Mediation Matters: Tony Whatling on Training Muslim Mediators in Afghanistan

A personal perspective from Tony Whatling, mediation consultant and trainer, and author of Mediation Skills and Strategies: A Practical Guide.


Kabul revisited

The flight from Dubai to Afghanistan had taken us over the breathtaking panorama of the majestic snow-capped peaks and deep dark valleys of the Central Highland mountain range, which cover over 160,000 square miles.

It was late October 2010 and as we touched down at Kabul airport I reflected on my last training visit in 2004 and wondered what changes had taken place over that time. The excitement of my return to this wonderful country had been overshadowed by the news that, on that same morning, on the outskirts of Kabul a suicide bomber had taken the lives of thirteen NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops and eight civilians.

Within three weeks of that dreadful event, many more innocent citizens – men, women and children – were slaughtered by more bombs as they celebrated the joy and excitement of the festival Eid Mubarak, in central Kabul.

Compared to 2004, it was sad to see that Kabul had become a city under siege. Every building of any importance was now hidden from sight and fortified with 20-foot high concrete walls, topped with razor wire. Getting into the hotel from the road took around 10-20 minutes every day as each steel barrier, followed by massive steel gates, allowed only one car at a time to pass through and be examined. They checked underneath the car, the boot and the engine bay. Once out of the car, bags were searched and checked by sniffer dogs before being put through airport-style scanners. All hotel uniformed guards carried machine guns at the ready with – rather concerningly – twitching fingers. Only main roads were surfaced, but all were inches deep in dust. There were many more cars than last time and driving was all based on a ‘he who dares, wins’ game of bluff and counter-bluff, with a terrifying lack of regard for the risks involved or for the lives of pedestrians attempting to cross the road.

It was all a stark reminder that, whether the disputes were between warring spouses, angry neighbours, work colleagues or nations, such conflicts would never be resolved by violence. Referring to a much-respected retired general, Britain’s former Ambassador to Afghanistan wrote: ‘Like most Afghans, he knew that the only answer was reconciliation between all the parties to the conflict. There had to be a new political settlement in which the Taliban, and the tribes and views they represented, were included, not excluded. Trying to defeat the Taliban by military force would never produce lasting peace.’*

Mediation for the people by the people

Over the past ten years, I have had the great pleasure and privilege of delivering a total of twenty programmes of family and community mediation training in eleven different countries, including Pakistan, India, Syria, Kenya, Portugal, the USA, UK, Canada, Uganda, Tanzania, and Afghanistan.

The training programmes are arranged by one particular Muslim group, which has faith communities in some 23 different countries worldwide. Most of those communities have now established dispute resolution teams, staffed by volunteer-trained mediators who are available to deal with disputes referred from within their particular local faith community group.

And so it was that I was returning to Kabul to train the latest group of carefully selected, newly appointed volunteer mediators from various districts in Afghanistan where this particular faith group has long-established communities.


Photo: Tony Whatling with trainees in Kabul.
Tony Whatling with trainees in Kabul.

For many of the 50 or so trainees, the learning challenges they faced were compounded by the physical discomfort of some 3-4 days walking, apart from the occasional luxury of a donkey ride to get to the training venue in Kabul. Much of their route – for example, from the northern mountainous Hindu Kush regions of Badakhshan – consists of little more than rough tracks. Some told of how the path had become closed behind them by ice and snow. Their safe return to loved ones and businesses was, as they put it with a resigned shrug of the shoulders, ‘now in the hands of Allah’.

For these people, who had lived through centuries of peaceful conflict resolution faith teachings combined with a tradition of voluntary service to their community, the personal risks involved were far outweighed by an awareness of the urgent need to connect faith traditions with contemporary dispute resolution practice.

New learning inevitably generates complex and challenging questions

One of the great pleasures of training such groups is the strong level of commitment, attention, and the high value which they attribute to any form of education and training. As a result, their acquisition of knowledge and skills tends to be much accelerated in comparison to their Western counterparts. This is all the more surprising since every sentence has to be translated, in this instance into Farsi.

Sadly, male trainees still outnumber women – one consequence of which is that men have to assume the role of women in role-play. This is always a source of great amusement within a group. In what other circumstances would you find a high-ranking officer from the department of counter-terrorism, a former mayor, a serving army general, judges and farmers, sitting cross-legged on the floor, acting out the role of a distressed divorcing wife?

The influence of the trainer in empowering trainees to stretch their boundaries never ceases to amaze me. To their credit, during the role-play debrief, these men frequently comment about the eye-opening insights they gained from this gender shift experience.

Here in Afghanistan, the training and learning challenges are complex, as participants struggle to make sense not only of the knowledge and skills they are gaining, but of the application of these to their non-Western culture and faith traditions.

It is very apparent that they are convinced by, excited about and wanting to apply these new ideas and practices. Yet at the same time there is an inevitable uncertainty and insecurity about the extent to which such practices will be acceptable within their more remote regional communities.

Evidence of this internal struggle becomes clear from the nature of the questions from – and often heated debates between – members of the group. Constant requests for help and advice are made about how to deal with the anticipated resistance to such ‘new ways’ being imported from the West.

