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Are Afghans Ready To Compromise With The Taliban To Maintain Peace?

Aug 14, 2019
Originally published on August 14, 2019 10:55 am
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're approaching 18 years. That's how long the U.S. has been fighting a war in Afghanistan. A child born right after the U.S. overthrew the Taliban - that same child is now eligible to join the military and fight in the very same war. Tens of thousands of people have died. Hundreds of billions of U.S. dollars have been spent trying to rebuild.

Alex Thier served in Kabul as a legal adviser who helped draft the Afghan Constitution. He's just returned from a visit to the capital of Afghanistan earlier this week. And he still marvels at the outward signs of progress.

ALEX THIER: The city continues to build. There are high-rises going up all over the place. There are new cafes and restaurants springing open all the time. The population has gone up almost fivefold. There are women in every aspect of life - in the commercial life, in the political life, in education - everywhere you go.

MARTIN: So will that change if the U.S. leaves? A peace deal appears to be imminent. Alex Thier told me many Afghans have reached a breaking point. And if peace means compromising with the Taliban, then so be it.

THIER: I think that people right now are seized with a deep and visceral feeling about the need for peace that comes from the fact that there has been so much violence. This war, for most Afghans, has not only gone on the 18 years that the U.S. has been there but, really, 40 years since the Soviet invasion.

And people feel ready, and they feel ready, frankly, also, to sacrifice for peace. A lot of what I talked about with people there is, what is the cost of peace? What will you be willing to give up?

MARTIN: Does that mean incorporating the Taliban into some kind of power-sharing agreement? Is that what that means?

THIER: It absolutely does. I think that almost everybody I spoke to in Kabul believes that there is a path to peace that includes power-sharing with the Taliban. It does not, however, mean a surrender.

They do not want to give up the rights that they have fought so hard for. And they also believe that the Taliban needs to understand that this is not the Afghanistan of the 1990s - this warlord chaos that the Taliban took over in the late '90s. It is a nation transformed, and that in order for peace to happen, the Taliban are also going to have to sacrifice and become part of what has been built in Afghanistan.

MARTIN: Yet, the Taliban has refused to engage in direct talks with the Afghan government. So as someone who's been a close observer of this country, has worked in it for so many years, was responsible for helping draft the constitution - I mean, how do you look at the prospects for peace?

THIER: Well, it's a fascinating moment because the Taliban are about to conclude an agreement with the U.S. government. And that agreement says that there will be a conditions-based withdrawal of U.S. troops.

And so the key question is, what are those conditions? What are the Taliban agreeing to? Well, part of what they're agreeing to is to make sure that Afghanistan is never again used for terrorism and extremism. But it also requires the Taliban to commit to sitting down and having a dialogue with the Afghan government and others who have been part of this coalition that has led Afghanistan for the last 18 years and agreeing to a reduction of violence and a cease-fire.

And if all four of those elements do come together, there is the prospect for peace.

MARTIN: Do you have any sense of what these negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban would look like?

THIER: Once this agreement is signed between the U.S. and the Taliban, they are supposed to then move to talks, probably in Oslo, Norway, that would be a Taliban team of maybe 15 negotiators and an Afghan team, which includes government and opposition of 15 negotiators. And there, they will confront an agenda of trying to address all of these different questions of a cease-fire, a power-sharing arrangement, future negotiation over the constitution.

MARTIN: I mean, a cease-fire, that would be important to figure out - do you stop firing before you come up with a political deal or the reverse?

THIER: This is likely to be one of the most contentious issues in the initial negotiations because the Taliban have violence as their primary means of exerting force at the moment. And if they give that up, that will be giving up a lot. And so there is a perception that the Taliban will want to agree everything else before they agree and begin to implement a cease-fire.

MARTIN: You talk about how the country has changed. There are women in all sectors of life. Schools - girls are encouraged, at least in the cities, to get an education, not so much still in many rural areas. Do you see these rights as being fragile, though, in this moment?

THIER: There's no question that the Taliban have continued to say that some of their very conservative views which kept women out of work and politics and schools are not in line with modern Afghanistan. But at the same time, there are some real signs that they are changing the way that they are thinking. They have met many times now in Moscow and Doha and other places with representatives of Afghan government and civil society. And they have clearly said things that recognize that they also see that Afghanistan has changed and that there is going to have to be a more inclusive path for Afghanistan going forward.

MARTIN: Are women's rights and, broader, human rights codified in the Afghan Constitution?

THIER: Absolutely. The Afghan Constitution, which was ratified by a big grand gathering - a loya jirga in Kabul in 2004 - that brought together all segments of society, does declare Afghanistan to be an Islamic republic and says that Islam is one of the guiding forces in the constitution and in society and in their laws.

At the same time - and these things are not in opposition with each other - they have recognized fundamental freedoms and rights for women to participate in all elements of society. They have recognized the rights of religious minorities, as well as Afghanistan's minorities overall. And in that sense, it is progressive. And despite the fact that there has been violence and challenges, Afghanistan has really lived a lot of those values over the last two decades.

MARTIN: So you feel, as someone who helped craft that, that the document itself - what it stands for, how it's been manifested in the society writ large in Afghanistan - you feel like it will survive a peace deal?

THIER: Well, that's one of the big questions on the table. The Taliban have said that they want a new constitution. But there are many, I think, who believe, who said to me in Kabul this week, that they think that those changes can be accommodated within the broad-frame - the rights, the institutions that exist within the Afghan Constitution. And yet, they will be willing to see it changed or amended to create some space for the Taliban to feel that they are also a part of Afghan society and political culture moving forward.

MARTIN: Alex Thier - he served as a legal adviser to Afghanistan's constitutional commission. He was also a senior adviser at USAID, and he is the founder of the consulting firm Triple Helix. Alex, thanks for your time.

THIER: Thank you so much, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.