Talk of peace in Afghanistan is ramping up, with the United States and the Taliban negotiating and Kabul preparing to host hundreds of ethnic, religious, and tribal leaders to settle on a road map for ending nearly 18 years of war.
But while those born after the U.S. invasion in 2001 make up around half of Afghanistan’s population of 33 million, their voice has largely gone unheard.
RFE/RL spoke with youths born after the fall of the Taliban regime to see how they feel about the prospect of the fundamentalist movement officially returning to the fold.
“Afghanistan has changed,” says Zekeria, a high school graduate from the capital, Kabul. “We won’t let the Taliban force their ideas on us again.”
During its brutal rule from 1996-2001, the Taliban oppressed women, massacred ethnic and religious minorities, and banned TV and music. The religious zealots controlled every aspect of life — forcing men to pray and grow beards and women to cover from head to toe. They beat, amputated, or executed anyone who contravened their draconian laws.
“We don’t want to be suffocated,” adds Zekeria. “The Taliban can’t be allowed to control every part of our lives again.”
The Taliban’s adherence to ultraconservative Islam and the Pashtun tribal code has struck a chord with some currently living under the movement’s thumb in rural Afghanistan, which has borne the brunt of the war and where life has improved little.
But those ideas are largely alien in major urban centers that have witnessed major social, economic, and democratic gains over the past 18 years.
“The Taliban are Afghans and they can be part of our society,” says Zekeria. “But their role in society must be restricted. It can’t be like before.”
Marie Ekram, 17
“I support the peace process with the Taliban, but only if women’s freedoms are safeguarded,” says Ekram, a high school student from the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif, a relatively peaceful and prosperous region near the border with Central Asia.
The Taliban was notorious for its treatment of women, banning them from working or going to school. Since 2001, millions of girls have gone back to school, women have joined to the workforce, and dozens of women are members of parliament.
In recent months, the militant group has suggested it is committed to guaranteeing women their rights, although only in accordance with their strict interpretation of Islam.
“Under no circumstances do we want a peace deal that sacrifices our freedoms and democracy,” says Ekram. “That wouldn’t be peace at all.”
As an Islamic republic, Afghanistan’s laws and constitution are based on Islam, although there are more liberal and democratic elements within it.
The Taliban has said it will demand changes to the constitution as part of any peace deal with the Afghan government, which to this point the Taliban has refused to directly negotiate with as it conducts talks with the United States in Qatar.
But Ekram is adamant that the constitution should not be changed.
“It is already based on Islam,” she says. “If the Taliban return and try to force women to stay at home and not work this would be against the law. The Taliban can be part of a future Afghanistan, but only if they adapt to the new Afghanistan.”
Nawid Sherzad, 18
“If the Taliban accept our new society, then we should sign a peace settlement with them,” says Sherzad, a high school graduate in Herat, a city of strategic, commercial, and cultural significance located in western Afghanistan. “But if they don’t, then we must continue fighting them.”
Sherzad is among the more than 82 percent of Afghans who have no sympathy for the Taliban, according to the Asia Foundation’s 2018 survey.
The Taliban has been projecting itself as a more moderate force, pledging not to “monopolize power” in Afghanistan. But Sherzad does not believe that the militants — a largely Pashtun, tribal, and rural group — have changed.
“We can’t accept the Taliban the way they are,” he says. “They will reverse our gains in terms of education, women’s rights, and our independent media.”
Despite being self-appointed defenders of Islam, the Taliban’s version of the religion is “wrong,” says Sherzad.
“Under Islam, men and women are equal and education is a right,” he says. “But they don’t accept this. They talk about upholding Islam, but they don’t even understand Islam.”
“We only want peace if every Afghan has rights and our country has development,” says Shogofa, a resident of Kandahar city in the country’s south.
Afghanistan’s second largest city, Kandahar has been an oasis of relative peace in southern Afghanistan where the insurgency is strongest and local sympathy for the insurgency is highest.
Before the U.S.-led invasion, the United Nations said 7.5 million Afghans faced starvation. Even then, the Taliban restricted the presence of aid groups in Afghanistan.
The Taliban regime generated most of their money from opium cultivation, Islamic taxes on citizens, and handouts from Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, the only three countries that recognized it. The Taliban failed to provide basic needs and Kabul lay in tatters after the devastating civil war from 1992-96.
Even now, Afghanistan remains one of the poorest countries in the world despite billions in international aid. But economic development, life expectancy, and Afghans’ access to running water, electricity, and medicine has improved, although progress has been uneven across the country.
“We want a peace agreement with the Taliban that improves our daily lives,” says Shogofa. “We want to go forward not backward.”
“The Taliban killed my father,” says Lotfullah, a semiprofessional cricket player in the eastern city of Jalalabad. “But for the interests of my country, I’m prepared to support peace with the Taliban.”
Jalalabad, near the border with Pakistan, has been wracked by deadly bombings by the Taliban and more recently by the Islamic State (IS) extremist group.
Lotfullah says many in the region yearn for peace. But he says it must compensate for the huge sacrifices Afghans have made over the past 18 years.
“We have all sacrificed a lot in the war against the Taliban,” he says. “Thousands of our soldiers and citizens have been killed.”
The UN said 3,804 civilians were killed and 7,189 wounded as a result of the conflict in Afghanistan in 2018, the deadliest on record since 2009.
“Peace with the Taliban has to suit the country’s interests,” he says. “The progress we have made must be sustained. Otherwise, we don’t want peace.”