What Do Afghans Want? Withdrawal - But Not Too Fast - and A Negotiated Peace
By Milan Rai
Saturday, Oct 10, 2009
In his major speech
on Afghanistan on 4 September, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown
emphasized Britain's self interest in prosecuting the war in
Afghanistan: 'We are in Afghanistan as a result of a hard-headed
assessment of the terrorist threat facing Britain.' In this, he was
only following the lead of US President Barack Obama, who launched his
new strategy towards Afghanistan and Pakistan at the end of March with
the warning that: 'if the Afghan government falls to the Taliban - or
allows al Qaeda to go unchallenged - that country will again be a base
for terrorists who want to kill as many of our people as they possibly
Neither the Prime Minister nor
the President often speak of the wishes of the Afghan people. But these
wishes, so far as they can be known, ought to be at the centre of
What we know is that the
majority of people in Afghanistan (77%) want an end to the airstrikes
that have killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Afghan civilians. We
also know that the majority of Afghans (64%) want a negotiated end to
the conflict, and are willing to accept the creation of a coalition
government including the Taliban leadership.
We also know that a majority of
Afghans oppose the Obama surge that is increasing the number of foreign
troops in the country. 73% of Afghans think that US-led forces in the
country should either be decreased in number (44%) or 'kept at the
current level' (29%). Only 18% of Afghans favour an increase.
Fear of the Taliban
These are the results of a
nationwide poll commissioned by the BBC, ABC News (USA) and ARD
(Germany), in which 1,534 Afghans were interviewed in all of the
country's 34 provinces between 30 December 2008 and 12 January 2009.
The poll found enormous
hostility to the Taliban. 82% of people said they would prefer the
present government; only 4% favoured a Taliban government. 90% of
people said they opposed Taliban fighters. The Taliban were seen as the
biggest danger to the country by 58% of people; the United States was
in fourth place with 8% (just ahead of 'local commanders' - a euphemism
for US-backed warlords).
'Who do you blame the most for
the violence that is occurring in the country?' The Taliban came top
with 27%; al-Qa'eda/foreign jihadis were next with 22%. In third place
were 'US/American forces/Bush/US government/America/NATO/ISAF forces'
69% of people thought it was a
good thing that the US-led forces had come to Aghanistan to bring down
the Taliban. (Down from 88% in 2006.)
64% of Afghans thought (in January 2009) that 'The Taliban are the same as before', and had not grown more moderate.
Despite all this, a solid 64% of
Afghans thought 'the government in Kabul should negotiate a settlement
with Afghan Taliban in which they are allowed to hold political offices
if they agree to stop fighting'. However, Afghans favoured
preconditions to such talks: 71% said the government should 'negotiate
only if the Taliban stop fighting'.
64% of British people also think
'America and Britain be willing to talk to the Taliban in Afghanistan
in order to achieve a peace deal'. (Sunday Times, 15 March 2009)
Talks are only meaningful if the
other side is willing to play their part. It seems, in the case of
Afghanistan, that there is serious interest in a national
reconciliation process on the part of the Taliban and the Karzai
administration - but that these negotiations are being blocked by the
United States and Britain, who are determined to achieve a military
The Taliban position
The Taliban's current demands
were set out in a New York Times article on 20 May: 'The first demand
was an immediate pullback of American and other foreign forces to their
bases, followed by a cease-fire and a total withdrawal from the country
over the next 18 months. Then the current government would be replaced
by a transitional government made up of a range of Afghan leaders,
including those of the Taliban and other insurgents. Americans and
other foreign soldiers would be replaced with a peacekeeping force
drawn from predominantly Muslim nations, with a guarantee from the
insurgent groups that they would not attack such a force. Nationwide
elections would follow after the Western forces left.'
A negotiator said the Taliban
leaders also added two more conditions: an end to the drone attacks in
Pakistan's tribal areas, and the release of some Taliban prisoners.
On 2 April, the Independent
reported that preliminary talks between Afghan President Hamid Karzai
and the Taliban seemed to have 'yielded a significant shift away from
the Taliban's past obsession with repressive rules and punishments
governing personal behaviour.'
It was said that the Taliban
were now prepared to commit themselves to 'refraining from banning
girls' education, beating up taxi drivers for listening to Bollywood
music, or measuring the length of mens' beards.'
Burqas would be 'strongly recommended' for women in public, but not be compulsory.
The Taliban's wider political
demands appear to have also softened considerably since 2007, when they
demanded 'control of 10 southern provinces, a timetable for withdrawal
of foreign troops, and the release of all Taliban prisoners within six
months'. (Guardian, 15 October 2007)
The Taliban 18-month withdrawal
schedule fits in with Afghan opinion. In the BBC/ABC/ARD poll, 21% of
Afghans said US-led forces should leave immediately; 16% said between 6
months and a year from now; and 14% within two years.
So 51% of Afghans want withdrawal within two years.
In May 2007, the upper house of
the Afghan parliament voted for a military ceasefire and negotiations
with the Taliban, and for a date to be set for the withdrawal of
foreign troops. (AP, 10 May 2007)
A staged withdrawal also fits in
with British opinion. In a Guardian/BBC Newsnight poll, published on 13
July, 42% of voters wanted British troops withdrawn immediately; and a
further 14% wanted withdrawal "by the end of the year" (ie within five
months). (36% of people said they should "stay until they are no longer
A Times poll published on 22
July showed that two-thirds of those polled believed that British
troops should be withdrawn either now (34%) or (33%) 'within the next
year or so' (ie within 12 months).
So that's 56% wanting withdrawal within months, and 67% wanting withdrawal within a year.
A staged withdrawal also fits in
with US public opinion. In a New York Times/CBS News poll, 55% of
voters said US troops should be withdrawn within two years (31% said
within one year). (24 September)
The BBC/ABC/ARD poll showed that
63% of Afghans supported the presence of US troops in Afghanistan (but
77% wanted an end to airstrikes). Only 8% supported the presence of
Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.
It seems that Afghans want an
international presence in the country to prevent rule by the Taliban,
who they fear and detest. That international presence ought to be
supplied by independent forces uninvolved in the US-led invasion and
occupation, and controlled by the UN General Assembly (rather than the
US-dominated Security Council).
It is impossible to take the
Taliban's position at face value - particularly on social controls -
but there seems to be no alternative to a genuine negotiated solution
to the Afghan conflict, in line with Afghan public opinion, Afghan
parliamentary opinion, and British public opinion.
Britain and the US should halt
their 'surge' into Afghanistan, ceasefire, withdraw to their bases,
draw down troops and allow a national reconciliation process to take
place. The future of the Afghan people must be determined according to
the wishes of the Afghan people.
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