In this second of two dispatches on what people in ten districts across Afghanistan think about prospects for peace, we hear their views on the relationship between a possible high-level peace deal and actual peace in the districts. Interviewees expressed a striking mix of optimistic and sceptical opinions as to the local viability of any peace deal. They were also mostly divided as to whether they thought a bottom-up or a top-down approach to achieving peace was the most useful. However, as AAN researcher Reza Kazemi found, there was broad agreement that, this time, by some way or other, if peace is to be found, it needs to be a ‘good peace,’ one that ends the drivers of conflict and does not merely pave the way for a new phase in this long war. (Research by Ali Mohammad Sabawoon, Ehsan Qaane, Fazal Muzhary, Khadija Hussaini, Obaid Ali, Reza Kazemi and Rohullah Sorush)People's Peace Movement marchers in Ghazni city in 2018. Photo: AAN archive.
The ‘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). The first dispatch heard views on the positions of the main actors in the conflict primarily within the context of the US-Taleban negotiations in the Qatari capital of Doha, and the rift perceived by people between these ‘high talks’ and their local concerns for peace.
This second dispatch presents responses to two other questions: (a) whether a high-level peace agreement among the Afghan government, the Taleban and the US could end the war at the local level and; (b) what can or should happen in the districts to contribute to achieving peace nationally. Interviews were carried out with three ‘key informants’ in each of ten districts, which were chosen to present a variety with regard to ethnic composition, language(s) spoken and who has effective control of the district: those more under government control – Achin in Nangrahar province, Kahmard in Bamyan and Nawmish in Helmand/Daikundi (1); those more under Taleban control, both where the government still controls the district centre – Dasht-e Archi in Kunduz, Obeh in Herat, Qaysar in Faryab and Zurmat in Paktia – and where it does not – Andar in Ghazni – and districts whose control is roughly divided – Jalrez in Wardak and Nad Ali in Helmand.
The 30 key informants AAN spoke to had a variety of roles and jobs (with categories not mutually exclusive). There were: six local elders, six teachers, three shopkeepers, two farmers, two medical personnel, one journalist, two local NGO employees, two local government employees, two businessmen, two local council members, one religious scholar and one housewife. They comprised 29 men and one woman and varied in age (where we knew it) from 26 to 65 years old. For more detail on our methodology, please see the first dispatch in this series.)
Local opinions on whether a ‘high’ peace deal will end war in the districts
First, we asked our interviewees for their opinions on whether a top-level negotiated peace among the three main actors to the armed conflict in Afghanistan – the government, the Taleban and the US – would end the war in their districts. A few interviewees found this question so hard, it was unfathomable. “In one sentence,” said a farmer from Zurmat, “I don’t know the answer.” Many interviewees were, by and large, both optimistic and sceptical. It was difficult to ascertain whether there was more optimism overall than scepticism or the other way around; however, what was striking was how both co-existed at the same time within the same conversations. For the sake of organisation, the optimistic and pessimistic views are described separately.
Optimism: arguing that only intra-Afghan talks can lead to real local peace
For most key informants in the districts, the fact that the Afghan government has not yet been present in the US-Taleban negotiations in Qatar’s capital, Doha, constituted the major obstacle in efforts aimed at reaching a ceasefire and negotiating a peace accord in Afghanistan, which if turned around, would make them feel somewhat optimistic. Representing this widespread opinion, a journalist in Nad Ali said:
If the Afghans [the government and the Taleban] don’t sit together to solve the existing problem [war], meetings between the Taleban and the US will never yield any results, even if they sit and talk for years.
Many key informants indicated that a negotiated ceasefire and peace agreement between the US-backed Afghan government and the Taleban would mean an end to the war in their districts. The overarching reason they gave was that it was these two key parties – Afghan government and Taleban – that were involved in the current armed conflict in their districts. As they saw it, if and when these sides make peace, no other party will remain who can push to continue the war. Some pointed to the brief three-day ceasefire in mid-June 2018 when, in the words of an interviewee from Andar, “we didn’t see any fighting from anyone in our district.” Many also felt that the parties to the conflict were tired of continuing the war. This thinking is illustrated in the following three quotes:
[A peace between the government and the Taleban] would put an end to the conflict in our district, because there’s only one anti-government armed opposition group in our district and that’s the Taleban.
