The recently signed agreement between the United States and the Taliban represents a milestone in a war that began with the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan following 9/11. But the agreement is not actually a peace deal; it is a chance to get one. Now comes the hard part.
The agreement stipulates that it will be followed by a much more difficult intra-Afghan negotiation on a permanent ceasefire and future political arrangements, including power-sharing, constitutional arrangements, and women’s and civil rights protections. That will, for the first time, bring together the Taliban, the Kabul government, and other constituencies that have a stake in the outcome.
But whether the Taliban are committed to pursue a comprehensive peace accord remains uncertain – as does the group’s willingness to make the compromises necessary to achieve one.
What is certain is that after 18 years of fighting, and with civilian casualties running at the highest level in the conflict, the Afghan people are ready for peace. But not – as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has said – “a peace at any cost.”
As an inflection point approaches for Afghanistan, we need to hear more about what the Afghan people themselves say about their current situation, especially “a peace at any cost.” A survey directed by The Asia Foundation in Kabul provides some answers and insights.
Afghanistan in 2019: A Survey of the Afghan People is the foundation’s 15th annual public opinion survey in Afghanistan. For this edition, questions were added to gauge Afghan attitudes toward negotiations with the Taliban and prospects for national reconciliation.
Face-to-face interviews were conducted with 18,000 Afghans across all 34 provinces. Respondents were equally divided between male and female; reflecting the country, 18 percent were urban households, 82 percent rural.
The survey found that Afghans are cautiously hopeful that a peace process is now finally underway. They are reconciled to the reality that peace will not come to Afghanistan without some form of political settlement.
Some 64 percent of those surveyed say reconciliation with the Taliban is possible, with men more optimistic (70 percent ) than women (59 percent). Overall the proportion of those surveyed who support peace efforts stands at almost 90 percent.
But Afghans are not willing to agree to a peace “at any cost.” They have clear views on the potential red lines in any negotiations.
Afghans are very concerned about a deal being struck that would come at the expense of women, who have made significant progress over the last two decades to secure equal rights to education, employment, and political participation.
Almost 80 percent of Afghans say women’s rights must be protected, including the right to vote (89 percent).
Roughly 65 percent of Afghans say they would not support an agreement with the Taliban if women were no longer allowed to go to school or work outside the home.
Afghans are also concerned that an agreement could set back the democratic advances the country has made since the Taliban were ousted from power following 9/11.
Despite difficulties encountered – electoral fraud, corruption, and mismanagement – well over half of Afghans surveyed (65 percent) are either very or somewhat satisfied with the way democracy works in Afghanistan.
Asked what democratic principles and practices are very important to protect as part of a peace agreement, a majority (55 percent) say protecting the current constitution, followed by a strong central government (54 percent), and freedom of speech and the press (46 percent).
Two other survey findings are particularly noteworthy.
Eighty-five percent of those interviewed say they have no sympathy with the Taliban. Still, the survey found that 34 percent of respondents believe strongly that government assistance, jobs, and housing should be extended to those Taliban who are willing to reintegrate into society.
President Ghani also supports this notion: “If the Taliban want to be part of an Afghan society, they need to change, and Afghan society needs to accept and adjust to integrate them.”
The second finding addresses the question of how long the Afghan people expect foreign – U.S. and NATO — military forces to remain. Just 17 percent say the continuing presence of foreign military forces is important to protect in an agreement. They are not looking to extend the “endless war” forever.
That said, concerns persist about the ability of the Afghan security forces to operate without international support at this time, with 83 percent of respondents agreeing that foreign military assistance is still needed.
During his brief visit to Afghanistan last November, U.S. President Donald Trump opined about the possible outcome of peace talks with the Taliban: “We’ll see if they make a deal. If they do, they do, and if they don’t, they don’t. That’s fine.”
That would not be “fine” for the Afghan people. They want a peace agreement. They are acutely aware of the agonizing consequences for their country if there is not one.
Karl F. Inderfurth, served as U.S. assistant secretary of state for South Asian affairs from 1997-2001 and is a member of the board of trustees of The Asia Foundation.