In the past 35-year-old war, the largest victims who were killed, maimed or traumatized in Afghanistan are mostly young people. Yet, the Afghanistan’s population remains the world’s youngest and fastest growing. Half of them are under eighteen. The Afghan Central Statistics Organization in 2014 disclosed that almost 47 percent of the country’s 27.1 million people were under fifteen and 37 percent between fifteen and thirty-nine. Combined, 84 percent were under forty.
The ubiquitous violence of the past and present scar their memories. But to insist that they do not understand the political causes of the war and thus are unable to break free of prejudices is not reflective of the reality discernible at least among university going students in Kabul and Mizar-e- Sharif. The instability spiral in Afghanistan has failed to undermine their resilience to rebuild their war-ravaged country.
In fact, the Afghan universities are preparing the youth to be a political factor in new Afghanistan. Youths are seen holding responsible positions in government as well as parliament. The pace of change is slow but there is no slackening of efforts despite the shrinking labor market for almost 400,000 new job seekers each year.
Since 2008, Afghanistan’s nation-wide literacy rate has increased by 5%; since 2005, the youth literacy rate has increased by more than 16%. According to the Afghan Central Statistics Organization, public university enrollment has increased from 7,800 in 2001 to 174,425 in 2015, 21% of which are women, and demand for higher education continues to grow. The Afghan civil society has, of late, started engaging these educated young people as part of their consultation with government, religious leaders, international community to effectively contribute to the decision making processes and promote solidarity and unity between people from different communities to national level.
Some such initiatives even go beyond local politics, out-reaching neighboring countries. The Afghan youth too clearly realize that without involving them the complex national reconciliation issue would not be resolved. Fortunately, more than national leaders the Afghan youth seem to grasp the reality better by understanding the dynamics of peace and development.
The Afghan youth are involved in many initiatives regarding Pakistan and Afghanistan. Their responses have moved away from tired rhetoric to more understanding of complex factors, feeding the never-ending violence in Afghanistan. The new generation belies the common faith that educated youth can be easily used as fuel in the on-going intra Afghan rivalry and armed conflicts. Caught in ethnic loyalties and confused signals from the National Unity Government, while they realize the complexity of the matter, they exhibit dexterity in engineering new future for their country. With Pakistan, majority of them want to build connection on equal basis, without ignoring the gravity of unresolved bilateral issues and unwanted adversial impact of proxy wars by third countries. Kabul social media frequented and dominated by educated youth supports this view.
Debate continues whether youth can be an effective media to dismantle the misconceptions and misperceptions fogging the present national leadership from both countries. In this regard, a students’ debate, titled as “Gauging Effectiveness of Youth Role in Peace Building in Afghanistan” held in July 2016, comes to mind that was conducted among students from Avicenna, Kabul and other Afghan universities by AU student’s association and Andisha Varan Institute. There was no conclusive outcome expect that both sides voted for the present marginal role of Afghan youth to be enlarged in fostering the peace process.
Aware of the demographic configuration of Afghan population and the promising future role of educated young people, the Centre For Research & Security Study( Pakistan) in collaboration with its Afghan counterpart namely Women &Peace Studies Organization launched the Beyond Boundaries Project with the help of British Government in 2015. The project associated Afghan university students as an integral part of the Track-11 diplomacy, providing Pakistani delegates an opportunity to speak at Afghan universities and Afghans to Pakistani students. The interaction taken place so far has re-emphasized that today more than yesterday such events are considered absolutely essential to deal effectively with the root cause of problems between the two countries. The process may remain slow but would be enduring if nurtured sincerely.
No denying the fact that decades of political instability, violent conflict, and socioeconomic crisis have had a devastating impact on young Afghan men, women, and children. The negativity fueled by Taliban’s ascendancy and the misconception that peace would return if the support channels from Pakistan were plugged find some takers among them too. Pakistani youth have also suffered from the Afghan war. Understanding the process of radicalization and the drivers of violent extremism in respect of youth is vital.
In recent interactions with Afghan students at Balkh and Maulana universities in Mazar-e-Sharif, CRSS-WPSO delegations were happily struck by the sensitivity as well as political maturity of the Afghan university students. Along with the rhetoric, they raised substantial issues including hardships faced by returning Afghan refugees, Afghan- Pakistan relations without India factor, avoidance of false promises and dishonest political moves. They showed keenness to become part of efforts to create a non-governmental dialogue process to promote people-to-people contact at civil society level in both the countries. They echoed, “We have to find ways and means to promote cultural, historical and religious values and affinities that we share”. They talked about linking Pak-Afghan trade to Balkh province, mitigating visa and travel difficulties, enhancing opportunities for Afghan students to study in Pakistan, and removing trust deficit problems in Pak-Afghan relations. They wanted to know Pakistan’s future plans for peace building and joint economic future of Afghanistan. They quizzed why Pakistani politicians do not consider Afghanistan as an equal partner and why they issue statements such as the road to peace in Afghanistan is through Kashmir etc.
The next such interaction is likely to take place in Karachi in the month of January when the WPSO Afghan delegation visits Pakistan. Unfortunately, both governments have no strategy to engage the youth of two countries in peace building process. Pakistan offers 3000 scholars to Afghan students but from Pakistan no youth delegation is being sent to interact with universities in Afghanistan.
To counter Taliban and other extremist narratives, it is critical to take a proactive approach to develop initiatives at schools, madrassas and universities. Community-level non-governmental organizations and civil society organizations are well positioned to take the lead in this venture. The two governments have not made any meaningful effort to understand the attitude and expectation behavior of youth in both countries. Numerous studies focusing on youth radicalization, and particularly Muslim youth were carried out, but few on Afghan and Pak youth. Short-, medium-, and long-term strategies are needed to better respond to bind into better understanding the youths of Afghanistan and Pakistan. If the youths were not helped to overcome the present quagmire of mistrust, then Pakistan and Afghanistan would hardly need any third force to divide them permanently.
The author Mian Sanaullah is a former Ambassador, political analyst and Advisor to Center for Research and Security Studies (CRSS).