This has been a common experience and preoccupation in the training of other groups for example in India, Pakistan, East Africa, Syria and, more recently with a group from Iran, where long-standing cultural traditions of dispute resolution are far more akin to arbitration.

In the more remote regions of these countries, disputes are traditionally referred to wise community leaders and/or groups of respected elders, who have the absolute authority to hear the case and determine the settlement. Regardless of the opinions of the winners or losers of this informal justice system, the judgement will be accepted and respected by all concerned. Consequently, introducing contemporary and non-authoritarian dispute resolution, by party empowerment and negotiation, challenges the authority of the tradition and risks a lack of respect for the authority, and therefore the status of mediators, regardless of Western contemporary beliefs in its efficacy.

Any response to such challenging questions must demonstrate a good level of understanding on the part of the trainer, together with all due respect for cultural and sub-cultural differences and traditions.

Whilst the questions may relate to the anticipated resistance in potential mediation clients, the underlying or ‘meta’ questions are also a reminder that the trainee, too, is a product of that same cultural environment.

The response of a trainer to the trainee’s uncertainty and doubts can be seen as a mirror image that reflects the doubts and uncertainties that clients may well bring to them as mediators. Trainers and mediators alike, on perceiving such doubts, must have the professional maturity to be able to steer into such confusion. Instead of trying to avoid it, they should share responsibility for their part in such uncertainty, rather than regarding it as the client’s problem. In other words, expressed or perceived doubts from trainees or clients should be encouraged, heard, understood and respected as normal at times of uncertainty and disequilibrium.

Is mediation an ‘idea whose time has come’ for Afghanistan?

Having referred earlier to the wise words of the former British Ambassador, I woke today to the news that, on the occasion of President Karzai’s meeting with Britain’s Prime Minister in London, it was announced that talks had now officially started between mediators and representatives of the Taliban.

My work in Afghanistan is related to one small Muslim faith community that is located within many larger and more complex historical faith, cultural and political systems. The work is a very minor contribution compared to the wider picture in this war-torn country. Nevertheless, there seems little doubt now that mediation and negotiated peace settlements are the only viable alternative, as for example we have witnessed in countries like South Africa. In such entrenched conflicts, we are dealing with highly complex and long-standing disputes involving deeply held values and principles.

When compared to disputes over substantive issues such as regional boundaries, electoral systems, or numbers of weapons, negotiated settlements will never be achieved by one side changing its position or values. Whilst we may all change and adapt our values as we go through life, we tend not to do that when in dispute. That is a time to stand up for them at all costs, regardless of risk to life and limb. The only way to achieve a resolution to such values disputes is when each side eventually comes to recognise the right of the other side to exist as fellow human beings – albeit having entirely different cultural and faith traditions, values and beliefs. Once that position is established, the respective factions can come together to negotiate practical measures by which they can learn to live side-by-side, regardless of their value differences – as is now happening with the Northern Ireland peace agreement.

Such major international conflicts will not be concluded easily or swiftly, just because peace agreements are signed. In the cases of South Africa and Northern Ireland we may be facing decades of transition and yet, it would seem that once the tipping point is reached, despite attempts by minority groups to disrupt the accord, it is unlikely to revert to former states of all-out warfare.

Despite the marked differences between the advances of one minority Muslim group that I have had the privilege of working with, compared to the enormity of conflict in Afghanistan as a whole, the good news is that the skills and techniques that mediators bring are precisely the same.

Obviously very different procedural steps are needed when we compare spousal disputes with workplace, or commercial contexts with complex multinational conflicts. Nevertheless, the skills and processes of mediation are universal. So too are the essential principals that underpin the practice, such as voluntary participation, demonstrable impartiality as to outcome, joint party empowerment, confidentiality and fairness etc. – all of which are explored in more detail in the forthcoming book, Mediation Skills and Strategies.

Political leaders, community elected representatives and diplomats will inevitably take centre stage in such negotiations. Nevertheless we can only hope that they have the wisdom to ensure that highly-skilled, trained and respected mediators are ’embedded’ at every stage of the process. They must be regarded as integral to the process throughout. Their values, skills and strategies are substantially different from the key stakeholders – and should be respected as such.

My personal view, from experience over the past decade, is that, in terms of cultural credibility, such mediators should ideally be recruited from within the Afghan community and culture rather than imported from the West. It is likely that training will need to be imported initially but it must to be seen to be culturally sensitive to substantial differences between Western Individualist and non-Western Communitarian cultural attitudes to conflict and dispute resolution.

Tony Whatling
January 2012

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.


*Sherard Cowper-Coles, Cables from Kabul: The Inside Story of the West’s Afghanistan Campaign (Harper Press 2011), 352pp.

One thought

  1. Thank you Tony.
    You made me into the mediator I became. I have fond memories of training in Dunblane and Worcester!
    Despite the tragic lack of support recently for mediation, due to withdrawal of public funding, it still has to be the best possible answer to conflict resolution in every situation.
    So glad to have known you. I hope you still wear the waistcoats!
    Jane (Reed)

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