As the intra-Afghan talks crawl in Doha, Qatar, to end the nearly two decades of conflict in Afghanistan, Kabul Now sits to talk with Karim Pakzad and discusses what role the so-called Afghan diaspora can play in slow-moving peace process. Mr. Pakzad is a veteran Afghan diplomat. For the time being, he is Associate Research Fellow at The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs. Karim Pakzad is specializing on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq.
The nearly four decades of Afghan war has forced millions of Afghan population to flee the country and seek refuge in neighboring Pakistan and Iran, with a number of them taking refuge in Europe, American and lately in Australia. Apart from those living in Europe, America and Australia, a number of Afghan migrants live in Russia, Turkey, and the gulf states of Arabs.
Kabul Now: A large number of Afghan population have been forced to seek refuge in neighboring and other countries across the globe. Do you think the Afghan refugees, particularly those settled in European countries, have shaped an Afghan Diaspora? Given the ongoing peace process, can the Afghan migrants pay a collective role in the Afghan peace process?
Pakzad: This question entails some important political terms; war, peace, political asylum seeker and diaspora are terms used in political science. Most significantly, the Afghan [migrants] have been settled in various counties and there is a difference between those who live in Iran and Pakistan and those settled in Western countries.[At the onset], under the umbrella of jihad, the Afghans who were in Pakistan and Iran, had political and military activity against the Khalq and Parcham regimes, and then against Soviet invasion of Afghanistan but those Afghans who were settled in the United States, Europe, Australia, and Canada, had different activities at different phases, making different influence on fate of Afghanistan.
The first phase was the era of resistance against the communist regime, which took power in April coup d’état, particularly against the Soviet invasion, a small number of Afghans and political activists in some countries like France and northern Europe countries, played an active and constructive role in mobilizing public opinions and support for Afghanistan’s resistance. For instance, a month after the Soviet invasion, a conference was held in France in support of people of Afghanistan. Soon, the Afghan activists expanded their activism throughout the Europe. In 1982 and 1983, in Sweden and Paris, “the international court of peoples” condemned atrocities committed by the Soviet troops in Afghanistan.
Following the Afghan civil war, the Taliban rule, the American military intervention, and the tragic conflict in last 20 years have brought a shift in nature of migration. Tens of thousands of Afghans fled the country in search of a better life. A large number of these migrants came to settle to host countries with their customs, sect and ethnic affiliations.
Carrying a big load from past, the Afghan migrants settled in Western Europe in their separate communities each divided across ethnic or sectarian lines, with a small number of educated Afghan nationalists making an exception.
They formed their community based cultural association though a small number made efforts to shape cross-ethnic associations—focusing on a broader agenda of Afghanistan—but to no avail.
Given the realities surrounding the lives of Afghan migrants here, and given the legal and political definition of the term ‘diaspora’, I dare say we have no Afghan diaspora. We can see there are Armenian diaspora, Kurd diaspora, Palestinian diaspora, and even an Iranian diaspora in the United States, but unfortunately, we do not have any Afghan diaspora.
The notion that there is no “Afghan nation” is more vivid outside Afghanistan [among Afghan migrants of different ethnic backgrounds]. That is why today we do not see any initiative—as we had four decades ago for defense of our country and national sovereignty. For clear understanding, we can use the term “Afghanistani diaspora” though it does not translate the term well.
Kabul Now: Can the Afghanistani diaspora in European countries and the United States lobby for Afghan peace and democracy?
Pakzad: In 1980s when The US, the Western bloc, were at war with Soviet force in Afghanistan, a small number of Afghans in Europe and the US did lobby in the West for support of Afghan resistance, persuading the Western governments to financially support the mujahedeen but today it is different. Afghanistan is not at the center of developing events. The Western media cover Afghanistan when there is a deadly attack. The United States, the main western power in fight against the Taliban, has signed a peace agreement with them (the Taliban). The experts do know it that the European Union which was against Donald Trump’s foreign policy, like in regard to the Paris Agreement on climate change, Trump’s policy for the Middle East, withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, withdrawal from UNESCO and other international organizations, economic tensions, and etc. Having that in mind, the EU would possibly get along with Joe Biden more easily. As you know, Antony Blinken, Joe Biden’s nominee for US Secretary of State, announced two weeks earlier that the new US administration will remain committed to the previous US Afghanistan policy. The EU is more likely to follow US policy.
If the Afghan migrants or Afghanistan-born Europeans acted more unitedly, they would have developed a pressure group to lobby governments in the Europe. The truth, however, is that policies of the United States, Europe, Iran, or Pakistan are based on protecting their own interests, not based on protecting the fragile Afghanistan democracy.
