As talks between the United States and the Taleban resume in Doha, we bring you the first of two dispatches on what Afghans in ten districts across the country think about the prospects for peace. The focus of the first dispatch is a theme which emerged from the interviews, the relationship – or lack of it – between the high-level talks in Doha and local expectations for peace. Interviewees felt the talks have centred on US and Taleban interests, not those of Afghan civilians caught up in the war. Their main expectation from talks was a ceasefire, and their hopes were very basic: to live without fear of being killed, to sleep at night and to have the bare minimum for a life worth living. They expressed scepticism about the motivations of all three parties involved in the conflict, the US, the Taleban and the government, and although some doubted that the government represented them, as AAN researcher Reza Kazemi found, most believed it had to be at the negotiating table. (Research by Ali Mohammad Sabawoon, Ehsan Qaane, Fazal Muzhary, Khadija Hussaini, Obaid Ali, Reza Kazemi and Rohullah Sorush)Taleban and American officials at the table, but no Afghan civilian or government representative. Photo: Qatar Ministry of Foreign Affairs May 2019
This ‘Peace in the Districts’ mini-series is a joint research project by the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) and the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).
This is the first of two dispatches on local views about the peace talks based on interviews from ten districts across Afghanistan. After outlining our methodology, this first dispatch presents the variety of local opinions about the high-level talks, particularly the recent ones in Doha, including perceptions of the positions of the main conflict actors. It then focuses on one overarching theme that emerged from our interviews: the discrepancy between the ‘high talks’ and local peace concerns. A second dispatch will focus on views from the districts on two questions: whether a high-level peace agreement can end the war at the local level and what can or should happen in the districts to contribute to achieving peace in the country.
This dispatch is based on 30 semi-structured interviews about how people in ten districts perceive the US-Taleban negotiations in Doha, how peace would affect their daily lives and how it could be achieved in their locality. The interviews were carried out from October to mid-November 2019; in other words, after a potential deal was vetoed by President Donald Trump, by tweet, on 7 September (for more details, see AAN reporting here and here) and before US-Taleban talks resumed on 7 December (see media reporting here and this State Department statement). The deal vetoed by Trump was not released publically but is believed to have covered, in some form, US troop withdrawal and anti-terrorism guarantees by the Taleban, and as a next stage the start of an ‘intra-Afghan dialogue’ and discussions about a ceasefire.
Interviews were carried out with three key informants in each of the following ten districts:
- Achin, Nangarhar
- Andar, Ghazni
- Dasht-e Archi, Kunduz
- Jalrez, Maidan Wardak
- Kahmard, Bamiyan
- Nad Ali, Helmand
- Nawmish, Helmand/Daikundi (1)
- Obeh, Herat
- Qaysar, Faryab
- Zurmat, Paktia
Map: Roger Helms for AAN.
The districts were chosen in order to capture perceptions of and concerns about peace in different parts of the country. They vary with regard to their ethnic composition, language(s) spoken and who has effective control there. In terms of control, for analytic purposes, they fall into three broad categories: (a) more under government control (Achin, Kahmard, Nawmish); (b) more under Taleban control, including where the government still controls the district centre (Dasht-e Archi, Obeh, Qaysar, Zurmat) and where it does not (Andar); and (c) roughly divided (Jalrez, Nad Ali). In practice, however, control lines are unstable, contested and shifting.
Some of the districts were also the focus of a recent in-depth study of how services such as health, education and telecommunications were delivered in districts under insurgent influence or control (Achin, Andar, Dasht-e Archi, Jalrez, Nad Ali, Obeh and Zurmat).
‘Key informant’ is used in this dispatch to mean individuals who have stakes in and are aware of local life in the districts. The 30 key informants AAN spoke were: six local elders, three shopkeepers, two farmers, two medical personnel, one journalist, two local NGO employees, two local government employees, six teachers, two businessmen, two local council members, one religious scholar and one housewife. They comprised 29 men and one woman. The age range for those who told their ages to AAN was 26-65. For stylistic reasons, the key informant has sometimes been written as ‘interviewee.’
The methodology used for this series is similar to the one used in AAN’s previous research projects on Afghan migration and public service delivery in districts fully or partly under insurgent control referred to above. Because of the relatively limited geographical range and limited number of interviews, the methodology does not deliver findings that apply to all of Afghanistan or even to all similar districts. However, the methodology does offer qualitative snapshots from districts that shed light on the wide range of ‘realities’ and opinions about peace in Afghanistan.