– Teacher, Dasht-e Archi
If the government and Taleban reach peace, this would mean the end of war in Obeh. Most Taleban I meet say they’re tired of fighting and bloodshed. They too wish there would be peace. The government and the Taleban are like two brothers who are fighting each other. If they reconcile and become united, they’ll be able to ensure peace. If this happens, then everybody else will be put in their place. No one else will be able to create the kind of problems we now have.
– Teacher, Obeh
If these warring parties [the Afghan government and the Taleban] make peace, it will definitely end the war in our district. The reason is that when they make peace, then there will be no reason left for another war in our district. There’s no other group that’s going to push for another war. Another reason is that people in Andar district are fed up with war and they don’t want any more war here.
– Teacher, Andar
Several interviewees thought a strong government could emerge from peace between the Afghan government and the Taleban, one that could provide better governance in Afghanistan. Such better governance would be grounded in a greater public trust in the government and the fact that it would no longer have to busy itself waging an unceasing war. They also saw a role for jirgasand shuras, the traditional Afghan forums for peaceful conflict resolution, in handling local conflicts. These perceptions are illustrated by the following three quotes:
Local conflicts over land and other issues are only the result of the government’s weakness. If there’s peace, the government will be responsible for solving these problems. At the moment, the government is busy with the ongoing war and has no time to address most social issues.
– Local elder, Qaysar
Then [after peace between the government and the Taleban is reached], other issues such as land and water disputes can be solved easily. Afghans can solve those issues through their own traditions.
– Local elder, Achin
Other things such as land and water disputes are small issues that could be easily solved by elders’ councils. We have a great traditional system for solving those problems.
– Doctor, Zurmat
In terms of remaining security concerns, many said they believed these would also be manageable after peace with the Taleban was reached, given the strong government they believed would arise from reconciliation between the government and Taleban. In general, their perception was that such a government would leave no space for militancy or insurgency to survive. They believed that since there would no longer be a need for militias, these groups would be reined in by a stronger government that now had its hands free, through absorption or demobilisation:
The government can easily handle the militias. They’re active in insecure areas and most of the time they’re behind the insecurity. If there’s peace, people won’t allow militias and the government won’t allow them to operate. In fact, there won’t be a need for militias if there’s peace.
– Local council member, Dasht-e Archi
There won’t be any space for militias to operate because they will either join the [government] security forces’ structure or will be disarmed.
– Local elder, Zurmat
As for the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), or Daesh, many interviewees, particularly those in Achin, which Daesh was in control of, but has been beaten back and is now confined to a few marginal mountainous areas, though it was untenable in the long term. They regarded the group as alien and unacceptable to Afghans including the Taleban and their way of life, regardless of whether a peace was reached or not. They thought there would be ever-shrinking operational and living space for the group. The following quotes capture this reasoning:
Regarding Daesh, most of them are foreigners. It’s a small group in Afghanistan. There are few Afghans among them and we can separate them. Afghans can stand against them and drive them out [of Afghanistan].
– Local elder, Achin
Daesh isn’t present in our district. It can’t survive in our district because it has a very different ideology which isn’t accepted by anyone in our district.
– Journalist, Nad Ali
It’s impossible for Daesh to be present in Herat province. You take Shindand [district in the south]. Daesh can’t be there because that’s where the Taleban have their headquarters in Herat.
– Social activist, Obeh
No one’s supporting Daesh. We all know what Daesh is doing in Kunar and Nangarhar. Shia and Sunni residents of Jalrez are against them. For me, it’s impossible that Daesh can recruit locals.
