In Afghanistan, Social Media Is the Only Way to Talk Back to the Taliban
As the United States abandons demands for human rights, young Afghans are embracing free speech the only place they can—on the Internet.
KABUL, Afghanistan—In July, after an Iranian social media campaign—#Don’t_Execute, calling for the regime to overturn the death sentences of three political prisoners—received support in neighboring Afghanistan, an Afghan Twitter user suggested replicating the hashtag in the Afghan political context. He said that Afghans should use #DoNotRedeemtheTaliban in Dari, referring to the government’s potential peace talks with the militant group.
Within hours, #Don’t_Execute became a global trend on Twitter after Aziz Hakimi tweeted, “Can we also tell the government and the international community to not redeem the Taliban?” The tweet—from an account that has since been deactivated—went viral, and more than 100,000 tweets with the hashtag were posted over the following week.
Some Afghans tweeted graphic images of Taliban attacks—mainly car bombs in the capital Kabul. People demanded that the government not compromise in the upcoming negotiations with the Taliban, in particular demanding protections of freedom of speech, gender equality, and democracy. “When we talk of the Taliban, there is no need for expertise, analysis, and reasoning,” one person tweeted. “Our memories, pains, sobs, angers, and tears that have never been wiped off can explain, instead of dozens of books and articles, that they are murderers, criminals, and enemies and should never be returned to power.”
After nearly two decades of war, a new generation of Afghans has grown up with a strong sense of social and political responsibility. But as peaceful public protest remains dangerous, they increasingly use social media to participate in political activities. In July 2016, two suicide bombers attacked a protest in Kabul, killing 83 civilians and wounding more than 230 others. In June 2017, another protest in the capital ended in when Afghan security forces allegedly shot and killed seven demonstrators. A triple bombing during the funeral for the protesters killed 20 civilians.
“Insecurity in Kabul robbed people of access to the streets,” said Ali Yawar Adili, a researcher at the Kabul-based think tank Afghanistan Analysts Network. “Instead of being on the streets, people can only express their concerns on social media.”
So people retreated to social media pages. A recent survey showed that almost 90 percent of households in Afghanistan have at least one mobile phone, and about 40 percent have access to the Internet. And while traditional protests attempted only to hold the Afghan government accountable to its people, social media campaigns aim to voice concerns for a larger audience: the international community.
The slow-motion peace process came to a halt over the prisoner swap between the Afghan government and the Taliban for months. In early September, the government, after holding a consultative council, decided to release the remaining Taliban prisoners in a bid to kick off direct talks with the Taliban. As peace talks loom, concerns are now growing over a deal with the Taliban that undermines the liberal values that the United States and Afghans fought for during the past 20 years.
In Afghanistan, social media has become the primary means for ordinary Afghans to voice their concerns about the peace process. The U.S.-Taliban agreement signed in February, setting up the intra-Afghan peace talks, is the latest chapter in a long history of deal-making to serve the interests of stakeholders rather than considering public opinion in Afghanistan.
The #DoNotRedeemtheTaliban campaign shows that the peace process has failed to address concerns such as prioritizing human rights or a lasting cease-fire with the Taliban. “People feel they are left out of the process,” Hakimi said. “Social media is a refuge for people, a place where people can talk, connect with each other, and feel that someone else is listening to them. Social media makes people powerful.”
Adili, the researcher, said that the Afghan government was more accountable to the international community that pays as much as 75 percent of government’s expenses. “These Afghan carpetbaggers are accountable to donors,” Adili said. “When only social media campaigns influenced the donors, government officials would act and respond to the social media campaigns.”
Laila Haidari, a social activist in Kabul, said that she often has her tweets translated from Dari into English, which can make campaigns more effective. “I do the extra work because I want to reach to human rights and democracy defenders,” Haidari said.