Local opinions about high-level talks in Doha
Perceptions of the positions of the parties to the conflict
Despite a common complaint that they and other Afghans had not been informed about what the US and Taleban were negotiating in Doha, the people AAN spoke to in the districts were well-enough informed to express a variety of opinions about the negotiations and the Afghan government’s lack of a role in them. In general, they thought the three parties were each primarily concerned with their own interests, rather than those of Afghan civilians who continue bearing the brunt of the ongoing war.
In terms of the US’s negotiating position, some believed the US wants to withdraw from Afghanistan, but they differed on how and why. Some said it would be a hasty and irresponsible pull-out, showing the US had been defeated and wanted to exit without caring about the consequences for Afghanistan and beyond. This was the common view particularly in Nad Ali where all three informants felt the US was abandoning Afghanistan, as a result of which the Taleban would return to power.
The US was in a [negotiating] position which was doubtful. Its position was looking weak because people knew it was escaping. It was accepting whatever the Taleban wanted. Everyone was thinking that the US doesn’t care about the achievements in our country. It’s played our people off against one another and is now leaving.
– Journalist, Nad Ali
This was also a view heard in other districts, as the following two quotes illustrate:
The Taleban thought that the US is where the USSR was when it left Afghanistan. They underestimated the US somehow. If a deal was signed, the Taleban would achieve everything they wanted, everything they’d fought for over the last 18 years. We’d face the same situation we faced during Dr Najib’s time: complete chaos and complete power for the Taleban.
– Religious scholar, Nawmish
This [Doha] peace process is… mere symbolism for the US to get its troops out safe and sound. I’m afraid the [US-Taleban] talks won’t bring any peace, but open the gates to more violence and chaos.
– Teacher, Kahmard
Others thought the US was aiming at an orderly, responsible and dignified disengagement. They saw different motivations for this, including saving money by ending the longest war that America has fought in its history. Some saw more honourable motivations, such as trying to win anti-terrorism assurances from the Taleban and leaving behind what a key informant from Andar called “a safe legacy and not a complete mess in Afghanistan.” This would also, some said, help prevent the US’s superpower image being tarnished in the international arena. “They [the US] can’t fail in this [Afghanistan] mission,” said an interviewee from Kahmard.
On the other hand, some key informants believed the US wants to continue having a troop and intelligence presence in Afghanistan, at least a small force, to continue operations against those it regards as its enemies. This would need the US to start getting along with the Taleban, given the likely changed political realities, post any deal. The following two quotes capture this perspective:
The US wants to have a strong and legitimate base… The US position was mainly to ensure that they stay in Afghanistan and to legitimise their presence through an agreement with the Taleban.
– Doctor, Zurmat
The US might also be thinking about keeping a small and limited presence of its soldiers, but that won’t be clear until everything’s decided and a peace agreement is signed.
– Teacher, Andar
With regard to the Taleban’s negotiation position, many key informants felt the Taleban were starting from a position of strength or perhaps even imminent victory. As such, they were perceived as not needing to engage in serious and substantive peace talks. Rather, they were seen as wanting to be recognised as the strongest actor, not just nationally but also internationally. In the words of an interviewee from Qaysar, the Taleban were just “playing their political games” in Doha and elsewhere. The following two quotes also represent this widely-held view of the Taleban position:
The Taleban want to be referred to as the winner of the war. They want to be recognised as the strongest side of the conflict, without whose presence it’s impossible to ensure peace and stability, not only in Afghanistan but also in the region. For this reason, they’re invited to neighbouring and other foreign countries to discuss issues related to peace.
– Local elder, Dasht-e Archi
I think the Taleban have no commitment to peace. I’m disappointed with them and their promises and I believe there’s something else they want from the US.
– Housewife, Kahmard
For some key informants, however, the Taleban will not be the victors. An interviewee from the mountainous district of Obeh, who is a social activist, for instance, said:
For the past two months [as of mid-November 2019], there’s been unrelenting pressure on the Taleban in Obeh. Some 120 Talebs have been killed. They can’t call themselves the winner in the war. They can’t have four or so mountains in their hands and then declare themselves triumphant. What matters is the centre of Obeh [district], the centre of Herat [province] and the centre of Afghanistan [Kabul] [all under government control]. For me, the Talebs are not victorious. Winning can’t happen by killing, harming and harassing people.
The Taleban were also viewed by some key informants as waging a religious struggle to bring about or restore an ‘Islamic system’ in Afghanistan. However, one interviewee from Andar felt this ambition “hasn’t been explained in the talks.” A key informant from Obeh said the Taleban argued that “the current government isn’t free and independent [of foreign manipulation] and that [the Taleban] are waging their jihad to bring back their Islamic Emirate.” On the other hand, other interviewees said the Taleban needed to break free of carrying out foreign diktats, in particular from Pakistan. An interviewee from Nawmish felt the Taleban’s goal of re-establishing an Islamic Emirate was “not possible [because] we can’t have one country with two governments.”
