Nonviolence in Afghanistan

By Patrick Kennelly and Emmey Malloy

Here in Kabul, Afghanistan a small group of multiethnic Afghans have spent the past three years living out an experiment in nonviolence. During this time, they have discovered that nonviolence is more than effective; it is an essential step that is necessary in order to transform the conflict in their country. For the past year-and-a-half, this group of Afghans has invited practitioners of nonviolence and experts in nonviolence from around the world to learn about their fledgling project and provide guidance for their movement. They invite international nonviolence experts to visit them, and see the project firsthand. They have calls on Skype with universities and peace people from around the world. They travel to more rural areas of Afghanistan as well as larger cities in India to talk about their ideas and learn more. After multiple visits to Afghanistan, it is becoming apparent how nonviolence is working. Given the uniqueness of the project—a small group of young people trying to live nonviolently in a country that has been ravaged by violence for more than thirty years, as well as the grave challenges facing Afghanistan, it is important that the world knows about these nonviolent efforts and the principles behind this movement.

How did it begin?
After nearly 35 years of war and violence, a small group of young people living in Bamiyan province began to publicly declare the belief that is widely held by Afghans: war, force, domination and violence, whether committed by foreign forces or infighting among various Afghan groups, has failed to provide safety, security or peace. Second, after an analysis of history and study of global social movements, this group of Afghans concluded that there had to be a better way, an alternative to the historical violence. Under the mentorship of a Singaporean physician living in Afghanistan—Hakim, this group of Afghans identified that that alternative to war and violence not only existed, they had the potential to resolve the problems facing Afghanistan. The examples of Gandhi, Dr. King, and Abdul Ghaffar Khan demonstrated clearly that war, foreign occupation, superpower imperialism, and ethnic differences can be resolved through organized nonviolence. Third, through a course offering at the university in Bamiyan, this group of Afghans identified that several key issues: ethnic divisions, trauma from nearly four decades of violence, the presence of foreign forces, corruption, and poverty, as the most pressing problems facing Afghanistan. Finally, the Afghan Peace Volunteers were formed. The Afghan Peace Volunteers established an organized and publicly identifiable group, allowing the experimentation of living nonviolently to begin. The group began testing nonviolent methods to confront the challenges identified in the university course.

What happened next?
The group began small, with a focus on educating members and the greater Bamiyan community, that nonviolence could be used to address the problems facing their country. They began reaching-out through conversations with international peacemakers to learn about nonviolence. Several of the members traveled to India to study the nonviolence of Gandhi. They also began practicing nonviolence by organizing interethnic activities to overcome ethnic divisions; this demonstrated the validity of nonviolence. They organized discussions to determine what historical nonviolent strategies could be used and what new nonviolent methods had to be invented to fit the Afghan context. From this, the group began a small-scale duvet making and seamstress project to confront poverty. They networked and partnered with other Afghan groups to publicly say no to war and violence. They began arranging meetings with the local and foreign officials, including the U.S. ambassador, to ask for help to end the war. Lastly, and most importantly, they formed an intentional interethnic community modeled on Gandhi’s ashram so that Afghans could practice by living it daily, and could grow and challenge themselves as nonviolent peacemakers.

What are the aims of the movement?
The aims of the Afghan Peace Volunteers are simple. They strive to demonstrate their desire to live without war and their commitment to be nonviolent. The Afghan Peace Volunteers do not want a future dictated by others, rather, they dream of a self-sufficient Afghanistan. They seek to end the ethnic divisions that divide their country and change international perception that mistakenly view Afghans as a war-loving people who only seek revenge and retaliation.

What are the principals of the movement?
The Afghan Peace Volunteers are rooted in the fundamental principles of nonviolence. First and foremost, the group recognizes the dignity of every human being and strives never to harm another person. To this end, when confronting indignities, the Afghan Peace Volunteers seek to deal with root problems and not attack people. Their primary method is using love to build relationships and community among people while also encouraging others to recognize the humanity of all people. Second, the group understands that nonviolence is a way of life. They work continuously at the practice of nonviolence. Each of the peacemakers strives to be physically and mentally not violent, their nonviolence is both internal and external. They live intentionally together to grow as a nonviolent community. Finally, the group understands that violence begets violence and that nonviolence can be transformative in changing situations and repairing the harm caused by violence. To this end, the group has not responded with violence when they are ridiculed, falsely accused or threatened. Instead, they have reached out to those who advocate violence as a solution to Afghanistan’s challenges to join them in using nonviolence to heal and improve Afghanistan.

Why have the seeds of the movement been sown?
When considering why this nonviolent movement has sprung forth, it is necessary to recognize that the conditions in Afghanistan are ripe for a nonviolent movement. First, the nearly four decades of violence and the destruction of both people and society is widespread. The violence affects the social, mental, and economic well being of society, in addition to Afghan people’s sense of security. Second, the majority of the people suffering from the war and violence exist outside of the power structures of Afghanistan, and therefore do not have access to the power structures of society. Third, the Afghan Peace Volunteers are educating fellow Afghans in nonviolence and nurturing a nonviolent movement. By setting and accomplishing short-term goals, like the building of a peace park, the Afghan Peace Volunteers have shown that nonviolence can work. As a result, the group has grown dramatically from a handful of individuals in Bamiyan to involving Afghans from various ethnic groups and regions of the country. It continues to grow.

What is next?
As nonviolence continues in Afghanistan there are significant challenges ahead that will need to be addressed in order for this fledgling movement to catalyze into a movement that will transform the country. First, the group needs to expand its core group and ensure that future core group members maintain a commitment to nonviolence. Currently, the movement has a small cohort of core group members committed to nonviolence and many partners who are not committed to nonviolence. While it is not necessary for everyone involved in the movement to be totally committed to nonviolence, the core group should be in place to ensure the movement does not resort to violence or deviate from its principles. Second, the years of violence in Afghanistan have deeply traumatized the population and many people see violence and vengeance as the primary solutions to the nation’s problems. The group needs to celebrate its small accomplishments, and educate the population that nonviolent change takes time to be effective and that practicing nonviolence requires sacrifice and struggle. Third, the Afghan Peace Volunteers should continue to expand their efforts and spread the word about their movement. This will require continued courage to being a voice for sanity and peace in this war torn country.

Although the Afghan Peace Volunteers are a small group, it is significant that such a nonviolent movement can and does exist in Afghanistan. The decades of violence have demonstrated that force and domination will not bring peace to Afghanistan. They are deepening their belief that nonviolence is the way to bring peace to Afghanistan.

Patrick Kennelly is the Associate Director of the Marquette University Center for Peacemaking. He has traveled to Afghanistan three times to learn about the efforts of the Afghan Peace Volunteers. He can be contacted at kennellyp@gmail.com

Emmey Malloy, CNM is participating in the peacemaking efforts organized by the Afghan Peace Volunteers and Voices for Creative Nonviolence. She writes from Kabul, Afghanistan.