In Afghanistan, Are the Taliban Really Open to Making Peace?
February 27, 2019
As former State Department officials, we have had the opportunity to witness Afghanistan and its citizens up close during momentous times. These include the turbulent period leading up to the brutal Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, in 1979, and the years of repressive rule under the Taliban before 9/11.
We believe another momentous time may be approaching.
Talks are now underway in Qatar between high-level U.S. diplomats, led by special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, and senior Taliban representatives, led by their deputy leader Mullah Abdul Baradar. They have already agreed in principle to a conditional withdrawal of U.S. and allied troops in exchange for a Taliban pledge not to allow Afghanistan to be a safe haven for international terrorists, like al-Qaeda.
Afghans are watching closely. To date, however, what has not taken place—and must—is direct talks between the Taliban and the government of President Ashraf Ghani, which the Taliban consider “illegitimate.” It will be up to them to achieve a comprehensive internal settlement, one that covers such critical issues as ceasefires, power sharing, constitutional arrangements, and protections for women’s and civil rights.
But as a possible inflection point approaches, we need to know what the Afghan people themselves say about their current situation, and what their hopes and fears are for the future. The Asia Foundation’s 2018 Survey of the Afghan People provides some answers and insights.
The 2018 Survey is the 14th in a series of public opinion polls conducted by the Foundation since 2004, providing a barometer of public opinion in Afghanistan over time.
The polling was done in July, a month after the three-day Eid-ul-Fitr ceasefire agreement between the government and the Taliban—the first ever—and three months before last October’s parliamentary elections.
The Survey demonstrates that the Afghan people are clear eyed about the challenges and dangers they face.
While 33% of those polled expressed optimism about Afghanistan’s current direction, 61% believe the country is moving in the wrong direction. With civilian deaths at a record high and the Taliban extending their control over more territory, insecurity (attacks, violence, terrorism) is the most frequently cited reason (73%) for this pessimism, followed by concerns about the economy, including unemployment (38%), and problems with governance (29%) and corruption (14%).
At the same time, despite security setbacks, democratic hopes remain alive. Afghans’ satisfaction with democracy increased to 61% this year (from 57% last year), with women more likely to report satisfaction (66%) than men (57%). Over half of respondents (52%) believed the next election would be free and fair, and 77% had registered to vote. There continues to be strong support for women’s right to vote (88%).
That said, security concerns increasingly impinge on Afghan political participation. Fear while voting is up from 51% last year to 62% this year, with women and urban voters registering an even higher 67%. An overwhelming majority of Afghans (73%) report fear while participating in a peaceful demonstration, whether in the highly guarded capital of Kabul or in the provinces.
Still, they do turn out. The Taliban claimed to have staged 164 attacks on election day, yet 4 million Afghans defied the threats of violence to vote in the October parliamentary election.
And still they continue to support President Ashraf Ghani’s peace overtures to the Taliban and other armed opposition groups. The 2018 Survey found that 53% of respondents believe reconciliation is possible (a slight increase over last year), although there are gender differences. Sixty percent of males believe this; just 46% of women do (they were the most repressed under previous Taliban rule).
Sixty-nine percent of Afghans also believe that incentives—in the form of government assistance, jobs, and housing—should be provided to antigovernment elements as part of a reconciliation process.That is a magnanimous response from those who have borne the brunt of the 17-year civil conflict. The question now is whether the Taliban are actually open to making peace. Most indicators still suggest not. But should they be, a door is open. As the recently departed U.S. military commander, General John Nicholson, Jr., said in his farewell remarks: “It is time for this war in Afghanistan to end.”
Karl F. Inderfurth, adjunct professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, was assistant U.S. secretary of state for South Asia affairs, 1997–2001. Theodore L. Eliot Jr. was U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, 1973–1978, and is dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
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