– Pharmacist, Jalrez
It might be expected that Afghans, even those caught up in violence, would maintain hopes for a peaceful future. However, the scale of the interviewees’ optimism over future stability and the strength of government following a negotiated peace was striking and somewhat surprising, given the post-2001 disarmament and state-building experience. In some cases, it appeared to approach a kind of ‘magical thinking’ in which the solving of one problem is expected to miraculously solve all problems.
Perhaps it was easier for the interviewees to express optimism about the one factor that is currently missing in the ongoing ‘peace’ efforts (Afghan government’s inclusion in the Doha talks). The claim that this would then solve all problems may have primarily been a way to emphasise how much of a dire need there is for a peace deal between the Afghan government and Taleban in order to achieve peace in their districts. These interviewees were possibly talking about an ideal situation rather than an actual expectation. This seems borne out by the fact that some of the key informants that voiced such upbeat views simultaneously expressed misgivings as to whether a negotiated peace would actually end the war in their districts.
Scepticism: even a deal might not end the war
At the same time, there was considerable scepticism, including in the same districts – sometimes even in the same interviews – where optimism had been expressed. Many interviewees expressed doubts that a high-level negotiated peace between the Afghan government, the Taleban and the US would bring the war to an end in their districts. Overall, they gave three main reasons why they suspected such an agreement could not bring peace to Afghanistan, not only in the big cities but also to the villages and towns in the districts.
First, they believed signing a peace deal is one thing, upholding and enforcing it another. They questioned whether any of the parties, including the government and the Taleban, was sincerely committed to not only reaching an agreement, but also to implement it. “The only kind of peace we’ve seen [in Afghanistan] has been the placing of signatures on a piece of paper that had no guarantee or practical impact afterwards,” said a teacher from Kahmard.
Some recounted how earlier local ‘peace’ deals had been short-lived with abrupt, tragic endings. This revealed the existential uncertainty of trusting the intent of the other sides in the war, particularly when they believe they are on the verge of winning:
I don’t believe the Taleban would strike a peace agreement with the government and even if they did, I don’t think they’d keep it. I’m speaking from my own personal experience. In the past, as elders, we signed agreements with the Taleban. For example, in 2017/18, after the Taleban killed two travellers including a lecturer from Bamyan University, they promised not to harm travellers on the roads any more. But, they didn’t keep their word longer than two months. Again, they kidnapped and killed travellers, including an employee of the [Afghanistan Independent] Human Rights Commission. What I’m saying is that it’s difficult to trust the Taleban, especially when they think they’ve defeated a global superpower… Maybe under US pressure, they [Taleban] would accept making peace with the Afghan government, but a day after the US withdrawal, they’d break their agreement.
– Local elder, Jalrez
Similarly, as referred to in the first of this two-part series, some interviewees believed the Taleban were suspicious of the government’s peace overtures. These interviewees thought that for the Taleban, striking a deal with the government would be tantamount to “surrender,” as it would involve laying down arms and participating in a political system many of them see as illegitimate and have fought against for many years.
Second, the key informants viewed both the government and the Taleban as disunited entities with a confusing plethora of loosely-controlled and mercurial groups operating under their banner (although the Taleban were more often regarded as such than the government). According to these interviewees, lack of or lax control over field commanders and fighters could easily destroy peace in the districts. There were, in their view, various groups who were perpetuating the war on a local level and that might sabotage the peace if they were left out. They also raised the possibility that a deal could be struck only between leaders and might remain limited to them. This would mean that those in the highest echelons would be rewarded, but those further down would be ignored and left to fend for themselves. Some gave the example of the peace agreement reached with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. A high-level negotiated peace was therefore seen by these key informants as perhaps ‘making peace,’ but not actually keeping or building it, especially on a local level. These perspectives are illustrated by the following three quotes:
I don’t think the war would end in Zurmat. There are various groups of militants that are operating in our district, and each pursues its own interests. Even within the government, various factions follow different directions. There are complex interests and that makes it complicated to find a suitable way to reach peace. For example, a young man was detained by a group of militants in Zurmat. When we wanted to negotiate with the local Taleban, we had to meet several of their commanders to find the right one to inquire about the detained person. Eventually, we discovered that he was detained by the Haqqani network and we had to deal with its commanders, not Islamic Emirate commanders. For this reason, a political settlement with the Islamic Emirate doesn’t mean a peaceful settlement in Zurmat.