The last point here is that some key informants said the Taleban do not want a peace deal like the one struck between the Afghan government and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami. This is indicated by the following two quotes:
Afghan government officials say that the Taleban should lay down their arms and run in elections. It’s the type of peace that was made with Hekmatyar. For the Taleban, that is surrender.
– Teacher, Andar
They [Taleban] refused to talk to the Afghan government and were insisting that they’d only talk to those who funded the Afghan government and paid its employees. Their position wasn’t weak like that of Hezb-e Islami during its peace talks with the government.
– Local NGO worker, Nad Ali
As for views of the Afghan government’s position(s), many key informants from the districts believed it had been reduced to the weakest party because of its exclusion from the negotiations – something demanded by the Taleban and agreed to by the US. Besides, many interviewees thought the lack of a unified and consistent position on how to approach the Taleban and what to aim for undermined the Afghan government. The following three quotes illustrate this view:
The Afghan government was in the weakest position. They weren’t even provided with a chance to participate in the talks. The envoys of the government went to Qatar but they weren’t allowed to attend the talks.
– Journalist, Nad Ali
There’s no one voice from the government. The president pushes for a ceasefire, while his first vice-president goes to the battlefield. There are disputes within the government when it comes to how to approach the Taleban. One day, the government calls the Taleban ‘disgruntled brothers’ and the next day it calls them ‘terrorists’.
– Farmer, Zurmat
Sometimes [government officials] are talking about redlines such as keeping the 18-year achievements and protecting the republican regime and sometimes they’re saying there aren’t any [pre]conditions [for negotiations].
– Farmer, Jalrez
However, most key informants strongly agreed with the Afghan government’s call for the preservation of what has come to be described as ‘the achievements of the last 18 years’. Informants from most districts emphatically mentioned the post-2001 rights and freedoms, including those made by and for women, with a few (such as Andar) referring to the present-day Afghan military and the Afghani currency as such gains. For many interviewees, particularly in districts more under government control, this is exactly where the core of the strength of the Afghan government’s position lies and which the Taleban would need come to terms with, including by learning to live in and with a ‘new’ Afghanistan:
The government was insisting that without its participation, no talks would be fruitful and acceptable to the Afghan people. It was insisting that the achievements of the past 18 years should be kept. In the end, the government prevailed, because the talks didn’t produce anything and were halted by one tweet from Donald Trump.
– Local NGO worker, Nad Ali
People are determined to provide education for their girls and that’s why I don’t think a peace deal will be able to change this. In areas where we have schools and girls go to school, people are very supportive of it and determined to keep it going. The Taleban have to make their peace with this, whether they want it or not.
– Businessman, Kahmard
It’s not just about stopping the killings; it’s also about keeping the freedoms we have safe. If there’s no freedom of movement, expression, religion or education, no one will agree to peace [with the Taleban]. Now, wherever there’s Taleban, they rule based on their system and most probably they are backed by the people in the areas that they rule. However, those areas that are controlled by the government have come a long way and we don’t want to lose our achievements.
– Shopkeeper, Nawmish
Taleban rule will affect people negatively. Men and women as human beings should be able to pursue their ambitions, be it education, work or business. I don’t know about the Talebs that live in the big cities, but the ones that live in our neighbouring areas haven’t changed a bit. They want to do something with everything: men’s beards, people’s clothing and their beliefs. Last year, one of my close friends was shot dead because he had a smartphone with a Facebook app on it. I made a trip to Kandahar three days ago. One of the passengers who had a relatively shorter beard was taken down from the car and beaten up, just because of his appearance, which wasn’t acceptable by the Taleb soldier standing on the road.
– Religious scholar, Nawmish
While some said they did not know what the government position was, a few interviewees in a few districts criticised the government for what they saw as pushing for priorities that they perceived as incompatible: ceasefire, direct negotiations with the Taleban and presidential elections. Some interviewees were frustrated when the government prioritised the polls over the talks, as the following quote by a teacher from Andar reveals:
I want the war to end without any delay, but the government was pushing for delaying the talks in order to hold a presidential election.
This brings us to district-level perceptions about whether the incumbent government represents the people in the districts. For some, there was no other alternative. “If the government doesn’t represent us,” stressed a key informant from Qaysar, “who will? The US or the Taleban? The government is the only entity to represent us.” This perspective was also reflected by an interviewee from Achin:
The Afghan government says people have elected them and [so] they’re legitimate. They say if the Taleban want to be in power, they should come and join the peace process like Hekmatyar [did]. After that, they can take part in elections and if people elect them and they win, they can take power.
