Afghanistan in 2019: Hoping for Peace
December 4, 2019
Eighteen years after international forces arrived in Afghanistan in pursuit of the architects of 9/11, the prospect of peace in this poor and war-weary nation has emerged as a tantalizing flicker of light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. Peace overtures by the United States, its international partners, and Afghan political figures dominated the national narrative in 2019, and U.S.-Taliban peace talks in Doha and Moscow, and subsequent confidence-building measures and intra-Afghan dialogues, have awakened a tentative optimism among the Afghan people that peace may finally be possible.
Support for a path to peace can be seen in the results of The Asia Foundation’s latest poll of Afghan opinion, Afghanistan in 2019: A Survey of the Afghan People, the Foundation’s fifteenth annual public opinion survey in Afghanistan, and the longest-running barometer of Afghan perception and opinion. The Survey has gathered the views of more than 129,800 Afghans since 2004, providing a longitudinal portrait of evolving public perceptions of security, elections, governance, the economy, migration, the role of women, and importantly this year, on peace and reconciliation with the Taliban. The 2019 Survey sample included 17,812 men and women 18 years of age and older from throughout the country.
Optimism about the nation’s trajectory, which peaked at 58% in 2013, plummeted to an all-time low just three years later amid economic difficulties, troubled elections, and radical reductions in foreign troops. Since 2016, however, optimism about the direction of the country has edged up by 7 percentage points, almost 25% (figure 1).
This year’s Survey finds that the prospect of peace is a significant factor in the country’s mood. Of those who say Afghanistan is moving in the right direction, more than a quarter cite peace as a reason—a significant increase over previous years (figure 2).
A growing majority of all Afghans, 64.0%, now believe that reconciliation with the Taliban is possible, an increase of 11 percentage points since last year (figure 3).
Successive rounds of talks between U.S. and Taliban officials and influential members of Afghan society played out in near-real time in the media in 2019, as progress, setbacks, excitement, and despair dominated the daily news cycle, and more than three-quarters of Survey respondents said they are aware of the peace negotiations. Half of respondents feel that people like themselves are adequately represented in the peace process, and a vast majority of all respondents either strongly support (55.5%) or somewhat support (33.2%) the negotiations. Just 9.7% are opposed.
While Afghanistan is in many respects a heterogeneous society, divided by ethnicity, religious sect, and clan, support for a peace agreement is greater than 60% in all provinces, and greater than 80% in all regions. It is highest among Afghans who live in the East region (93.4%), followed by the South West (90.8%) and the North East (90.2%), and lowest, though still high, in the Central/Highlands region (82.6%) (figure 4).
Looking more closely, support for a peace agreement is slightly higher in urban areas (90.9%) than rural (88.0%); it is slightly higher among high school graduates (90.8%) than among the uneducated (87.6%); and it is slightly higher among males (90.7%) than females (86.7%), reflecting, perhaps, the higher stakes for women should the Taliban return to government.
In what may be, paradoxically, an endorsement of the West’s long and costly nation-building project in Afghanistan, support for negotiations with the Taliban is correlated with confidence in the Western-supported government. Respondents who say the National Unity Government is doing a good job are more likely to support a peace agreement than those who say it is doing a bad job.
There has been much contention surrounding the possible make-up of any Afghan negotiating team for talks with the Taliban. While the Taliban has steadfastly refused to talk directly with the Afghan government, politicians, civil society actors, and influential figures have been able to represent Afghanistan in their unofficial capacities. Concerns persist, however, about just what may be compromised to negotiate peace, and many Afghans have their own red lines.
This year, respondents were offered a list of items and asked to identify which should be preserved in any peace agreement (figure 5). The findings reveal a strong desire to keep much of what the country has achieved since 2001. Some 87.1% of respondents say it is important to protect the current constitution in any agreement with the Taliban. Substantial majorities also want to preserve a strong central government (83.8%), freedom of speech (80.1%), freedom of the press (79.0%), and women’s rights (78.5%). Reflecting once again the different stakes of men and women, more females (89.1%) than males (85.2%) prioritize protecting the constitution. Afghans view the continued presence of foreign military forces in Afghanistan as less of a priority in any negotiated deal, at just 46%.
The fifteenth Survey of the Afghan People highlights the nation’s continued hopes for peace. From strong support for reconciliation to preserving the nation’s achievements since 2001, the current push for peace has profound and multifaceted consequences for every Afghan. Yet, direct involvement in the peace process has so far been elusive.
In September, talks between the United States and the Taliban were abruptly canceled. The hope remains that, when they resume, a new chapter will unfold that will allow greater Afghan involvement. A recent mutual prisoner swap may be a first step. This year’s Survey reveals that Afghans want and expect their government to be actively involved in any negotiations in order to represent the interests and gains of the Afghan people.
Fahim Ahmad Yousufzai is a senior data analyst, David Swift is security director, and Tabasum Akseer is director of policy and research for The Asia Foundation in Afghanistan. They can be reached at email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, and email@example.com, respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.
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