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19 August 2021updated 21 Sep 2021 1:20pm

Where Afghans stand on peace and women’s rights

In a country exhausted by corruption and war, most Afghans believe the Taliban’s Islamic emirate is a price worth paying for peace.

By Ben Walker

During the 20 years of the US war in Afghanistan, humanitarian aid and development poured into the country alongside military intervention. From 2001 to 2021, the number of years on average that children spent in schools nearly doubled. The national income per person almost tripled. The advancement of women’s rights was astonishing, and social attitudes throughout the populace liberalised somewhat. 

But now the reactionary Islamist Taliban group is in control once again and questions abound as to how the country will move forward. Will Afghans defend the developments of recent years or prioritise peace instead? 

In February, the Asia Foundation conducted an extensive and thorough survey of public attitudes among the Afghan people on a variety of issues. The results found a country tired of conflict and struggle.

Over seven in ten Afghans said the availability of food had declined over the past year. More than eight in ten (85 per cent) reported corruption was a major part of their daily lives. Two thirds (67 per cent) noted the financial situation in their household had been deteriorating, and four in ten remarked they would leave the country if given the opportunity.

Afghans, it would seem, are sick of instability. So despite just 4 per cent of Afghans having outright sympathy with the Taliban’s aims and objectives (down from 22 per cent sympathy for “armed groups” in 2009), it is perhaps unsurprising that the survey also found majority support (58 per cent) for the Taliban having a role in government. The population was ready, too, for Taliban fighters and leaders to be given a full international amnesty.

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Just 4% of Afghans have sympathy for the Taliban
Share of Afghans who have a lot or little sympathy for the Taliban or armed opposition groups — Asia Foundation survey

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The survey also sought to gauge how far Afghans would be willing to go for the pursuit of peace – and the findings were remarkable. Democracy was a preferable system of government to most. But so too, albeit to a lesser extent, was an Islamic emirate – if it meant peace

Just 11% of Afghans support outlawing women and girls from attending school
Share (%) of Afghans who would accept a peace agreement including the following conditions — Asia Foundation survey, February 2021

On policy details, such as women being banned from attending school, or barred from working outside their home, there was more resistance. The survey recorded just 11 per cent who would tolerate outlawing women from attending school for the sake of peace.

Some more conservative attitudes towards women still prevailed, however, with 60 per cent of Afghans thinking women in public should dress either in the burka or niqab (though men were more enthused about the practice than women).

Most Afghans believe an Islamic emirate is a price worth paying for peace
Share (%) of Afghans who would agree with [condition] as a means for a peace deal

These survey findings expose a country where peace is the priority. Which is not to say defending democracy isn’t also important: contrary to the US president Joe Biden’s remarks on Monday (16 August), in which he claimed the Afghan military were unwilling to fight, nearly 70,000 Afghan military and police lives have been expended in the fight against the Taliban; 47,000 civilians, too, have been caught in the crossfire. 

Yet the Taliban’s creation of an Islamic emirate as a condition for peace, for instance, commands the approval of 63 per cent of Afghans. Islamic law taking precedence over secular law, also as a condition for peace, has the support of 70 per cent of Afghans. Reducing the role of women in society is not as popular as increasing it, but it still has majority agreement nonetheless, provided, once again, that peace is achieved.

It seems the Taliban will inherit a population that does not necessarily align with its politics, but whom, this survey suggests, will accept its governance if it brings stability. 

So, what price peace? An awful lot, it seems.

[See also: Biden’s great betrayal]