This blog is part of our series developed in collaboration with the Reiff Center for Human Rights and Conflict Resolution at Christopher Newport University.
In many conflict-ridden countries, youth perspectives are often overlooked or underrepresented, but youth in Afghanistan are actively promoting peace and countering violent extremism in innovative ways. Political instability and violent conflict have plagued the state for decades, and this exposure to violence and uncertainty has shaped the lives of Afghanistan’s youth population. With a staggering 63% of the population being under the age of 25, Afghanistan holds one of largest percentages of youth populations in the world. Due to their large number, youth have become a target for extremist organization recruitment efforts. In response, Afghan youth are speaking out about their experiences and are advancing dialogues that emphasize the need for peace and inclusion.
An essential step in understanding youth movements that are countering violent extremism is to first answer the question: what is violent extremism? The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) defines violent extremism as “advocating, engaging in, preparing, or otherwise supporting ideologically motivated or justified violence to further social, economic and political objectives.”
Violent extremism in Afghanistan is used by multiple actors – the Taliban and ISIS being most prolific – who use violence to advance their agendas. Youth in Afghanistan are targeted by violent extremist groups for a variety of reasons; widespread illiteracy, high levels of poverty, a lack of employment opportunities (especially outside of the capital), and isolation all contribute to youth vulnerability to radicalism. The lack of employment opportunities for college graduates also factors into the support for violent extremism among Afghan youth.
Extremists seek out young men and women in ways that appeal to their frustration with decades of conflict and injustice, the burdening familial expectations for men to provide for immediate and extended family, and traditional gender roles. Often, these extremist groups use young people’s insecurities to convince Afghan youth to join their ranks. The Taliban use both traditional and nontraditional forms of media to recruit and influence young people, including CDs, cassettes, SD cards, and ringtones. Often these messages are short, emotive, and feature teenage boys glorifying youth who sacrifice themselves for their country – appealing to young people’s search for purpose. Additionally, the Taliban and ISIS use violent methods such as kidnapping or attacking schools to recruit children, though radical groups are not alone in using those tactics. Recruiting minors is illegal in Afghanistan, yet the Afghan Local Police continues to recruit minors and occupy schools for the military.
Young Afghans understand these tactics and warning signs of recruitment better than anyone, and many are refusing to be silent as more of their peers are lured into violence. Youth are communicating with each other, their country, and the world through independent radio stations, social media, and televised debates. Aiding them is the United Nations, which has prioritized youth empowerment through the UNDP’s Youth Strategy and Afghanistan-specific UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). In 2018, UNAMA established a Youth Consultation Council to promote youth participation in Afghanistan’s politics and society through education, vocational training, debate, and partnerships with local media networks. The Council creates a space for young people to discuss common goals and design initiatives to achieve peace.
Similarly, President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani welcomed the National Youth Parliament of Afghanistan in August 2018. The National Youth Parliament of Afghanistan consists of three young people from each province, all of whom come together to discuss policy and development in Afghanistan. Muqadasa Ahmadzai, the Deputy Speaker of National Youth Parliament of Afghanistan, argues that her age is an asset in Afghanistan: “Being a young woman I see the ability and skills in myself to elect myself and politically represent women and play a positive role….I want to prove this to the world that the Afghan women can also make positive changes in the country.”
Youth participation in politics and society, especially in a war-torn country, is essential to the wellbeing of both youth and the region. Many young Afghans have been exposed to conflict since birth, and poor mental health is an under-discussed vulnerability that extremist groups exploit in youth. Mental health can be improved through increased education, employment, and representation. As young people’s voices and experiences are heard, their messages spread unity and inclusion to their peers.
Young Afghans understand that to end youth radicalization, all of Afghanistan must address the effects of decades of conflict that Afghan youth population have been raised in. Getting out stories from women and girls is particularly important. The voices of all women, but especially girls and young women, are essential to bringing peace and resolution of conflict for all of Afghanistan.
By addressing mental health, improving access to education for all young people, empowering women and girls, alleviating poverty, and increasing the amount of employment opportunities, the reasons that youth often embrace violent extremism can be eliminated. After decades of violence and instability, these solutions are far from easy to achieve. Providing youth opportunities to speak up and participate in Afghanistan’s political and social life is the key to improving the quality of life in Afghanistan, and this next generation will pave the way toward future peace.
For over 14 years, Counterpart has supported networks of civil society organizations (CSOs) in Afghanistan, transferring knowledge to local leaders on the value of capacity building and developing skills at the national, provincial, and grassroots levels. In the current Afghanistan Civic Engagement Program (ACEP), Counterpart provides grants, training, and resources to help CSOs become more connected and active. Counterpart’s network of Emerging Civil Society Leaders (ECSL) offers select young Afghan men and women the opportunity to benefit from a series of leadership development trainings, international exchange opportunities, and grants to practice skills developed over the course of the program. Alumni of the ESCL serve on regional high peace councils and have also gone on to coordinate local peacebuilding efforts – from developing radio programs on reconciliation to hosting public debates in universities. By enabling youth to cultivate leadership and core inter-personal skills, ESCL members are well positioned to foster organic change from the ground up that is responsive to the needs of their communities.