– Farmer, Zurmat
I believe a political settlement could end insecurity in Jalrez. However, it won’t be sustainable if the Taleban fighters are not controlled by the Taleban leaders and are not properly reintegrated by the Afghan government and the international community… Taleban leaders would enjoy being in power and receiving money like Hekmatyar, but the fighters would be forgotten.
– Local council member, Jalrez
Not all of the people who fight under Taleban’s name are Taleban… Many of them are people who’ve killed [other] people and who can’t join the government. So, they joined the Taleban and remain safe with them. These people will again seek a force to fight against the government, and the foreigners will establish a group for them.
– Local NGO worker, Nad Ali
Relatedly, some key informants, in Obeh district, in particular, believed that what they called “zurmanda” (“power-holders” or those who forward their agenda by force) could damage peace since many of them have more interest in continuing the war than in achieving peace. A person from Obeh, who is a local government employee, described those he thought were zurmandaand the circumstances that were favourable to them:
If we get down to the bottom of things, there’s no law in Obeh. No one respects the law, neither the government nor the Taleban. Whatever law exists is the law of force, the law of nepotism and the law of doing things as the prevailing power wants wherever it exists. Some of the zurmanda are in government, some are jihadi commanders, others are Taleban and common thieves. They do whatever they want under the present anarchy… The zurmanda and the Taleban have set up arms depots for themselves.
The current chaotic situation was viewed as beneficial for the zurmanda simply because it was difficult to clearly identify them, raise a voice against them or hold them to account, as illustrated by the following two quotes:
There are people from both sides [Taleban and government] who are using the existing disorder to their benefit. They’re the ones who don’t want peace to come to Obeh and to Afghanistan. It’s because chaos is beneficial to them. War is more in their interest than peace. Today we have some of the most corrupt officials who are in government but at the same time, they have ties with the Taleban. If there’s security and people aren’t afraid of raising their grievances, they can stand up against them. But if anyone complains now, they can’t do anything and they’ll be afraid of complaining. They’re afraid of getting killed by either the Taleban or the government. If there’s one clear party to power, people will know where to go to raise their grievances and have them addressed. And if someone is killed, they’ll know who killed that person. Accountability isn’t clear when there’s a double government. You don’t know who hurts or kills you, the government official or the Taleb or someone else.
– Teacher, Obeh
One person, expressing the same view of the problem, thought it might get resolved after a peace deal:
Some people have joined the Taleban group to be able to loot passengers on roads. If there’s peace, security will improve and criminals will be differentiated. Now, we’re attacked by all sides and all in the name of the Taleban.
– Shopkeeper, Nawmish
Third is the fear of a potential new insurgency. Some key informants, in particular in Achin, but also in other districts, expressed concern that ISKP might expand or that some other militant group might emerge and attract those who had been left out of or opposed any Taleban-government peace deal. In Nawmish, a religious scholar was, for instance, concerned that some “retired Taleban” and other local militants might re-hat as ISKP, a possibility he regarded as dangerous. Another man in Achin expressed his concern about ISKP, saying, “I don’t think [a government-Taleban peace] would be the end of the conflict in Achin because Daesh is still present here.” More generally was the fear that local insurgents, in the words of a teacher from Obeh, would simply “sit and fight where the wind blows.”
In Jalrez, a local council member described in detail how field fighters might ‘rebrand’ and reposition themselves in a changing insurgency landscape:
Hekmatyar’s fighters in Wardak [province] joined the Taleban after his [Hekmatyar’s] peace deal with the Afghan government… After a peace agreement [with the Taleban is reached], if these fighters can’t find an income, they’ll join any insurgent group that offers them a job. Daesh could be an alternative to the Taleban. These days, locals don’t believe there’s a space for Daesh in Jalrez, as their religious thoughts and behaviour in combat aren’t welcomed. But, after 2001, the same thing was said about the Taleban, that they wouldn’t re-emerge. Within five years, the Taleban were able to hold territory in Jalrez… Once guns and money come, insurgents will appear.
