In a musty room near the edge of town, a group of bearded men sit on the floor and heatedly discuss strategy. The men are in the planning stages of an event that they hope will impact Afghan politics – a peace jirga, or assembly, that will agitate for the end of the war between the Taliban and Afghan government by asking the two sides to come to a settlement.
"People are growing tired of the fighting," says Bakhtar Aminzai of the National Peace Jirga of Afghanistan, an association of students, professors, lawyers, clerics, and others. "We need to pressure the Afghan government and the international community to find a solution without using guns."
Mr. Aminzai is not alone in his sentiments. As violence and insecurity grow in this war-ravaged nation, a broad network of peace activists have been quietly pushing for negotiations and reconciliation with the Taliban.
This push coincides with recent preliminary talks in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi government hosted a secret high-level meeting in September with former Taliban officials and members of the Afghan government. The event was intended to ultimately open the door to direct talks with the Taliban.
Analysts interviewed say that the majority of Afghans favor some sort of negotiated settlement between the warring sides, but many peace activists are critical of the Saudi talks. "We want reconciliation with the Taliban through a loya jirga," or grand assembly of Afghans, says Fatana Gilani, head of the Afghanistan Women's Council (AWC), a leading nongovernmental organization (NGO) here. "We don't want interference from foreign countries or negotiations behind closed doors," she says.
Like the AWC, many local NGOs have incorporated antiwar activities into their routine and are joining with other civil society groups to promote the idea of dialogue. The AWC convened a "peace assembly" this past Spring and invited members of the Afghan government and the Taliban to attend. It has also run seminars and conferences in Kandahar, the Taliban's heartland, promoting negotiation.
The National Peace Jirga also organized a series of peace assemblies in recent months, drawing thousands of people. The meetings often feature fiery speakers who condemn international forces for killing civilians – but who also criticize the Taliban.
"Afghanicide – the killing of Afghanistan – must be stopped," says Israir Ahmed Karimizai, a leader of Awakened Youth of Afghanistan, a prominent antiwar group. After seeing the violence grow sharply last year, Mr. Karimizai and a group of friends formed Awakened Youth with the aim of creating a movement that is independent of both the government and the Taliban. In late September the group headed an initiative to observe International Peace Day with speeches, rallies, and a pledge from both the international forces and the Taliban to lay down their arms for one day. When both sides mostly complied, making that day one of the least violent in the country's recent history, Awakened Youth members and other activists say they were inspired to redouble their efforts.
Awakened Youth is just one of the many Afghan-run civil society organizations that have sprung up in recent years. While international NGOs receive most of the attention, Afghan NGOs actually make up the bulk of the NGO presence in the country, says M. Hashim Mayar, deputy director of the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief (ACBAR), an umbrella organization of NGOs active in the country. "Local NGOs are playing more of a role, especially as the security situation deteriorates," he says. ACBAR estimates that of the roughly 1,400 registered NGOs, nearly 1,100 are purely Afghan operations.
Sheila Samimi, manager of the Afghan Women's Network (AWN), another prominent NGO that focuses on women's rights, says that local NGOs are well-suited to deliver an antiwar message to Afghans. AWN is composed of 63 small women-oriented NGOs that work around the country.
In a small, crowded schoolroom outside Kabul students watch a video of a young girl forced into marriage. The girl, unable to run a household at such an age, gets viciously beaten to death by her in-laws. In the closing scene, the girl's tearful parents regret having given their daughter for marriage and beg the viewer for forgiveness.
The AWN also uses their classroom visits to teach young rural Afghans about politics and the benefits of peace.
Meanwhile, members of the Afghanistan Women's Council are trained in making arguments based on Islamic law. In poor, conservative Afghan villages, the AWC dispatches women to teach about women's rights and the virtues of supporting peace negotiations.
Despite these strengths, Afghan peace groups are also beset by weaknesses, says Habibullah Rafeh, a political analyst with the Afghanistan Academy of the Sciences. "A lot of these parties are organized along ethnic or tribal lines," he says. The Awakened Youth and the National Peace Jirga, for instance, consist mostly of Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group.
Many Afghan NGOs rely on foreign donors for support, which may weaken their ability to act independently. "Afghan civil society operations are very much framed by the budget lines of the donor" says Nader Nadery of the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission.
For Ms. Gilani and other peace activists, this doesn't mean however that they let the West off lightly, however. "We are against Western policy in Afghanistan," she says. "They should bury their guns in a grave and focus on diplomacy and economic development."