A social media campaign in November 2019 protested the arrest of two activists who had documented the systematic sexual exploitation of schoolboys in Afghanistan’s Logar province. Afghanistan’s intelligence agency had detained the activists and forced them to apologize. After the then U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, John Bass called it a “Soviet-style” arrest, President Ashraf Ghani ordered the activists’ release.
Social media campaigns have also influenced Afghanistan’s political discourse. As U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration’s direct negotiations with the Taliban progressed in 2019, many Afghans—including students, teachers, and government employees—joined the “My Red Line” campaign, sharing video clips stating common values they stood for in the talks with the Taliban.
Tamana, a student from Kandahar province, said in a video clip that she did not want to lose her right to education if the Taliban returned to power. “Because I want progress more and become a person in the future that can bring peace to my homeland, myself,” she said.
For nearly five decades, the people of Afghanistan have been sacrificing in various ways to bring peace, but which peace? Tamana is one of the girls who wants to define the peace herself.#خطـسرخـمن
#MyRedLine#Kandahar#Afghanistan #Peace pic.twitter.com/X6RCStQbkK
— MyRedLine – خط سرخ من (@myredline_afg) July 7, 2020
As a result of the campaign, the phrase “my red line” entered Afghan politics.
Protection of the republic and citizenship rights are our red lines,” said Ghani in a gathering with Afghan youths in February 2020. In an interview with local media outlets, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said that return of the Islamic Emirate was “the red line of the international community.”
This morning I received this video from our teachers in #Kandahar. Our students were inspired by the #myredline campaign & wanted to create their own video. @wiseafghanistan @FForotan @myredline_afg #خطـسرخـمن#زماـسرهـکرښه#MyRedLine#Kandahar https://t.co/5NmpRXXqE4 pic.twitter.com/35aMzoI5fE
— Alia Rasoully (@AliaRasoully) December 9, 2019
The most recent agreement Khalilzad struck failed to focus on values, however, and instead prioritized the interests of the United States and the Taliban: the U.S. troop withdrawal and the Taliban’s breakup with al Qaeda. Activists say the U.S.-Taliban deal shows the limitations of social media’s ability to effect change. “People can begin a campaign and protest a policy,” Hakimi said. “But it is more like a painkiller. It has little effect.” In Afghanistan, “there is no other mechanism” for people to participate in politics and decision-making, he added.
But as the United States gradually draws down its troops from Afghanistan, the peace process is moving to the next phase—the negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. As much as the process raised hopes for the end of the nearly 19-year war in Afghanistan, fears over the Taliban’s return to power remain.
Many activists fear that the Afghan government and the Taliban will negotiate over fundamental human rights in the process. The administration in Kabul was formed through a power-sharing deal, rather than a democratic election. The prospect of such deal-making frightens Afghans about their future. “When a political deal replaces votes, the election is meaningless,” Adili said.
So Afghans are trying to influence the negotiations through the only independent and available means: social media. Omar Sadr, a lecturer at the American University of Afghanistan, said that social media pages enable people to create a collective voice. “The collective voice creates pressure,” Sadr said. “At least, negotiators understand the concerns of people. They cannot ignore it.”
In one recent campaign, a group of Afghan activists created a social media campaign named Feminine Perspectives in a bid to raise demands of women in peace talks. Every week, the campaign focuses on one right. “We start this week with #WomenRightstoEducation,” read the campaign’s first tweet. “We request that you join us.” Afghan men and women joined the campaign, demanding the protection of women’s rights for education in the event of the Taliban’s return.
Mina Rezaee, a women’s rights activist in Kabul, posted a photo of an old man who lived in a rural area with a poster that promoted education. “These men are tired of the war,” she tweeted. “They were victims, but they want education for their children.”
But with a Taliban leadership that has yet to show willingness to compromise in talks with the government, Afghans fear that such free expression on social media pages will not be possible under a future government.
“Through social media pages, people connect with the government and the Taliban,” Hakimi, the twitter user, said. “Can you imagine a Taliban that will allow people to criticize it on social media pages?”