Local opinions on what should happen in the districts to achieve peace
Next, we asked our key informants about what needs to happen in the districts to contribute to achieving peace in the country. In contrast to the previous question, where many interviewees held simultaneous optimistic and pessimistic views, here opinions were generally more polarised, with many interviewees arguing for either a bottom-up or a top-down approach to realise peace. Only one of the thirty interviewees explicitly said both approaches were needed.
Building peace from the bottom up
Some key informants believed Afghanistan needs a broad grassroots mobilisation to push for peace. A major objective of this mobilisation was seen in Andar district in particular as potentially ushering in a peaceful mind-set – one that was backed by greater public awareness, focused on the dividends of peace and distancing people from what interviewees saw as relentless warmongering. This perception is represented by the following quote:
One thing that’s very necessary is that we need widespread public awareness in order to set a mentality for peace… Such awareness should focus on the benefits of peace in Afghanistan. It’ll enable the people to understand that with the coming of peace a lot of good things are going to happen.
– Teacher, Andar
Another person from Andar regarded “peaceful language” and freedom from force as a basic component of developing a peaceable attitude:
I think a lot of work is needed in order to bring peace to this district. The first important issue is that no one should be able to impose something on someone else by force. I think we’ve had enough experience of the use of force in the last 18 years. This means using the language of force is meaningless… We don’t need the use of war language. Instead, we should be using a peaceful language.
Promoting an amicable ambience was viewed as crucial because it could serve as an icebreaker to motivate the parties to the conflict, in particular, the government and Taleban, to talk to each other, understand each other’s concerns and sort out their differences, as illustrated by the following two quotes:
There are two sides of the conflict, the Taleban and government. Both sides are Afghan. There’s a need for them to understand each other. This understanding can happen when both sides discuss issues and find solutions. They should listen to each other.
– Local council member, Dasht-e Archi
There’s a serious need for the two warring sides [government and Taleban] to sit together and discuss all the points over which they have differences. I think if they have open and serious discussions, it’ll definitely result in a peace. Instead of fighting against each other, sitting with each other and discussing the issues will end the war.
– Businessman, Andar
Several interviewees stressed the role of socially respected and active figures such as elders, religious scholars (ulama) and civil society members in making such a discussion possible, including within the context of a jirga. Such figures, they believed, could reach out to the warring sides, either to kick off the conversation or to facilitate local talks once it is clear that the parties are serious nationally. This view is covered by the following three quotes:
To achieve peace, we can all work for it. For example, we can go to the opposition [Taleban], embrace them and address their concerns. The ulama and tribal elders can, of course, play a good role in this. This can be applicable to the whole country.
– Local elder, Achin
There’s a need for a grassroots peace initiative in Dasht-e Archi. There should be a neutral door-to-door peace campaign. The Taleban are tired of fighting. I know many of their commanders and fighters are willing to put an end to the war. This can be done by local elders… It’s possible for elders to reach out to the local Taleban commanders and convince them to stop targeting civilians, but there must also be assurances from the government side to stand by its word [and not attack].
– Teacher, Dasht-e Archi
If assurances are given by both sides of the conflict [government and Taleban] that they really want peace, then local elders could play an effective mediation role. There’s a need for grassroots mobilisation to start a peace campaign. In our region, people respect jirgas and this could help bring peace to our area. I think there’s a dire need to have such an initiative to bring peace to Zurmat.
– Doctor, Zurmat
Nonetheless, not a single interviewee said anything about practical ways to start a grassroots peace mobilisation work or how it could gain wider traction to effect a change at the national level.
