Building Peace and Civil Society in Afghanistan: Challenges and Opportunities

May 10, 2001

This report draws on a two-day symposium, "Building Peace and Civil Society in Afghanistan: Challenges and Opportunities," held in New York on May 17 and Washington D.C. on May 18, 2001. The symposium, co-sponsored by Asia Society and Carnegie Council on Ethics and International Affairs, was attended by activists, NGO practitioners, and UN and U.S. policymakers working to bring about sustainable peace in Afghanistan. Participants discussed and explored the immense social costs of the conflict -- exacerbated by the policies of the ruling Taliban regime -- and the range of the local, regional, and international communities' responses. Finally, the symposium considered U.S. and international policy options on Afghanistan and focused on the mechanisms to support reconstruction efforts there.

The political, social, and economic institutions in Afghanistan have disintegrated as a result of the ceaseless civil war that has torn apart the country for some twenty-three years with no end in sight. The war has resulted in an estimated 2 million deaths, 6 million people displaced, and 3 million disabled. The current drought has led to severe food scarcity threatening the lives of over 3 million more Afghans. To make matters worse, the Taliban continues to create obstacles for the delivery of humanitarian assistance by foreign aid groups by curbing their activities or expelling them from the country for alleged illegal activities. However, participants of the symposium concurred that there are openings for development that go beyond emergency humanitarian assistance and that investment in the long-term development of Afghanistan is not only desirable but also feasible.

The following points summarize the major issues discussed during the course of the symposium:

  • The current international focus on in single issues in Afghanistan, such as terrorism, drug trafficking, and economic interest in oil and gas, do nothing to change the dynamics of violent conflict.

  • International and regional leadership must coordinate to support efforts to resolve the civil conflict as well as develop strategies for reconstruction, including emergency aide, and long-term development assistance.

  • The Afghan diaspora represents an untapped supply of young educated professionals who can be engaged in providing skills and resources toward rebuilding communities.

  • There is a growing awareness in the Afghan population of the need to focus aid in the areas of education, health, crop substitution, the environment, de-mining, income generation, and local government.

  • Local NGOs and community organizations want to play a bigger role in developing and implementing community level development projects.

  • Creating economic activities that are an alternative to waging war is the biggest priority for local organizations.

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