The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Afghans want peace. New data show they’re open to a surprising number of options.

Our survey found Taliban power-sharing was not a dealbreaker.

Afghan schoolgirls attend the first day of the academic year after educational institutes opened in Herat, Afghanistan, on March 23. (Jalil Rezayee/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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An interim peace plan proposal involving a possible power-sharing deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban — and a leaked letter from Secretary of State Antony Blinken to President Ashraf Ghani — appeared to shake up the Afghanistan peace negotiations in March.

Blinken’s letter notes the “urgency” of moving the peace process forward. The situation is also increasingly urgent for the Afghan public, who, despite promising developments in peace negotiations, have experienced a spike in violent attacks over the past few months.

The U.S. draft peace plan has several key provisions, including maintaining democratic elections and an equitable power-sharing agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Implicit in the document are support for women’s rights and constitutional law over Islamic law.

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What do Afghans think about these points?

Whether these provisions will be tolerable for government and Taliban negotiators is one question, but new survey evidence from across Afghanistan indicates that the public is strongly supportive of peace. Of the possible peace provisions we tested, increased women’s rights received the most support — while, remarkably, on average, Afghans did not care whether the Taliban had majority control over a post-peace government.

To learn about the attitudes of ordinary Afghan citizens, we collaborated with the Asia Foundation to administer phone survey experiments regarding specific peace-plan provisions. This survey was conducted in September, before the details of the U.S. plan were known, although the peace provisions tested were known to be part of the negotiations.

Using a random sampling of phone numbers, the survey asked 4,500 respondents across Afghanistan to respond to a hypothetical peace arrangement that randomly varied along four important dimensions: (1) women’s public role in society, (2) Taliban majority control of government, (3) democratic elections and (4) authority of Islamic law. The responses were reweighted against national demographics to make the results as representative as possible.

Overall, we found that 63 percent of survey respondents supported the peace deal that they were presented with, including a majority of both men and women, and a majority of respondents from each of Afghanistan’s major ethnic groups. After two decades of war, these results suggest a broad swath of the Afghan public is supportive of peace.

Indifference to the Taliban; support for women’s rights

To test how citizens felt about each dimension of a peace deal, the survey asked each respondent to listen to a hypothetical peace proposal that included randomly assigned provisions. We then asked respondents whether they would support such a peace arrangement.

For example, half the respondents listened to a description of a peace deal where the Taliban would have majority influence in the government, while for the other half, the Taliban would not. By comparing the number of respondents who said yes in each case, we can gauge the average impact of Taliban majority control on support for peace.

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We found Taliban majority control of the post-peace government had no effect (neither positive nor negative) on citizen support for the proposal, on average. This indifference holds for all of Afghanistan’s ethnic groups. This was a surprising finding to us: Even though the Taliban have claimed responsibility for a growing number of violent attacks, their inclusion in government is not a dealbreaker even among ethnic groups that have suffered a great deal.

In contrast, the role of women in public life boosted support for peace in our survey. Of respondents who heard about a peace deal that increased the role of women, 74 percent supported it — but a peace deal with a decreased role for women garnered just 56 percent support. This 18-percentage point gap is the largest of any of the provisions we tested. The effect is also consistent across ethnic groups, although women respondents had a stronger positive reaction than men.

A peace deal that included democratic elections received about 7 percentage points more support among respondents than one that creates an “Islamic Emirate” (68 percent vs. 61 percent). And a stipulation that Islamic law supersedes secular law also boosts support for a pact (68 percent vs. 62 percent). This suggests many Afghans want to elect their leaders through popular elections (rather than through nondemocratic means or hereditary succession), but still maintain a strong role for Islamic law, especially in family law settings.

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Nothing is a dealbreaker

Overall, these findings illustrate that citizens are hungry for peace — almost irrespective of the political contours of the deal. All 16 various configurations of these controversial political issues received a majority of support from survey respondents.

What configuration was most popular? A peace deal that increased women’s rights, and included democratic elections and strong support for Islamic law, received 80 percent support on average. But reversing each of those three provisions to their non-favored version (reduced women’s rights, no elections, Islamic law is not superior) still garnered support from 50 percent of the population, according to our survey.

The most striking finding was that the role of the Taliban in a postwar government is simply not as polarizing as one might have expected, given the long conflict. Going in, we might have expected Pashtuns (the largest ethnic group and, generally speaking, co-ethnics of the Taliban) to be supportive of a Taliban majority government, but Tajiks — the country’s second-largest ethnic group — and Hazaras, a minority group that has historically suffered from discrimination, to be opposed. Instead, we find that on average, people appeared ambivalent about the Taliban’s political role.

But the survey’s insights on women’s rights, Islamic law and democracy were also striking. Each ethnic community supported these in different measures — an important corrective to the trope that Islam, democracy and women’s rights are somehow incompatible in the developing world.

Overall, the Afghan public appears to concur with many contours of the U.S.-proposed peace plan. A robust, even majority, role for the Taliban does not appear to be a dealbreaker.

Of course, putting these preferences into practice may be where the challenge emerges. Creating democratic institutions in Afghanistan that preserve a strong role for women and are compatible with Islamic law will require significant political compromises.

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Renard Sexton (@renardsexton) is an assistant professor of political science at Emory University.

Christoph Zurcher is a professor of public and international affairs at the University of Ottawa.

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