Some key informants believed a government-Taleban dialogue/negotiation could be brought about only after bilateral trust had begun to be built and a ceasefire was reached. In this context, a key informant from Andar, a 45-year-old teacher, recited a local proverb, “You can’t wash away blood with blood.” The same interviewee described how a prisoner swap might facilitate agreement on a ceasefire and get a peace process up and running:
One step towards peace would be if both the Taleban and the government released each other’s prisoners. That would be a milestone. Also, it would help bring them closer. The second necessary step is a ceasefire that both sides should work for and implement seriously. If the first step happens, the second step will also happen. But if both sides don’t work on this and they stick to their demands, I think reaching a ceasefire or peace will be difficult. If they don’t release the prisoners, they won’t take steps towards peace. If everybody is looking for excuses, it’s hard to reach a ceasefire and a successful peace.
Other interviewees explained why not only a ceasefire, but also impartial mediation and flexibility would be important to give peace a chance, as represented by the following quote by a local elder from Dasht-e Archi:
To achieve peace, there’s a desperate need to agree on a ceasefire. Without a ceasefire, discussion on other issues won’t produce any results. It’s very simple. Even in a small community when two sides fight or have some dispute, they reach out to elders to solve the issue. The first thing that elders suggest is to agree on a ceasefire or agree not to fight while the elders discuss the issue… I believe before entering into peace negotiations, there must be a ceasefire… The mediator should be neutral and independent… Both sides of the conflict should take part in the discussions. Both sides’ demands and suggestions should be carefully addressed… The government should show flexibility and the Taleban should also show flexibility and the international community should be neutral.
Similarly, a key informant from Qaysar, who is a local elder, said, “To achieve peace, there’s a need for [the conflict parties] to make a sacrifice.” This and other similar quotes referred to the need for the parties to the conflict to replace hard red lines with negotiable positions.
Organising peace from the top down
On the other hand, some key informants argued that peace could only be reached in a top-down process. They argued that those at the local level simply lacked the power to affect policy on a higher, leadership level. “I don’t think we can do anything to bring any change at the national level,” said a teacher from Kahmard. A religious scholar from Nawmish explained why he believed there was “no local solution,” explaining why he had reached a point of frustration and disillusionment:
There’s no local solution with the Taleban. We’ve tried it and we’ve failed every time. It’s been four years that Nawmish is [officially regarded as] a district. In these years, the representatives of the Nawmish community have offered a local ceasefire between the Taleban and the government forces in the area. We’ve approached them in the name of nationalism, Islamic teachings, culture and any diplomatic way possible to get them to sign a no-war treaty. They never accepted.
This view was also forcefully expressed elsewhere, particularly in Qaysar, but in other districts as well:
It’s not possible to achieve peace in Qaysar without talking to the Taleban’s leadership. The issue of peace and war is under the Taleban leadership council’s decision-making. The Taleban’s leaders have the authority to enter into peace or to continue war. It has nothing to do with their commanders in Qaysar. It’s impossible to solve this at the local level or via elders’ mediation because the local Taleban fighters in Qaysar neither respect the elders nor their decision.
– Local elder, Qaysar
It’s fully possible for the leaders of the government and the Taleban [to agree on a peace deal]. We saw it a couple of years ago [sic] when a ceasefire was announced. It was temporary, all over Afghanistan, Talebs came to the towns and cities and they hugged government forces and others. So they [the leaders] can make peace at a stroke, either among themselves or prompted by foreigners. Those on the ground just need a cue to make peace. The Taleban may have 50,000 members or so and they just need a signal [from above] to make peace with the government. A signal to lay down arms, come down [from the mountains] and make peace. It’s because they’re also thirsty for peace. They do want peace. They do want rest for themselves and their families.
– Social activist, Obeh
The conflict in Qaysar is out of our hands. It is in the hands of the leaders of the Taleban and the Afghan government. Both should find a suitable way to achieve sustainable peace.