Others, including in districts more under Taleban control and where control was roughly divided, were more confident in the government representing the people of Afghanistan, as illustrated by the following two quotes:
The government is representative of the people. If there was a lacklustre election in Obeh and many couldn’t take part in it, it was because of threats by Taleban. People are forced to accommodate the Taleban and say yes to them. 100 per cent, the people see the government as their representative in the talks. If people aren’t happy with district officials, they do hope leaders sitting in Kabul will represent them in any talks. If intra-Afghan talks happen, people will have more hope in the future.
– Local government employee, Obeh
I think the Afghan government, when it’s involved in peace talks, can represent us because the Afghan government is an elected government. I’m sure if the Afghan government, the Taleban and the US sit down together, our concerns will be included [in the talks] and we won’t lose the achievements of the last 18 years.
– Journalist, Nad Ali
However, not all agreed with this stance. In Andar, for instance, which is completely under Taleban control, an interviewee said, “Since the Afghan government isn’t in touch and has no interaction with our people, it’s difficult to say whether it can represent us [in peace talks]. Personally speaking, it doesn’t represent me.” This view was also heard from Kahmard district, which is under government control, where a key informant, a businessman, said:
The government now runs only portions of this land [Afghanistan]… With this in mind, I don’t see how it can represent the whole of Afghanistan at the negotiating table.
The loss of territorial control was not the only reason why people questioned the Afghan government’s ability to represent them. Public trust is also at stake. “Parts of the [Afghan] nation have lost their trust in the government and might not accept it as their representative,” said an interviewee from government-controlled Kahmard while a key informant from Qaysar wondered: “I really don’t know who could better represent us.” To address this issue, many key informants from various districts emphasised that the government’s negotiation delegation should be as inclusive as possible in political, ethnic, religious, gender, age, socioeconomic and other terms. A key informant from Obeh, a social activist, put it this way:
The government peace delegation should have new faces and a membership that is all-inclusive and concerned, above anything else, about all sections of Afghan people and their interests. They should prioritise such interests over their own individual biases and interests. Only such people can represent the people of Afghanistan and then go and talk to the Taleban.
It was not clear from the interviews whether people’s perceptions of the government’s ability to represent them varied depending on who was in control of their district or on other grounds such as ethnicity. Rather, it seems that both confidence/hope in the government and scepticism were found in all the districts. It was also most common for people to say that the government had to be part of the talks such as the ones in Doha.
In summary, many key informants from the districts think the Afghan government, Taleban and US – the three main parties to the current armed conflict in Afghanistan – has each been pursuing their own, divergent interests: the government to stay in power, the Taleban to come back to power and the US to cut its financial losses by withdrawing troops, while protecting its interests in Afghanistan through a residual security and intelligence presence and/or learning to live with the Taleban. This has meant, most of our interviewees said, that the peace concerns of the Afghan people have so far been ignored in the negotiations. We turn to these concerns in the next section.
Disconnected from concerns on the ground
Most key informants agreed that there has, so far, been a rift between top-level negotiations in Doha and local people’s priorities for peace in their districts. The single most important priority for those interviewed is an end to the violence, a ceasefire. “The talks between the US and Taleban were only for their own interests,” said an interviewee from Achin. Another from the same district said: “They will [only] have results [for Afghan people] when Afghans who are in conflict begin talking to each other. Otherwise, they are not peace talks.”
Mortars fired into Takhto Valley in Achin District in Nangrahar earlier this year. US, government and local forces have all been fighting the ISKP group; Achin is now largely under government control. Photo: Andrew Quilty February 2019.
According to most key informants, a ceasefire is only imaginable after the government and Taleban begin sitting down to sort out their differences. For some key informants, the US-Taleban talks in Doha provided a flicker of hope that violence might be reduced or ultimately end in Afghanistan, including through the start of intra-Afghan peace negotiations. However, as time went by, the Doha talks were increasingly perceived to be counter-productive in this respect, at least as far Afghan civilians were concerned. This is forcefully indicated in the following three quotes:
The concerns of people living in present-day conditions in Afghanistan weren’t taken into account in Doha. The meetings in Doha and elsewhere have brought about no reduction of the violence that makes life unliveable for local people. In Obeh, in fact, violence has increased because the Taleban were attacking here while they were talking in Doha. There’ve been more attacks and more violence. So, if they’re sitting to talk about peace, why are they still ordering violence, bloodshed, fratricide and terror in the country?
– Local government employee, Obeh
After the negotiations were called off, the US launched heavy military operations on some of our neighbouring districts. They attacked many Taleban areas, targeting their commanders, killing their men and destroying their positions.
