholding the power of the Afghan government's authoritarian decision-making processes, imposing a superficial democracy without a solid foundation. The Afghan people want real dialogue in determining the aims, missions and rules of engagement of foreigners in their country. Coalition forces have an opportunity to model a new, contextualised democracy in Afghanistan by consulting directly with civil society leaders and members of the shura, a body of religious leaders, jirga, the tribal assembly, and elders of the community.

According to a diverse sampling of Afghan civil society the United States would do well to offer a more 3D approach – that is, one not so tilted in resources toward military approaches. This will hopefully garner increasing support for the moderates, laying the foundation for a stable, peaceful Afghanistan through civilian-led development and diplomacy at all levels.


* Lisa Schirch is professor of peace-building at Eastern Mennonite University and director of the 3D Security Initiative. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 3 February 2009,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.
Women of Tunisia: Let your voices be heard!

The women of Tunisia have a decisive role to play in shaping Tunisia's future. Fatma Ben Saïdane reminds women of the power of their vote and the importance of civic engagement.
"For both scholars and policy-makers, the materials on the Middle East produced by Search For Common Ground are outstanding. If one is looking for balance and depth of analysis, this is the place to go to get a better understanding of the complexities of the contemporary Middle East."

- Dr. Robert O. Freedman, Peggy Meyerhoff Pearlstone Professor of Political Science, Baltimore Hebrew University and Visiting Professor of Political Science Johns Hopkins University

It takes 200+ hours a week to produce CGNews. We rely on readers like you to make it happen. If you find our stories informative or inspiring, help us share these underreported perspectives with audiences around the world.



Or, support us with a one-time donation.

Send a US hospital ship to Gaza
Consensus-building in an Obama administration
Obama should make a Turkey trip
Destroying the “with us or against us” paradigm
# of hours per week to create one edition
# of editors in 6 countries around the world
# of subscribers
Average # of reprints per article
# of media outlets that have reprinted our articles
# of republished articles since inception
# of languages CG articles are distributed in
# of writers since inception


Other articles in this edition

Send a US hospital ship to Gaza by William Bache
Consensus-building in an Obama administration by Stephen R. Covey and Robert Fersh
Obama should make a Turkey trip by Liam Hardy
Destroying the “with us or against us” paradigm by Zahed Amanullah