Conflict Resolution Afghan Style

by Ellis Brooks

Afghan Peace Volunteers are doing something incredible. They are uniting for nonviolence in a country where the voices in power- the Taliban, their own government, the USA- tell them fighting is the answer. In a society riven by abuses of power, they make decisions together. They overcome long held mistrust to bring together young people of different ethnic backgrounds, whether to tackle poverty, educate street children, play football or a dozen other projects for equality, peace and sustainability. 

But the challenges of peacebuilding are never over. Living and working together so closely, conflict is a necessary part of life for these young people. Who should join which committee? How should the ethnicities be divided between the football teams? What about when women are excluded from an activity?

The APV Conflict Resolution Team have been running workshops with their peers this week. They plan to offer a mediation service and to engage other youth in alternatives to violence.

I’m learning a lot too. Conflict is universal, but our ways of dealing with it are like the colours of the rainbow. The “Afghan” in the APV name doesn’t just tell you where they are; it signifies the rich heritage that they can draw on when dealing with conflict.

For an Afghan, you don’t enter conflict merely as an individual. Far more than in UK culture, you carry with you the responsibility to your group, be it your family, ethnic community, perhaps your gang. This loyalty is a real strength and source of resilience in a society where people have depended on one another to survive decades of war. Whether we’re talking about physical or mental suffering, poverty, or conflict, knowing you have a group who will be there for you is a source of strength.

It contrasts favourably with Western individualism at its worst, which presumes everyone will prioritise her or his own needs whatever the cost to others.

Equally, this responsibility to your group carries pressure and dilemmas. For example, perhaps you’ve had an argument you regret with someone from a different group; if you accept your wrongdoing in the conflict, you’re not just accepting it for yourself: you are bringing that guilt upon your group. Your group might not welcome that! But if the conflict escalates, your whole group lives with that danger.

And if the conflict is within your group, asserting your personal needs may look disloyal. More than that, it says to your group that it has failed to meet your needs, a source of shame. Many people’s needs are being accounted for in this equation.

In our sessions we’ve explored “conflict styles” based on how assertively and how cooperatively you behave. Afghans, perhaps in a spirit of self-preservation, say they tend towards either avoiding conflict altogether (like a turtle), or going to the other extreme and to force their point (like a shark). Entering into equitable dialogue, where both parties’ needs are heard, is a high-stakes undertaking. When you do, you are likely to involve your whole group: your whole family or community. Everyone has a stake in the conflict. Traditional Pashtun practices like the Jirga take this all-in format.

It’s like playing spindle sticks: move one part and everything shifts. It contrasts with the Western hue of conflict resolution in which individual rights and responsibilities are emphasised. You could look at the group versus the individual as two incompatible models, another clash of East and West. I prefer to see it as a healthy tension, different lenses which each shed more light on the problem. The APVs are doing just that.

While every volunteer has a unique background, this group has built its own identity as the Afghan Peace Volunteers. Their identity is rooted in striving for nonviolent solutions together. They combine their own insight and experience with practices from their own culture and around the world.

So if you want to find out about conflict resolution, Kabul is the place to be.