– Shopkeeper, Nawmish
When the peace talks were underway in Qatar, the parties intensified their war. But what was necessary was for the war to be reduced, to usher in a peaceful way of thinking. The result is already clear: no agreement was reached and no one signed it.
– Teacher, Andar
As a result, there was broad agreement among many key informants in the districts that the US-Taleban negotiations in Doha had failed to meet people’s expectations for peace. For some, although not all, the lack of government representation at the table had helped sideline Afghan civilians’ interests. This widespread perception is captured in the following two quotes:
There were foreigners [Americans] on one side of the table and the Taleban on the other side and we didn’t see ourselves, our representation and our demands anywhere. I don’t know how it made sense to them, but it certainly didn’t make sense to us.
– Religious scholar, Nawmish
The people in Obeh say that the negotiations between the Americans and the Taleban in Doha had nothing to do with us Afghans. It was irrelevant to us and our lives. It was something that took place only between those two sides. Some were happy that the negotiations would produce some result [for the Afghan people] or if it resumes, I’ll produce such a result.
– Local government employee, Obeh
As will be seen in the next section, what Afghans expected to result from the high-level talks, indeed what they would like addressed by them, is very basic.
Local peace concerns and expectations
Surviving the violence
The question that we asked the interviewees next was: what are the peace concerns of people living in the districts? In other words, what are their expectations from peace or what differences would peace make to their day-to-day living? Understanding this might help bridge the gap between the top-down talks and people’s real-life hopes for peace.
With the war showing no signs of abating, let alone ending, the most fundamental concern for people living in the districts (and cities across Afghanistan) is to avoid getting killed, in “night raids, roadside bomb blasts, airstrikes, drone strikes and rocket shelling,” as an interviewee from Andar put it. There is a widespread and real fear among many Afghans that they might not return safely home after leaving for work, study, shopping or some other everyday activity. As mentioned above, the most immediate priority, according to most key informants, is an immediate, nationwide and permanent ceasefire, something they believe the talks in Doha and elsewhere failed to consider, and which had certainly not been achieved, at least so far. As some interviewees said, it seems that the horrific status quo will continue. If that is the case, they said, the only way to survive might be to find a way to leave their districts or perhaps the whole country:
At present, I’m not sure about the safety of my family, my children who attend school and my relatives who travel to and from Kabul. It’s not only me. I have relatives and know others living in the same situation… Sometimes, I really wish I could leave my home and my country just to escape from this uncertainty and the pressure I have to handle every day and every night.
– Pharmacist, Jalrez
More people are leaving Obeh. Some are going to Herat city and some elsewhere. Some like me are one moment in Obeh and one moment in Herat city… My siblings and I have been to school and then university. But now conditions are such that I’m willing to go and work in a foreign country that is peaceful rather than remain here, because I don’t see a future for myself and my children. I’ve got passports for my family to find a way, a legal way, to take ourselves out of Obeh and Afghanistan. We can’t go by smuggling. I may not find work that fits the level of my education there, but I and my family will at least be at peace, rather than getting killed here.
– Local government employee, Obeh
A related impact of the ceaseless violence that came up was being deprived of sleep at night, in particular in actively-contested districts. “We can’t sleep well right now. Most of the time, we are woken up at midnight or in the early morning hours by the sound of helicopters, bombs and raids by Afghan and American soldiers,” said a key informant from Andar. He continued, “Every night I go to sleep, thinking I won’t wake up alive in the morning.” Another from Achin said peace would help him “sleep comfortably.” In Andar, a key informant said peace would bring him “sleep,” the absence of which was causing him mental suffering.
In Obeh, a key informant explained how the Taleban bring another kind of night terror to their homes: “I know people who don’t have bread for their day, but the Taleban come to them any time in the night and tell them to feed 40 or so of their men and cook good food.” An interviewee from Zurmat who was aware of similar Taleban behaviour, including at night, told AAN the Taleban’s justification for these demands is that local residents have “an obligation to contribute to the jihad cause.” Obviously, locals do not dare say no to Taleban demands.
Freedom of movement is another overarching priority in what people hope from peace in the districts. People living in places that are contested by the government and Taleban face many barriers to getting around. Those at home may be in lockdown. Others who are displaced cannot get home, while those who are travel to and from their district, risk running into clashes and Taleban and/or government checkpoints where they might be accused of being spies, fighters or suppliers working for the other side. Interviewees said anything can happen on the road. For example in Dasht-e Archi, interviewees reported having been caught up in a cycle of flight and return to their homes as the district has fallen to the Taleban and then been recaptured by the government. The following five quotes capture the costs of losing one’s freedom to move:
The main intersection in Shin Kalay village half an hour’s drive east of Lashkargah Photo: Andrew Quilty, 2018.
