The future is looking increasingly and dangerously uncertain for millions of ordinary Afghans. The recent series of horrific incidents -- from violent demonstrations condemning the burning of the Quran to a chilling attack on civilians apparently perpetrated by a lone US soldier -- illustrate just how precarious life has become.
Stability is what many dream of night after night here. One woman from Helmand recently told me that the insecurity was preventing all development in her area, including building essential schools and clinics, and while the community was too scared to confront the Taliban on their own, Afghan security forces could not provide the security they craved. But safety and security will only ever come with peace.
The Afghan Peace and Reintegration Process (APRP) offers a glimmer of hope for a just and lasting peaceful settlement to the decades of conflict -- but progress over the past year or so has been painfully slow. It is critical that this changes, because everyday lives are being lost.
A recent survey led by Mirwais Wardak and the Kabul-based Peace Training and Research Organization PTRO shows overwhelmingly that Afghans want peace.
More than 90 per cent of the 5000 people surveyed in 16 provinces -- including people living in highly insecure areas such as Helmand and Kandahar -- said they were hopeful for the future of the peace process. They appeared to view it as a necessary step to ending the conflict, and certainly a more likely scenario than either side achieving outright military victory.
The APRP was established as the cornerstone of the international community and Afghan government's policy for stabilizing Afghanistan, with the aim of eventually handing over full responsibility for security to the Afghan state. But since 2010, when Hamid Karzai announced the program, political developments have been limited. There were some visible moves made towards an overall settlement with tentative progress on a 'partnership pact' between the Afghan government and the US, and numerous unsubstantiated claims of dialogue with Taliban leaders. There was even talk of the establishment of a Taliban office in Qatar though the Taliban's recent announcement of a suspension of talks with the US appears to have taken that off the table.
Yet, contradictions, obfuscation, and general confusion surround the APRP, failing to help make the complex initiative any more transparent. This leaves many Afghans at a loss when it comes to explaining what the process actually involves. The terms "reconciliation" and "reintegration" are often conflated, and the aims, beneficiaries and activities of the process are simply not clear.
In fact, around 40 per cent of people fear that the peace process could be damaging. They are concerned that basic human rights will be bargained away as part of an overall peace deal. This fear is acute in some insecure areas, including Marjah district in Helmand province (scene of an intense battle for control in 2011), where 90% of women said they feared a loss of freedom of expression, women's rights, and democracy.
There is reason to believe that the Afghan population is willing to make some compromises to secure the end of a war of which they are thoroughly exhausted, but despite their commitment to building a better future, many say they do not feel in control of their own lives.
Many Afghans point to Pakistan and Iran as malign influences, the survey found. There was also some ambiguity towards the international forces, which were deemed to be a part of the problem whilst also recognized as a stabilizing influence. The detail of their withdrawal, planned to begin next year, will be crucial to maintaining security while drawing down troops.
Certainly, the APRP does not provide all the answers. There are still numerous issues to be addressed, including long-running disputes over land and water use in much of the country, but Afghans have demonstrated an aptitude and willingness to take charge of their own destiny. The international community, through its ongoing support for government and communities alike, should listen to all local voices when deciding what support - financial, diplomatic, and military - has the best chance of delivering the peace that is universally desired.
It's time to speed things up. Too much time - and too many lives - have been wasted already.
Mirwais Wardak is the founder and Managing Director of Kabul-based Peace Training and Research Organization (PTRO). Born in Kabul, he has been working on peace-building and post-conflict development in Afghanistan since the mid-1990s.