By: Ahmad Rashid Watanpahl
Extremism refers to political, social, economic, or religious views that propose far-reaching changes in society that pose a threat to the democratic order, while supporting criminal and non-criminal acts to achieve these aims. There is not any universally accepted definition for violent extremism; it is not new nor exclusive to any system of belief, nationality and region. Nevertheless, acts and messages of hate, violence, and religious, cultural and social intolerance by ISIL, Al-Qaida and Boko Haram have shaped the image of the violent extremism. UNESCO has defined violent extremism as set of beliefs and actions in support or use of violence to accomplish political, religious and ideological goals.
Violent extremism has intensely increased with the emergence of several extremist organizations such as Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, Boko Haram, Haqqani Network, Al-Shabab and several other local, national, regional and international organizations. Their message of intolerance and acts of violence have had drastic effects on the world and challenge our shared values of peace, security, and justice. Violent extremism undermines efforts towards maintaining peace and security, promoting the rule of law, protecting human rights, and fostering sustainable development. Violent extremists pose a security threat not only to a specific country or region but have extended from South and Southeast Asia to the Middle East, and from Central Europe to America and Australia.
The South Asian region has been facing increasing extremism and terrorist activities in the past two decades with the highest level of fatalities in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Besides the Haqqani Network, Al-Qaeda, Tahrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, and several other terrorist newtorks, the ISIL militants and commanders have also found ground in South Asia, and committed extreme violence particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan. ISIL has also appeared in Bangladesh and claimed presence in India. The recent ISIL attack on churches in Sri Lanka proves its presence in this country. With losing territory in Iraq and Syria, ISIL’s focus has now shifted to South and Southeast Asia with its biggest presence in Afghanistan.
Afghanistan, being at war for nearly 40 years, is facing serious violent insurgencies by extremists, and the trend of violent extremism is on the rise. The year 2018 marked the highest annual number of total civilian casualties recorded since 2009. In total, UNAMA documented 10,993 civilian casualties (3,804 deaths and 7,189 injured). Though there is little context-specific literature on the drivers of violent extremism in Afghanistan, the “common sense” understanding of the reasons for violent extremism are forces such as religious motivation, the radicalization of youth, external ideological support and influence, urban-rural split, illegal armed groups, and illiteracy.
The trend of violent extremism is in the rise in Afghanistan and the environment has become very fertile for insurgent groups to easily recruit people. The government of Afghanistan needs to take serious steps in combating and preventing violent extremism through a concentrated strategy or plan of action. The United Nations acknowledge that the violent extremism has become a threat to the humanity and thus makes it obligatory for each Member State, which Afghanistan is also a member of, to consider developing a national plan of action to prevent violent extremism which sets national priorities for addressing the local drivers of violent extremism. The government of Afghanistan needs to design a plan of action with interventions within but not limited to the following seven priority areas recommended by the UN Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism:
Dialogue: The government should encourage individuals to leave violent extremist groups by implementing programmes that provide them with educational and economic opportunities. Religious leaders must be engaged to provide a platform for dialogue and discussions through which to promote tolerance and understanding, peaceful coexistence, and address the religious narratives of violence in Afghanistan. Furthermore, regional and national dialogues must be convened on preventing violent extremism with a range of actors including youth, women and marginalized groups.
Strengthening good governance, human rights and the rule of law: When governments promote good governance, uphold the rule of law and eliminate corruption, they create an enabling environment for civil society and reduce the appeal of violent extremism. The government must ensure accountability for service delivery, and extend state services to remote areas and create an environment where entrepreneurship can flourish, and societies can become more peaceful, just and inclusive. The government must also strengthen the professionalism of security forces, law enforcement agencies and justice institutions; and ensure effective oversight and accountability of such bodies.
Engaging communities: Violent extremists require the implicit support of a wider circle of sympathizers for their survival, particularly in the rural areas of Afghanistan. If violent extremists can be deprived of this support, their capacity to cause harm and evade justice can be reduced. The government must develop joint and participatory strategies, including with civil society and local communities to protect communities from recruitment and the threat of violent extremism, and support confidence-building measures at the community level by providing appropriate platforms for dialogue.
Empowering youth: Afghanistan’s 63% young women and men constitute an invaluable partner in the efforts to prevent violent extremism. The government must support and enhance young women’s and young men’s participation in activities aimed at preventing violent extremism by prioritizing meaningful engagement mechanisms at the local, district, provincial and national levels. Young women and men need to be engaged in decision-making processes including by establishing youth councils and similar mechanisms which give young women and men a platform for participating in political processes.
Gender equality and empowering women: Women’s empowerment is a critical force for sustainable peace; societies for which gender equality indicators are higher or less vulnerable to violent extremism. The government should build the capacity of women to engage in prevention and response efforts related to violent extremism.
Education, skills development and employment facilitation: The government must ensure that every child receives a quality education which equips him or her for life. Education should include teaching respect for human rights and diversity, fostering critical thinking, and developing the behavioral and socioemotional skills that can contribute to peaceful coexistence and tolerance. Technical and vocational education, and mentoring for all vulnerable people, including the displaced people should be implemented to build their skills for livelihood opportunities, and young people should be provided with additional career options by fostering an entrepreneurial culture and offering entrepreneurship education.
Strategic communications, the Internet and social media: The manipulative messages of violent extremists on social media have achieved considerable success especially among young women and men. The government must develop and implement national communications strategies, in close cooperation with social media companies and the private sector to challenge the narratives associated with violent extremism, and promote grass-roots efforts to advance the values of tolerance, pluralism and understanding.
The government of Afghanistan with the support of the international community, the CSOs, and capacitated Afghans need to take serious steps to prevent violent extremism. In-dept research needs to be conducted to dig out the “Push” and “Pull” factors of violent extremism as well as how violent extremists utilize different narratives to attract and recruit youth into their groups, and accordingly design programmes and projects to tackle the root causes of violent extremism.