Right now I can’t even move from one district to another. At night, I even can’t move from one village to another because there’s always the possibility of being targeted by US drones from the sky. But, when we have peace, we’ll also have peace in neighbouring and other districts and provinces. And then, we’ll be able to travel easily.
– Teacher, Andar
At the moment, we can’t travel to most parts of our district because of fear of the Taleban or the government. I live in a Taleban-controlled area and two of my brothers live in Kunduz city [which is under government control]. My brothers can’t come to Dasht-e Archi because of the Taleban presence and I can’t go to visit them. If I went regularly to visit them, then the Taleban would think I’m a government spy and they’d shoot me in the head. If there’s peace, my brothers will come to my place and I’ll visit them.
– Teacher, Dasht-e Archi
Now, when I travel to bring goods to supply my shop here, I face many questions in every checkpoint, both from the Taleban and from the [government] security forces. The security forces sometimes ask questions as if I’m a Taleban supplier because I live in a Taleban-controlled area and have a business here. If there’s peace, I’ll travel around the country without being stopped at checkpoints, without the fear of being suspected as a Taleban supplier or a government spy.
– Shopkeeper, Qaysar
At the moment, we can’t go out of our houses for fear of drone attacks or suicide attacks. If we’re killed by the Taleban, we’re marked as government spies and if we’re killed by the government, we’re named as Taleban fighters.
– Local council member, Dasht-e Archi
The major difference that peace would make to our lives is the return of displaced people like my family. In my village, out of 1,000 families, 600 have fled to either Gardez [provincial capital of Paktia] or Kabul. If peace comes, these families will return to their homes and farmlands.
– Farmer, Zurmat
To avoid being accused of working for the government, some people arrange with district Taleban officials to coordinate their safe passage. Generally, people tend to inform none but their closest family members and confidantes about their travel in order to avoid being ‘reported’ to the Taleban as being government supporters by people they have personal enmities with. A key informant from Obeh, who is a local government employee, said:
When I leave Obeh for Herat city, only my father and my wife know about it. No one else knows. Anyone can report anyone to the Taleban. I do this even if I’ve got an introduction letter from the Taleban. The Taleban, when they have doubts about you, beat you until you fall to the ground and then they’ll ask you who you are. About four months before the last elections, something urgent came up and I travelled to Herat city by motar-e layn [a Toyota Hiace-type vehicle]. At a Taleban checkpoint, the Taleban told me to get out from among eight passengers. They said I was in the army or in the government. I asked if I could meet their superior. They took me to a mawlawi [religious scholar] in a mosque. I showed him the letter and he let me go and even said he was ready to help me with anything.
Some of our interviewees have become increasingly inventive in employing different tactics to look neutral when they travel outside their districts, as illustrated in this quote from another person, a social activist, from Obeh:
Whenever I travel between Herat city and Obeh, I always travel with my wife and children. It’s because travelling with the family doesn’t raise suspicions. We leave early in the morning or around midday. We’ve come across Talebs and the moment they see there’s a family travelling, they feel haya (shame) and don’t question us much. We travel in our own car.
Relatedly, increasing numbers of Afghan people take flights or longer routes to bypass roads situated in areas under Taleban control or heavily-contested areas – roads that have been dubbed ‘death roads.’ Although this takes more time and costs more money, they are willing to bear it:
When I fly from Helmand to Kabul, I need to buy a ticket, which costs about Afs 7,500 [approximately USD 100]. If I don’t travel by air, I’m afraid I won’t arrive safely. If there’s peace, I’ll travel in my own car. It’ll reduce my expenses and I’ll also enjoy the trip by visiting four provinces on the way.
– Local NGO worker, Nad Ali
For travelling between Jalrez and Kabul, I’m using the Ghorband Valley route, which is ten times longer than the Maidan Shahr–Bamyan route. It takes one full day to travel and costs me five times more.
– Pharmacist, Jalrez
These difficulties with just getting around affect people in different ways. People spoke about how peace would improve their lives in many areas, from employment and education, to running businesses, women’s freedom and public administration. Key informants from Dasht-e Archi, for instance, told AAN that because of the war, farmers cannot always get out to work on their land when they need to, there is more pressure on women to stay at home, children, particularly girls, cannot go outside to play or attend school, teachers and other public employees cannot do their jobs, and shopkeepers cannot keep their businesses going. “With peace, we can visit people around the district, we can help each other and we can feel free. Now we’re like prisoners,” described an interviewee from Dasht-e Archi.
