In a country where politics is often seen as a byword for corruption, and which is still dominated by jihadi-era commanders, a small group of influential young Afghans have started a civil and political movement that hopes to transcend old ethnic and sectarian divides.
As Nato troops head home and gloomy predictions about the country’s future multiply, the founders of the group argue that Afghanistan‘s young people have not given up on their country, they are just fed-up with its ruthless, divisive politicians. And as two-thirds of the population is under 30, they potentially have a very large constituency.
“Our strength is that we can mobilise this new generation that no longer feels comfortable with the fragmentations of the past, but is also invested in the future of this country,” said Haseeb Humayoon, chief executive of Qara Consulting and a founding member of the group, which has adopted the motto “Our country, our responsibility”.
Its name, Afghanistan 1400, looks towards a new century in the Persian calendar, which begins in the year 2020 of the western calendar.
“Ten years is not much in the life of a nation, but we hope we can ensure our political and economic development will be irreversible by then,” said Ershad Ahmadi, a senior diplomat and another founding member. He said the party grew out of a concern among his generation that they were just “onlookers” to the country’s turmoil.
It brings together men and women from almost all the country’s many ethnic groups, and the chair is a woman, a rare example of diversity in a country where ethnic and sectarian divisions are often exploited for political ends, and women are frequently marginalised.
“There are so many ethno-centric people in this society,” Ahmadi said. “They are very active on TVs and radios and social networks, and call each other a lot of names. But for some reason they are confused about what to call us, because when they see the diversity in Afghanistan 1400, they are like ‘what should we do with these guys, they have everybody around the table’.”
The group’s 80 founding members are influential as well as diverse, including top civil servants, businessmen, the president’s former spokesman, a security expert and one of Kabul’s most prominent journalists.
The idea was born, like many political movements, at a local cafe, although it took a core group 12 months of arguing to hammer out a manifesto they could all unite behind.
“It has been a thrilling and exhausting experience. Because the people who have come together are the people who normally wouldn’t go easily and associate themselves with a brand,” said Humayoon, who after years in business scatters his political discussions with marketing words.
Attempts to set up more progressive parties in Afghanistan have sometimes foundered outside the relatively liberal capital, but the group already has a base in the main regional hubs and founding members such as Abdul Ali Shamsi, a southern businessman, now based in Kandahar, who for years advised the governor of neighbouring Helmand province on how to reach out to the Taliban.
When Kabul-based members failed to show up for meetings, the others teased them with the example of Shamsi, who flew up from the south for all the long discussions.
And they are not sticking to drawing up political manifestos. This April, while still arguing over their founding aims, the group organised an anonymous poster campaign to lionise the commandos, police and soldiers who responded to a complex Taliban attack on the city with giant billboards and 5,000 fly-posters handed out downtown to enthusiastic drivers.
A few months later, when insurgents attacked a popular picnic spot, they joined with other civil society groups to organise a clean-up, and planted flowers where the dead had fallen.
“These efforts have two impacts: one is we stand up against things we believe are wrong, but the other more important factor is we project courage, we enable people to stand up against violence, people who in many ways have been passive because of fears instilled among the population,” Shamsi said.