Afghanistan's Next Generation Wants Taliban Held Accountable

NATO troops pull out of Afghanistan by the end of 2014, leaving some Afghans concerned about security. The withdrawal of foreign troops also opens up multiple chances for a successful democracy. A new generation is emerging in Afghanistan that is more educated, more connected with the world and more hopeful about the future than previous generations. Renee Montagne talks to with Shaharzad Akbar, chairperson for Afghanistan 1400; and Haseeb Humayoon, founding partner and director of QARA Consulting.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

An attempt at getting peace talks going with the Taliban late last month turned into something of a debacle...

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

When a new office for the Taliban opened in Qatar, it was meant to allow for some contact with the militants still at war with the Afghan government.

MONTAGNE: But immediately, the Taliban delegates ran up their flag and put up a plaque bearing the name of the Taliban government, rather boldly laying claim to a political reality that no longer exists.

GREENE: All of which infuriated Afghanistan's real government, which demanded the flag come down.

MONTAGNE: To get the view on this and other challenging facing the country, we brought into our studio two young Afghans. Shaharzad Akbar and Haseeb Humayoon are with a group of civil society leaders who've just been talking to analysts and politicians in Washington, D.C. Welcome.

SHARHARZAD AKBAR: Thank you.

HASEEB HUMAYOON: Good to be here, Renee.

MONTAGNE: This office has been talked about for some time, for at least a year and a half, and sort of never happened. Is there some support in Afghanistan for meeting and holding talks with the Taliban?

HUMAYOON: Renee, I think, in general, there is consensus around the need for peace in Afghanistan, but in particular to Qatar, it was largely seen as an office where discussions or peace negotiations, if you will, can happen. But there was too much of Taliban bravado around it and there was too much of a sense that they were trying to claim that they are something they actually aren't on the ground.

So they essentially had a banner declaring themselves a government, when in fact they're a terrorist group hiding in caves and then across the border in Pakistan.

AKBAR: Exactly. Afghan people are the only entity that can hold these people accountable and Afghan people have said very strongly, no to Taliban continuously. And them using this opportunity as a PR opportunity was, I think, what created a lot of disappointment.

MONTAGNE: Even as we're getting the news of this apparently problematic opening of an office for the Taliban to maybe move towards peace talks, there have been a series of attacks in Kabul and to the outside world, it seems like a very bad sign, as if the Taliban has potentially a great deal of power. How does it look to you both living there in Kabul?

AKBAR: We understand that there will be some level of violence and especially in spring and summer there are attacks by Taliban. But every time an attack happens, we look at how Afghan National Security forces to those attacks. So for us, it's a sign of the increasing strengths in our soldiers, their increasing ability to tackle the attacks. Now, when attacks happen, the level of anxiety around town is much less because people are confident.

MONTAGNE: In the last couple of years since it has become obvious that 2014 is going to bring a big change, that is to say international troops, their numbers are going to shrink, that they're not going to be in the forefront of fighting. A lot of people were expressing concern, a lot of Afghans that what would happen. Is that fear still there or have Afghans take on board the idea that this is it?

AKBAR: I think there's increasing recognition that we have to take responsibility as Afghans. Our country, our responsibility, we have to take responsibility. We realize that international forces, international community cannot stay in Afghanistan forever.

HUMAYOON: The overblown concern about 2014 in many ways is as if it's Y2K. It's coming up, obviously, but what really matters as to what we prioritize between now and the summer of 2014. And what is crucial is our upcoming elections. In April 2014, we have for the first time in the history of the country, the transfer of power scheduled from one sitting president democratically elected to an election that will bring in a new face, a new leader in the country. That will have a major impact on stabilizing Afghanistan beyond 2014.

MONTAGNE: There are plenty of people who are predicting that the next presidential election will be more of the same. Is it likely that you and young leaders like you would have a dream candidate?

AKBAR: It would be unrealistic to expect that there will be a whole new set of political actors, of course. We will be seeing some of the old faces. Previously in our elections, it was a lot about personalities. It was about one or other personality. And for the past few months, we have been going out there and have made this part of the public debate now; that any tickets, any candidates who come out, they have to have very clear agendas because we will be having challenges. There will be decreasing international attention. There will decreasing aid. So how are they going to manage that situation? They have to explain that agenda to people, to voters.

HUMAYOON: And in many ways, the candidates who line up will naturally have to be responsive to this new demographic in the country. You're looking at a country with 70 percent of its population below the age of 20 that is much better connected than ever before, new aspirations, new sets of values and a whole different frame about what they want in the country for themselves or for their generation than we've ever had in the past.

So the push from the demographic change, this will be very new in the country's political and democratic development in the past 12 years.

MONTAGNE: Thank you both very much for joining us.

HUMAYOON: Absolutely. Thank you, Renee.

AKBAR: Thank you, Renee.

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MONTAGNE: Shaharzad Akbar and Haseeb Humayoon are leaders of the civil and political group Afghanistan 1400.

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MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

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