Many voiced ambitions for travel in a peaceful Afghanistan, to see their own country and host compatriots from elsewhere. “Qaysar has historic places that can attract tourists and turn the district into a famous tourist attraction,” said a key informant from the district. An interviewee from Helmand’s Nad Ali district, a local NGO worker, said:
If peace comes, I’ll keep travelling in the country. I haven’t seen our neighbouring provinces. In fact, I haven’t visited all the districts in our province, which I really wish to see. If there’s peace, I and other residents will be able to travel everywhere calmly and without any fear.
The expectation that peace would make it easier to find work or run businesses was voiced by many interviewees. Key informants from all districts, especially those actively contested by the government and the Taleban, described how the war has damaged their work. Some have not been able to work because of the devastation caused by the conflict: “There are incidents where we don’t go to work because we should bury the dead or take out survivors from the rubble of destroyed houses,” said an interviewee from Andar.
Sudais is in his father, Baktullah’s, fruit and vegetable store in Shadal Bazaar village of Achin district. Life is slowly returning to normal after government and US forces pushed ISKP out of most of the district in 2017 and 2018. Public services – education, healthcare and electricity supply – are still patchy, barely-functioning or non-existent. Photo: Andrew Quilty, 2017
Others described how peace would mean businesses could thrive, including because various financial burdens would be lifted, including Taleban ‘taxes,’ and money currently taken to fund the conflict.
I‘ve got a piece of land that I’ve turned into an apple orchard. 50 per cent of the income from it goes to pay the tenant-farmer and ten per cent is given to the Taleban so that we can safely transfer the apples for sale in Kabul. This ten per cent is a large amount for landlords.
– Pharmacist, Jalrez
At the moment, because of the fighting, shops and businesses often remain closed. It was last year that markets and business centres got closed for a few weeks because of the fighting between the Taleban and government forces.
– Shopkeeper, Qaysar
In other cases, professionals such as experienced teachers and medical personnel, particularly women, have either left insecure districts or are not willing to go to work in them, according to many key informants. Schools in frontline or heavily-contested areas are closed or operate chaotically. A key informant from Obeh, who is a local high school teacher, described it as “one day war and no study, one day calm and study” when his school found itself on the frontline:
If there’s peace, I can focus on my teaching and better serve the children and youth of Obeh and this country. I can give them better education. If there’s no peace, education isn’t effective. How can you learn and study while you hear gunfire outside your classroom and while bullets are hitting your school walls? This has happened many times to me and my pupils. There was a government checkpoint in our area where our school is. There was frequent fighting with the Taleban. For one whole month, one day the school was open and the next day it was closed. One day, pupils came and the next day, there wasn’t a single one of them. One day was calm and the next day war. Many pupils stopped attending school altogether.
This is just one example. Many children and youth have lagged behind in their studies. We took a test and very, very few pupils were able to answer the questions. Now it’s better and our area is ruled more by the Taleban than the government. The local elders help keep the schools open. There are now both boys and girls schools open and running in our and other areas in Obeh. The Taleban come every now and then, but they don’t cause lots of problems. One problem they do create is questioning teachers and telling us we are kafir (unbeliever) and maashkhor-e dawlat(salary-eater of the state). They question where we’re from, what we do, check our mobiles and call contacts to see if they know us. Our local elders intervene to solve any problems. So there’s still pressure, but now things are a bit better.
In other cases, there are less visible opportunity costs, such as people being unable to launch initiatives or expand their businesses because they believe it is not worth it in the prevailing circumstances. “My wish is to establish a hospital,” said a pharmacist from Jalrez. He continued, “At present, I don’t dare. Even if I succeed, there’s no guarantee I won’t lose all the investment in one minute in an explosion.” Similarly, in districts such as Dasht-e Archi and Zurmat, some interviewees described how peace would make a difference to their work. The following two quotes represent this view:
Zurmat is highly suitable for agriculture and it could produce a variety of fruits and vegetables. If there’s peace and stability, Zurmat would produce enough fruits and vegetables for the whole province [of Paktia]. We’d also be able to export our products to other parts of the country. This would make a difference in locals’ lives and would generate work for many others, too.
– Doctor, Zurmat
I’m a farmer. Annually, I harvest ten tonnes of apples from my orchard and buy forty more tonnes from other local farmers. I’m sure I can develop my local business when the district and the country are more secure.
– Farmer, Jalrez
Importantly, if peace came, it would mean people could be self-sufficient, said a local government employee from Obeh:
If there’s a ceasefire and peace, many people would go on with their lives with whatever resources they themselves have or are available to them. They’ll progress day after day without any help from the government or others.
