by Shamil Idriss and Uzra Zeya
The U.S. has committed $6.4 trillion and lost over 7,000 service members in military operations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq since 2001. As clamor for ending forever wars increases, so does the imperative to ensure that this mind-boggling investment of American lives and treasure delivers a positive return. Ten years from now, how will we answer the question, “Was it worth it?”
In Afghanistan, the answer depends on how 2020 unfolds. In the last two decades, violent conflict has killed over 157,000 people, including 43,000 civilians, and displaced millions. Now, with a peace deal signed but still uncertain, an end to this “endless war” has rarely seemed closer. Still, withdrawing troops and leaving a sustainable peace in their wake are two different things. Even the best-intentioned treaty can fall victim to poor implementation, as peace agreements that exclude civil society are 177% more likely to fail.
Success hinges on a key constituency, a missing piece to peace. In Afghanistan, over two-thirds of the population is under 24; globally, the youth population exceeds 1.8 billion. Young people are both the prime recruitment target of armed groups and the core lobbying force behind peace in Afghanistan, launching the #MyRedLine campaign to spur social media discussion about women’s rights in the negotiations.
In the words of 20-year-old Aisha Khurram, Afghanistan’s youth delegate to the United Nations, “For decades and centuries, our fears and future have always been decided by the warring parties.” Now, the scales are tipping.
As the heads of the Alliance for Peacebuilding, a network of over 110 peacebuilding organizations, and Search for Common Ground, the world’s largest dedicated peacebuilding NGO, we are awed by the energy, courage, and impact of youth leaders — and disappointed by the lack of funding, trust, and support provided to them by international actors.
The Youth, Peace, and Security (YPS) Act, introduced in the House of Representatives by Representatives Grace Meng (D-NY), Susan Brooks (R-IN), Dean Phillips (D-MN), and John Curtis (R-UT), would transform how the U.S. engages with young activists in places like Afghanistan. The bill would require inter-agency collaboration, flexible funding, and grassroots partnerships. With bipartisan support, the YPS Act is a pragmatic tool to support young peacebuilders to (re)build resilient societies, obviating the need for costly U.S. military interventions.
This legislation recognizes and capitalizes on ascendant youth power and its potential to transform seemingly intractable world problems. In December, Greta Thunberg made history as the youngest-ever recipient of Time magazine’s “Person of the Year,” gracing the famous red-framed cover at age 16. As she insisted, the award really belonged to a global generation of activists — climate leaders like 23-year-old Kisha Erah Muaña in the Philippines, 15-year-old Leah Namugerwa in Uganda, or 26-year-old Nina Gualingia in Ecuador.
In 2014, Malala Yousafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize at age 17; she now runs the Malala Fund, a multi-million-dollar NGO empowering girls worldwide. In 2016, youth activists in Colombia bolstered support for a crumbling peace agreement by staging nonviolent gatherings throughout the country.
Young leaders today are leveraging new technologies, political openings, and shrewd tactics to achieve unprecedented impact — not only in local communities but also on large systems. Recent history in Sierra Leone proves the point.
From 1991 to 2002, Sierra Leone underwent a vicious civil war that claimed 50,000 lives, displaced 2.6 million people, and enlisted 7,000 children as soldiers. In 2005, three years after the guns went silent, Sierra Leone ranked at the absolute bottom of the UN Human Development Index.
In Freetown, Search for Common Ground launched Talking Drum Studio to mobilize youth as radio journalists. As a teenager, Michael Sambola volunteered and discovered a natural talent. Over the next decade, he evolved into Sierra Leone’s premier investigative journalist.
Throughout 2018, roughly 10 percent of Sierra Leoneans listened to Sambola’s show daily, which sparked action on corruption, food hygiene, and child brides. His broadcasts force institutions to adopt a new culture of accountability.
The YPS Act would enable more of this systemic impact by unlocking not just funding but also collaborative tools. The Act would require an inter-agency strategy on youth, peace, and security; a “National Collaboration Platform” that meaningfully includes youth in top-level decisions; and training for State Department Foreign Service Officers on young people’s role in violence prevention.
Globally, youth groups are cost-effective, as the majority operate on less than $10,000 a year. Smart U.S. funding, fueled by the YPS Act, would strengthen the hands of activists who know local communities and are already making change.
By partnering with young leaders, the United States can address the violent conflicts that pose the gravest dangers to American security and prosperity. After two decades and trillions of dollars, violence still rages in Afghanistan and many of the goals articulated to justify American military intervention are yet to be achieved.
Passing the YPS Act, by comparison, is a simple first step. By voting “yes,” American policymakers can gain a new toolkit for managing violent conflict — one that stands on the proven capacity of young people to build peace.
Shamil Idriss is the CEO of Search for Common Ground, the world’s largest peacebuilding organization
Uzra Zeya is the President of the Alliance for Peacebuilding, a network of over 110 peacebuilding organizations.