– Shopkeeper, Qaysar
The fact that peace, in this view, depends on high-level decisions does not mean that there is no role for local influential figures. However, a farmer from Jalrez stressed, high-level decisions need to precede any meaningful local mediation:
I think making peace in Jalrez depends on how the Taleban leadership, the US and the Afghan government would make peace at the top level. The locals, be they the Taleban fighters, the Afghan national security forces or elders, don’t have the power or choice to make peace without permission from their superiors. The elders can solve small disputes, but not the ongoing war. Yes, if a peace agreement was signed by political leaders of the warring parties, then the elders would be able to mediate between the local Taleban fighters and the local Afghan forces that have fought against one another, or between them and the civilians who are either survivors or victims.
Finally, some key informants staunchly believed that neither war nor peace would be determined by Afghans alone; rather, in their view, the conflict is driven by regional and global powers that have pitted Afghans against each other to further their various interests in Afghanistan. This view is illustrated by the following three quotes:
People know that it’s out of the power of Afghans to bring peace or make plans for peace. Even low-ranking Taleban and government employees think that peace is in the hands of foreigners.
– Local NGO worker, Nad Ali
The Afghan war is out of Afghans’ hands. It’s a regional and even a global war. The regional countries and the global community have [their own] interests in war and in peace.
– Local elder, Zurmat
Peace will really come [in Afghanistan] only when the US, China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Pakistan and other neighbouring countries want it.
– Local elder, Achin
One united voice on the need for a ‘good peace’
Although key informants differed in their views about the prospects of a ‘high peace’ ending the war in the districts and were divided over the relative role of bottom-up and top-down approaches to achieving peace in the country, they broadly had one thing in common. There was a consensus, either voiced explicitly or implicitly, that if there was to be peace this time in Afghanistan, it needed to be a “real peace” (solh-e waqe’i), a “genuine peace” (solh-e haqiqi) or simply a “good peace” (solh-e khob). In other words, such a peace should finish the war and not serve as a preamble to a new phase in the conflict. This is well represented by the following quote from Andar:
If they [government, Taleban and US] want to make peace now, they should make a good peace, because if there’s a bad peace, these people can go to war again.
Some key informants in some districts went further, arguing that a good peace was possible only if peace was not just made, but also built. For them, this included addressing what is currently causing and driving the ongoing war. An interviewee from Obeh, who is a local government employee, for example, asserted that so long as current fighters were illiterate and there were no jobs, a lasting peace was not possible:
There remain some bigger issues. One is illiteracy. So many people are illiterate or have only a low literacy level… Then there’s the issue of widespread unemployment. When many people are illiterate and unemployed, how can we expect peace to last for long? We might revert back to another crisis. Our society needs to change its way of life away from war.
A key informant in Kahmard, a teacher, said Afghanistan needed to break the vicious cycle of war it has been caught up in for so long:
Poverty feeds insecurity and insecurity leads to more corruption and poverty. We’re running in a circle of conflict, corruption, poverty and conflict again. It’s been like this as long as I remember, or maybe even since my father remembers. There should be an end to this.
Another interviewee from Kahmard, a businessman, pointed to corruption as the key factor that was ruining Afghanistan:
It’s the corruption that’s harming us and destroying this country more than the conflict and more than the Taleban… Peace for Afghanistan will come when there is a just and equal distribution of power and resources, which sounds very idealistic to even say it out loud. We’ll have peace and security in Afghanistan when there’s a fair distribution of power and resources. What we have now is a very small number of people who are controlling the power and wealth in the country. Even when it comes to the Taleban, I think a fair system of government would weaken their sources of grievance and you would no longer see people who stand at the roads and rob or kill people in the name of being Taleban. I believe a good government will solve the problem of the Taleban.
Last but not least, some key informants, in particular in Nawmish, believed that it was the details of peace that mattered most, in particular, whether such a peace could ensure the non-violent resolution of conflicts in Afghanistan and could stop parts of the population from feeling subjected to injustice or discrimination. When referring to justice, they included both accountability and punishment; however, there were also calls for reconciliation, forgiving one another and embracing a new chapter of living together. These perspectives are covered, explicitly and implicitly, by the following three quotes:
My most serious concern is the technical details of this peace. How will power be shared? How will the government operate in a ‘post-peace [deal] era, especially when the Taleban are also on board? If I were to have one condition for peace, it would be that justice should take place. Those who’ve killed innocent people, women and children, those who’ve opened fire on families, they should be brought to justice. That’s the only way we can accept a peace deal. I’ve lost three members of my family in the violence just last year. They killed them on the road while going to Kejran [district of Daikundi province]. There should be justice for them and for all those who’ve lost their lives.
