In an enviable display of political maturity, Afghans express overwhelming support for negotiations with insurgent groups, even as public sympathy for the insurgents and their aims and methods is in significant decline.
This is one conclusion to be drawn from the 2010 survey of Afghans conducted by The Asia Foundation. The survey addresses, as it does annually, a broad range of issues; the findings on attitudes towards reconciliation and negotiations are especially timely in the context of recently reported speculations about political initiatives.
The survey found that “83 per cent of respondents support the government’s attempts to address the security situation through negotiation and reconciliation with armed anti-government elements.” A year ago that support stood at 71 per cent.
While support for negotiations increased by more than 10 percentage points, the level of sympathy for the insurgents with whom negotiations and reconciliation are sought dropped by 16 percentage points. The level of “sympathy with the motivations of armed opposition groups” fell from 56 per cent in 2009 to 40 per cent in 2010. The majority of the 2010 respondents (55 per cent) say they have no sympathy at all for armed opposition groups, a significant increase over 2009 when only 36 per cent they had no sympathy for insurgents.
A population that is losing sympathy for the Taliban is increasingly interested in negotiating with them. Thus, almost three quarters of all respondents (73 per cent) think that “the government’s reconciliation efforts will help stabilize the country.”
All of this suggests that Afghans are comfortable with the notion that the pursuit of peace requires that you talk with your adversaries – those with whom you have the deepest, most fundamental differences.
Not surprisingly, support for negotiations is highest in those areas where respondents are most like to declare that they have “some level of sympathy with the motivations of armed opposition groups” – and that sympathy is highest in the South West (where 52 per cent), the South East (50 per cent), and the West (50 per cent). Support for negotiation and reconciliation is thus highest in the East (89 per cnt), South East (85 per cent) and North West (85 per cent). Support for negotiations is lower in the Central/Hazarajat region (78 per cent), but is obviously still very high.
Reintegration efforts also enjoy broad support – that is, 81 per cent agree with programs that offer government assistance, including the provision of jobs and housing, to those insurgents who lay down arms and want to reintegrate into society. That is up from 71 per cent in 2009.
Overall, reconciliation and reintegration programs have strong support among both men and women – 88 percent support from men and 78 percent from women.
The survey also indicates that the high level of support for negotiations does not imply any acquiescence to the limits on personal and public freedoms that are broadly associated with insurgent aims. Support for talks is matched by 81 per cent support for “the democratic principle of equal rights for all groups to participation and representation.” Support for “allowing peaceful opposition” stands at 83 percent.
A variety of gender-related issues were also addressed in the survey. It found, for example, that 87 per cent of respondents say they agree that women should have the same opportunities as men in education. The survey reports that 81 per cent of Afghans support equal rights under the law, regardless of gender, ethnicity or religion.
Support for negotiations, therefore, is not evidence of diminishing support for the freedoms that Government and international military forces say they are fighting for; instead, it is fair to say that Afghans simultaneously reject the Taliban, value freedom and equality, and favour negotiations.
It seems Afghans have the idea that prospects for achieving freedom and equality, and peace, are better at the negotiating table than on the battlefield.
 “Afghanistan in 2010: A Survey of the Afghan People,” Key Findings, The Asia Foundation. http://asiafoundation.org/country/afghanistan/2010-poll.php