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Opinion: Afghans' Growing Demand For Peace Is Key To Ending Decades Of War

Afghan peace activists demand an end to war as they arrive in Kabul in June 2018, after marching hundreds of miles from Helmand.
Wakil Kohsar
AFP via Getty Images
Afghan peace activists demand an end to war as they arrive in Kabul in June 2018, after marching hundreds of miles from Helmand.

Nancy Lindborg (@nancylindborg) is the president and CEO of the U.S. Institute of Peace. Andrew Wilder is USIP's vice president of Asia programs.

Nearly two decades after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, triggered the U.S. entry into Afghanistan, some U.S. policymakers wonder whether Americans want peace in Afghanistan more than Afghans do. On a trip to Kabul and Jalalabad two weeks ago, we noted a new restiveness and a growing demand for peace.

Even amid all the uncertainty of the current moment — lack of clarity about next steps for a fragile peace process, unresolved presidential elections and anxiety that the pullout from Syria will be repeated in Afghanistan — one thing became clear: More than any time in recent years, Afghans are deeply weary of the continued violence.

As of now, there are more civilian casualties in Afghanistan than in any other conflict in the world today. An estimated 40,000 civilians have been killed since 2001 and approximately three times more wounded. As of 2018,at least 62,000 Afghan soldiers and police had been killed since the war began. The past year has been particularly violent, with 1,174 civilians killed in the third quarter of 2019 — a 42% increase from the previous year, according to the United Nations.

As one civil society leader told us, 'The Taliban are afraid of the people being mobilized,' underscoring the power within the Afghan people to create peace.

Not only do Afghans crave peace, they are more actively working for it at every level of society. For instance, we heard about the impressive work of peace activists in schools, university peace clubs, civil society groups. We heard of grassroots dialogues to reimagine peace and how to take concrete action.

Afghans have learned that the fractures, divisions and local feuds that plague their country will not be resolved solely through an official, top-down peace process among political elites. One young woman in Jalalabad told us, "Politicians are not the only ones who can bring peace. I can be a peacemaker. I can bring peace to myself, my family, my community."

For the first time in Afghan history, there is now a recognized curriculum for peace studies at a growing number of Afghanistan's universities, which students have met with great enthusiasm. Extremists have historically targeted universities as prime areas of recruitment, making peace education and engaging youth in constructive dialogue important in countering violent ideologies — especially in a country where more than 60% of the population is under 25.

Political leaders on all sides have been slow to act on their constituents' demands for peace, sometimes using the process to advance narrow political interests, gain resources or weaken political opponents rather than confront the difficult compromises needed to reduce violent conflict and promote peace. At a time of rising people power around the world — including the brave members of Afghanistan's People's Peace Movement, who marched last year from Helmand in the south to Kabul, the capital, calling on all sides to stop the violence — this increased activity from the ground up can increase much-needed pressure on leaders to take peace more seriously.

As one civil society leader told us, "The Taliban are afraid of the people being mobilized," underscoring the power within the Afghan people to create peace. We also heard of efforts to combat government corruption that fuels conflict. The attorney general explained that his office has expanded its reach in nearly three-quarters of Afghanistan's districts. The Taliban see rule of law provided by the government as a threat, and the three judges killed by the Taliban on Nov. 7 are the latest in a line of murders of provincial prosecutors, illustrating both the determination for and challenge to progress. Addressing this core fragility at the heart of Afghan governance will be key to sustaining peace.

Though many Afghans are wary of negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban, the talks did signal that forward movement on peace is possible. Furthermore, after decades of a conflict that can be traced back to the 1979 Soviet invasion, almost no one believes in a military victory against the Taliban.

Many Afghans we met recognized they face difficult choices in any future negotiations with the Taliban, whose hard-line, theocratic views are at odds with the current constitution that enshrines the civic and political rights of its citizens. Grappling with these issues is an essential preparatory step, especially in the face of diverse opinions and mistrust among the many non-Taliban societal groups that want to be represented. As a woman who participated in the talks in Doha, Qatar, told us, "Everybody wants to have a peace deal — but we need a clear strategy."

The Taliban themselves must grapple with a country much changed from when they held power over much of it from 1996 to 2001. Not only do women and youth want to keep the gains they have made over the past two decades, they also want to expand their rights, while civil society leaders advocate for the voices of victims to be prioritized.

Finally, this growing demand for peace is playing out against a backdrop of a possible U.S. troop withdrawal — which has already been quietly underway, with troops reduced from approximately 15,000 to 13,000 over the past few months. Though both Americans and Afghans desire an ultimate drawdown of U.S. military presence, timing is key.

Withdrawing U.S. forces too quickly would incentivize the Taliban not to negotiate and to simply wait until foreign troops have left to achieve their political and military objectives. This would be highly destabilizing, risking the hard-won progress gained at the great expense of blood and treasure of Afghans, the U.S. and NATO allies. The best way to end this "endless war" would be to withdraw thoughtfully and responsibly, leveraging our troop presence to negotiate a political settlement that increases the prospects for preserving and advancing gains through sustained peace.

The road to peace in Afghanistan will be a long one, filled with complexity and challenges. After 40 years of war, domestic and regional spoilers — many of whom benefit from the drug and war economy and a weak Afghan state — can undermine the best of efforts.

But for the first time in recent memory, there is broad agreement on the need for this conflict to be solved through peace talks. Domestic, regional and international actors are more aligned than ever before in their shared interest to avoid another collapse of the Afghan state. Even Pakistan, which has consistently supported the Taliban, is deeply concerned about the impact a state collapse in Afghanistan would have on its security. And — important — the people of Afghanistan are clearly answering the question of whether they want peace with a resounding yes.

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Nancy Lindborg
Andrew Wilder