HERAT -- An initiative launched by the European Union and the Swedish Committee for Afghanistan aims to gather the Afghan people's demands and views about the peace process and ensure their voices are heard.
The campaign, titled "Afghan Women's and Men's Aspirations and Concerns", has so far been held in seven provinces: Herat, Balkh, Kandahar, Nangarhar, Kunduz, Bamiyan and Paktia, according to Muhammad Jawed Wardak, organiser of the initiative.
More campaigns in which residents of neighbouring districts and provinces will participate will take place in these provinces, he said.
"The views of women, youths, civil society activists and residents of districts and villages about the peace process are heard in these campaigns and shared with the relevant authorities," Wardak said.
"Participants will speak about the peace process and share their demands and concerns as well as their expectations from the Afghan government, the Taliban and international community," he said. "After the views about the peace process are gathered, they will be shared with the international community and parties involved in peace talks."
The campaign, which started in September, will continue for 15 months, according to Wardak.
Seven Afghan non-governmental organisations are running campaigns that promote civilians' voices, he said.
Hopeful for peace
Marjan Haidari, chairwoman of the women's council in Injil District of Herat Province, lauded the goals of the campaign.
The initiative is important because it shares civilians' voices with the parties negotiating peace, she said. This is how the voices of peace mediators, Afghans who have suffered in the war and those who want peace are shared with parties to the conflict.
"I call on all the parties involved in peace talks to ignore their political and personal interests and instead listen to the voices of Afghans who are thirsty for peace and have been ruined by war," she said.
"This time we are hopeful for peace talks, and we want the Taliban and government to use this golden opportunity and make peace with one another," Haidari said. "All Afghans want peace, and they can no longer tolerate war."
More than 200 women, youths, civil society activists and specialists took part in the initiative to raise the voices of residents of Herat city on Wednesday (December 18). They expressed their views of the peace process and peace talks in Qatar.
"We, as the new generation of Afghanistan, want to ensure the role of youth in the peace process that will help the process succeed and put an end to the war," said Sediqa Nazari, a political science student at Herat University. "Young people are equipped with good capabilities, and they are able to propose positive approaches for the peace process."
"We want the Taliban to include members of all walks of society, especially Afghan women, in the peace process," she said. "Women have suffered a lot of pain, and they have been the victims of war for years. We want our legal and civil liberties preserved after a peace settlement is achieved."
"I have great hope that peace talks will result in a settlement this time because not only [civilians] but also the Taliban are tired of war, and they don't have the ability to continue fighting," she said. "[The Taliban] also want to gain their freedom and live a peaceful life like the rest of the society."
Also on December 18, US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad and President Ashraf Ghani conferred in Kabul to discuss the ongoing peace process.
Khalilzad and Ghani discussed several topics including the need for a ceasefire, presidential spokesman Sediq Seddiqi said.
"The president also expressed his concerns about the continued violence by the Taliban," he said.
An inclusive peace process
All Afghans expect the parties to the peace talks to take into account the shared interests of Afghans in the peace process -- not their individual and party interests, said Manizha Muhammadi, a resident of Herat city.
The public's needs and demands should be taken into account in any peace settlement so as to ensure a sustainable peace, she said.
"We hope that women and youths' rights remain intact after a peace settlement so that they can continue their activities," she said. "It shouldn't take women back to the era they were in two decades ago when they didn't have the right to leave their homes."
"I want for Afghan women to be included in the peace talks because they have made many sacrifices over the past two decades to achieve their current status," said Arzo Yahyazada, a resident of Herat city. "They don't want to go back to the past and live in a dark era."
Neighbouring countries should refrain from interfering in internal Afghan matters, she added.
Mounting evidence shows that the Iranian regime is supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan militarily, logistically and financially, a US Defence Intelligence Agency report revealed November 19.
This support is part of Iran's "dual-track strategy for engaging both local groups and the Afghan government in Kabul to achieve its broader security goals", the report said.
But if the Taliban are looking for a long-term ally, Iran is a fickle partner, the report suggested.
"Tehran does not seek to return the Taliban to power but aims to maintain influence with the group as a hedge in the event that the Taliban gains a role in a future Afghan government," it said.
Taliban must respect Afghans' demands
The participants of the initiative said they want the Taliban to put the interests of the Afghan people over those of neighbouring and regional countries.
Afghans want sustainable peace and an end to the war, and the Taliban must respond positively to the public's demands, they said.
As the Afghan government is the sole supporter of the public, it should take robust steps toward ensuring peace in the country, said Malika Rasuli, a women rights activist in Herat city.
"We are hopeful for the peace process, and we believe that peace will come about, but the Afghan people should be given a stronger role in the peace talks," she said.
"After a peace settlement is achieved between the United States and the Taliban, we want intra-Afghan peace talks -- in which representatives of all Afghans should participate -- to begin."
Afghans live in an inclusive society and everyone has the right to decide his or her future, she said.
The achievements of the Afghan people over the past 18 years, especially of women, should not be overlooked in peace talks, Rasuli said. Afghans will not accept a peace settlement that ignores these achievements.
"We want sustainable peace, and the peace settlement needs to have an international guarantee making sure the Taliban's rule doesn't return," said Abdullah Ansari, a civil society activist in Herat city.
Positive developments toward peace are occurring, he said, but the details of peace negotiations need to be shared with the public to assuage its concerns.
"Representatives need to be selected from all walks of society, and they should take part in direct peace talks," he said. "This will multiply the success of peace talks."