Basic services by a single authority
Improved public service delivery was another key expectation from peace. Respondents from most districts hoped that peace would put an end to what a key informant from Obeh called “double government” and another from Nawmish named “one country with two governments.” There was broad consensus that the current ‘one land, two rules’ order of things (as AAN explored in this series) has made life harder for vast numbers of people in the districts. One way the dual rule has harmed local life is by damaging public services such as telecommunications and development, in addition to education and health services that were referred to above. “If the Taleban and government make peace, they’ll have a joint government, which will promote good governance in Andar,” said an interviewee from that district. Another from Qaysar, a local elder, summed up the existing, divided status quo:
Currently, we live under two governments and we have to obey the rules and regulations of the Afghan government and of the Islamic Emirate. We somehow have to digest two sets of rules, which is often impossible. If peace comes, we will only have to live under one government with similar rules and regulations around the country. For example, currently public service delivery is run by the Afghan government or the private sector, but they have to obey double rules and instructions in Qaysar. The telecommunication companies follow the government rule for 12 hours and then the Taleban instructions for the remaining 12 hours of the day. It means that, after 5 pm, the mobile networks are switched off and we are disconnected from the rest of the country and the world for 12 hours. For the construction companies, half of the roads are asphalted and the other half not asphalted. Because half of these roads are located in government-controlled areas and the rest are controlled by the Taleban.
To summarise, under the status quo, large numbers of people in the districts live a life in limbo characterised by huge uncertainty about where the country might be heading, for better or for worse. A key informant from Obeh, who is a teacher, put this straightforwardly:
If the current conditions continue, life will be bitter and hard. If changes come and there’s peace and progress, people will start to feel happy. And then people can get to do whatever work they want to do in life. If there’s continued kashmakash (being pulled this way or that), people won’t know how life will go on. It’s like telling you that you will be hanged, but keeping you waiting to be hanged. It’s not knowing when you’ll be hanged. People live like this now. They don’t know what’s going to happen… It’s hellish to live this way. This is how people live now. If there’s peace, people will be more certain about their lives and they will be able to focus on their work, be they farmers or shopkeepers or teachers or whatever. Their life will be at rest.
From our interviews, the following conclusions can be drawn. First, there was a common complaint among the 30 people in ten districts across Afghanistan that the Afghan people had not been informed about the ‘high talks’ in Doha. This is true, in so far as no one has been told what exactly was in the putative Taleban-US agreement, although as it affected Afghans centrally, they might have expected to have been given proper information. Even so, all of the interviewees were informed enough to express a diversity of generally well-argued opinions about the ‘peace’ positions of the three key parties to the armed conflict in the country, namely the US, the Taleban and the government. In general, interviewees were cynical about what motivated all three: the government wants to stay in power; the Taleban want to come back to power; and the US wants to cut its financial losses by withdrawing troops, while protecting its interests in Afghanistan through a residual security and intelligence presence and/or learning to live with the Taleban.
Second, because the high talks in Doha and elsewhere have not yet resulted in any reduction in violence, let alone a ceasefire, interviewees saw them as irrelevant to the life of people in the districts. Some even believed the talks were counter-productive because fighting had escalated in Afghanistan while the negotiations were taking place in Qatar. There was, therefore, a broad agreement among the key informants that the high-level talks were disconnected from ground-level concerns. There was broad agreement also that, in order for the Doha talks to stop being anything but ‘Afghan-owned, Afghan-led,’ the Afghan government had to be at the negotiating table. This was despite some key informants, in districts under both Taleban and government control, saying the government did not represent them; for others, again in districts under both Taleban and government control, the government was seen as their representative because they believed it was an elected government. Even the most sceptical interviewees thought the government was the only entity that could represent Afghan civilians. Most interviewees thought the aim of it sitting at the table would be to ensure hard-won gains made in the last 18 years, chiefly in rights and freedoms, would be preserved. Several key informants also stressed that any government delegation had to be as inclusive as possible, mentioning political background, ethnicity, religion, gender, age and socioeconomic status.
Lastly, in an effort to put pressure on bridging the gap between the high-talks and local expectations for peace, the key informants described in very concrete terms their most pressing peace concerns, given the ongoing war. Their demands are not far-fetched. What they wanted was the bare minimum for a life worth living: not getting killed, sleeping safely at night, being able to move freely, being able to make a living and accessing basic public services delivered by one government.
Edited by Rachel Reid, Sari Kouvo and Kate Clark
(1) It is not clear-cut whether Nawmish is a district of Helmand or Daikundi province. For instance, the recent presidential elections in the district were managed from Daikundi.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020