Kabul Now: Why the Afghanistani diaspora have failed to shape a significant and meaningful pressure group in regard with the Afghanistan peace process in European countries and in the United States?
Pakzad: Let me express a painful reality which party answers your question. In this city, where I live in, once or twice more than a dozen of people hardly held rallies to protest against suicide bombings in hospitals, education facilities, mosques, and elsewhere. But when it comes to commemorating Ashura, hundreds come together. Most of the refugees settled in the past two decades are not politically aware. There is no united and organized Afghanistani diaspora.
In spite of that, some Afghans in Europe and in the United States like professors, researchers, and experienced people strive to make a role in the peace process.
The deliberate policy of the Afghan government is a key factor in discouraging the migrants and their reluctance towards the country’s future and fate. Refugees in Iran, Pakistan, and the United States elected their representatives to attend the Afghanistan Constitutional Loya Jirga, for the first time. This policy which reflected the inclusiveness of the then interim administration, was soon left aside. The refugees, who might form one fourth or one fifth of the population, do not have the right to vote. While some parliament seats are allocated to the diaspora in most of the countries, around six million population of Afghanistan have not been granted any share in Afghanistan’s presidential and parliamentary elections. However, the Kochis – the nomads of Pashtuns – who make free movement back and forth between Pakistan and Afghanistan, have ten seats in the parliament.
Kabul Now: How do you evaluate the relations of the negotiations teams of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban with the Afghan exiles?
Pakzad: To my knowledge, the government negotiations team does have contacts with the refugees in Europe. I mean the kind of contacts that some negotiators had with their respective political parties and ethnic groups in Kabul, where they attended conferences and seminars.
Your question is very important. Though the Republic denied the refugees’ right to vote, the peace talks upon which the country’s fate is dependent, is an opportunity in which the people of Afghanistan will ultimately decide about the peace in the country. Therefore, the Afghan government should have provided the migrants and Afghans residing abroad with the opportunity to consult. At least, two or three members of the government negotiation team should have held meetings with Afghans in two or three capital cities of the European countries in a bid to have their consultation and support.
The only ceremony which brought the Afghan exiles together [with the Afghan government] was celebration of Afghanistan Independence Day in which a limited number of Afghans were invited to Afghanistan embassies.
When it comes to the Taliban, they have had their followers in some small political events. The number of youth and even the teenagers who come from Pakistan’s border regions to Europe are increasing in recent years. Among them, the number of those who are influenced by Taliban ideology is not few. In recent months, some of these youth, who campaigned for murder of a teacher in France over showing Mohammad caricature, were trialed and one of them was deported from France.
However, when it comes to the peace talks, there are some signs suggesting that the Taliban or some circles very close to them want to establish contacts with anti-Taliban figures outside of Afghanistan. This suggests that the Taliban are practicing politics besides waging war.
Kabul Now: One of the issues occasionally raised in peace talks is return of refugees and their repatriation. Is it possible? Why they raise this issue?
Pakzad: Most of the issues raised by the negotiating parties is never agreed as a serious issue and is a political propaganda. Return of the refugees and paving the ground for them to have a regular and secure life is one of such issues. Raising this issue is, on one hand, aimed at winning the refugees support and, on the other hand, is aimed at getting satisfaction of those countries which host the refugees, including the Europe and the United States.
The EU countries are facing economic, social, and political crisis. The political crisis gave a growing reputation to the right wing and racist parties across the Europe, even in the countries which were imagined to be secure from it like, France, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, have roots at much extent to the economic crisis and presence of foreign refugees.
It is one of the reason for strict regulations against refugees, including Afghans and non-Afghans, in recent years, after 2018, when the borders were open for refugees. The relevant institutions will not accept political nature of the [refugees]’s applications. The Afghan government and the Taliban try to attract more financial assistance with the slogans of returning the refugees and providing them with a secure and regular life.
A volunteer return of the refugees from western countries is now something impossible. Firstly, the second and even the third generations of these refugees were born and grown in these countries and these [refugees] have sometimes promoted to ministerial, lawyer, and key political and academic positions. The return of these two groups are not negotiable. The return of Ashraf Ghani and his close friends were what the United States wanted in a bid to have its own dependent group in Afghanistan. Of those refugees [made it to Europe] in past two decades, even those who did not undergo cultural integration, have at least a better economy. Some of them have already got citizenship. Especially, their children are rapidly going through “integration” process in the countries where their parents live in.
At the end, we can say that Afghanistani diaspora with all its diversity and complexities, which is a result of internal differences in Afghanistan, may be changed into “an Afghan diaspora” in a peace and under a political system accepted by all. It can serve as a connecting conduit between Afghanistan and democratic countries either from a cultural perspective or from an economic one. I should admit that this is a dream rather than a reality.