– Shopkeeper, Nawmish
Our people are tired of war. [When there is peace] no one will be thinking about another war. Even with injustice, people will forgive one another because [we can] no longer tolerate this long war in Andar district.
– Businessman, Andar
People in Obeh are generally moderate, hospitable and receptive to change in a short period of time. They will accept new things quickly.
– Local government employee, Obeh
The diversity of local opinions in the ten districts across Afghanistan illustrates the complexity of the interplay between a high-level peace agreement and any actual peace at the local level.
When discussing whether a high-level peace agreement – between the Afghan government, the Taleban and the US – could end the war at the local level, many interviewees were, sometimes simultaneously, both surprisingly optimistic and severely sceptical. Those voicing optimistic opinions argued that once the two key actors involved in the war in their districts – the government and the Taleban – made peace, this would end the war and allow a strong government to emerge that could provide better governance, address local conflicts and root out any remaining militias or insurgents. Some of these views sounded so optimistic that they approached ‘magical thinking’ and seemed to suggest that a government-Taleban peace would also solve all of Afghanistan’s problems. It is possible that these views were mainly presented to argue how direly the government and the Taleban need to talk directly with each other for peace to be seen in the districts, rather than as a practical analysis.
When expressing scepticism, the interviewees focused on three major reasons why they doubted that a national peace deal might end the war in their locality: (a) there are no guarantees that the key parties – government, Taleban, US – would uphold and enforce a putative peace agreement; (b) there is a confusing plethora of loosely-controlled and unpredictable armed groups operating under the Taleban and government’s banners, including zurmanda (power-holders), who could destroy any peace; and (c) there is a fear that a new insurgency might arise, including by those who are against or left out of a peace agreement ‘rebranding’ and repositioning themselves.
On the issue of what can or should happen in the districts to contribute to achieving peace in the country, many interviewees were polarised and argued for either a bottom-up or a top-down approach. Those on the bottom-up side advocated a broad grassroots mobilisation, particularly by Afghanistan’s socially-respected and active figures, to help usher in a peaceful mind-set and build trust between the Afghan government and the Taleban. They suggested a few concrete measures such as impartial mediation, prisoner swaps and ceasefires. The ultimate goal would be to bring the two warring sides closer so they could sort out their differences by talking. Others argued that peace could only come through top-down interventions because those at the local level lacked the power to affect policy on a higher, leadership level. Others indicated that there was a role for both high-placed leaders and local influential figures in the sense that local mediation would become meaningful only after high-level decisions had been made. Some interviewees expressed the view that neither war nor peace would be determined by Afghans alone, if at all. They pointed to the complex regional and global dimensions of the conflict in Afghanistan.
In the midst of differing opinions on the prospects and approaches for peace, key informants had one thing in common: if there is going to be peace this time in Afghanistan, they said, it should be a ‘good peace.’ It should finish this war and not pave the way for the start of another. Some went even further by saying that peace should address what they saw as the drivers of war – illiteracy, unemployment, rampant corruption, unjust distribution of power and resources – so that Afghans, as an interviewee from Obeh put it, “[change their] way of life away from war.” The fact that this was a common theme in the interviews highlights both a deep desire for peace and the realisation – despite some apparent optimism – of how easy it is to get this fledgling peace process wrong. The fear for many was that Afghanistan would end up with a peace deal that failed to change the fundamental conditions that have repeatedly led to conflict.
Edited by Martine van Bijlert and Kate Clark
(1) It is not clear-cut whether Nawmish is a district of Helmand or Daikundi province. The recent presidential elections in the district were managed from Daikundi, but in other respects, it is governed from Helmand.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020