Building support for a comprehensive peace agreement

In September, President Trump said that talks between the United States and the Taliban were “dead,” but all parties to the conflict realize that a negotiated political settlement is the only way the war can be ended.

The final peace agreement must be inclusive and all sectors of Afghan society must be represented at the negotiating table, not just the men with the guns. A hasty or poorly executed peace process would end in disarray.  Even if an agreement were signed by all parties, it could quickly unravel and plunge the country into another civil war, as happened in 1996 when U.S.-allied warlords went to war with each other, paving the way for the Taliban to take over most of Afghanistan.

A negotiated political settlement that begins the long process of national reconciliation offers the best chance of avoiding the collapse of the Afghan government and the political order constructed since the 2001 Bonn agreement. Neither the Taliban nor Afghanistan’s neighbors would benefit from state collapse, which would be profoundly destabilizing for the entire region. Therefore, the United States, Pakistan, Iran, Russia, China and India all have a powerful incentive to support an inclusive, enduring peace settlement.

While outside powers are guilty of fueling the war, 40 years of almost nonstop conflict have left Afghanistan a shattered nation. Mistrust and divisions are so deep and raw that it may take a generation to fully heal the bitter ethnic and political fissures. Therefore, we believe a high-profile outside mediator should be named to facilitate negotiations. Equally important, armed peacekeeping troops, probably under UN aegis, should be deployed to make sure all parties adhere to the terms of the agreement.

The Obama administration tried direct negotiations with the Taliban in 2013. After the Taliban raised the flag of their former Islamic Emirate over their compound in Doha, then-President Hamid Karzai scuttled the talks. One lesson from that fiasco is the need for an experienced outside negotiator trusted by all parties.

Unprecedented opportunity for a negotiated peace settlement

U.S. executive branch officials have said time and again that there is no military solution to the war in Afghanistan, yet they continue to spend an estimated $45 billion a year on the war. In 2018, the U.S. dropped a record number of bombs on Afghanistan. The United Nations has documented that more civilians were killed in the Afghan war in 2018 than during any other year on record after nearly two decades of fighting. Civilian deaths jumped by 11 percent from 2017 with 3,804 people killed and another 7,189 wounded.

Afghan and international forces should move urgently to negotiate a ceasefire-in-place with the Taliban. A nationwide ceasefire would end the civilian and military bloodletting, build trust between the parties and allow them to work together to defeat ISIS, a bitter enemy of the Afghan government as well as the Taliban. 

A right and a wrong way to leave

Many Americans believe that the sooner the United States pulls our troops out of Afghanistan, the better. With little to show for the one-trillion-dollars spent and 2,400 American lives lost, their disillusionment is understandable. But a precipitous withdrawal would likely result in a replay of the 1996 civil war when Kabul was pummeled by competing warlords, paving the way for the Taliban to take over most of the country. Today the warlords are even more heavily armed, so another security vacuum would lead to an even bloodier civil war, which could open the country to ISIS and other terrorist groups. 

Moreover, there are many in the United States who would oppose including members of the Taliban in the Afghan government. The Taliban’s well-documented record of human rights abuses, involvement in the opium trade and their opposition to educating women all raise serious concerns about the willingness of the Taliban to make the compromises necessary to work with other members of the Afghan government. 

The Afghan government itself must take dramatic steps to curb the pervasive corruption that has fueled the insurgency. President Ghani made some initial moves to curb corruption, but Afghanistan still ranks as one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Administrative corruption erodes the effectiveness of chronically weak civilian government institutions. Over one-hundred-billion dollars of U.S. development aid has poured into Afghanistan in the past 18 years. The massive infusion of money has created a deeply ingrained culture of corruption and dependency.

Although the Taliban remain an undefeated military force, they have no more than 60,000 fighters deployed across a vast country of 35,000,000 people. Moreover, their brutality and religious fanaticism has alienated many Afghans, especially those living in urban areas. Most observers believe the Taliban have the support of no more than 20 percent of the Afghan population.

The Taliban are likely to insist that the United States and NATO withdraw all combat troops and abandon their remaining bases in Afghanistan within an agreed-upon time frame.  Having the UN or some other international body deploy armed peacekeeping troops from Muslim nations would ensure that neither party takes advantage of the security vacuum created by the departure of international forces. The long-term goal would be to integrate some of the Taliban fighters into a much smaller national army that Afghanistan could support with its own tax revenues. Today the budget of the Afghan security forces is two-and-one-half times total government revenues, which is not sustainable. 

At a conference in Moscow on the 9th of November 2018, in a prepared statement, Taliban representatives endorsed the need for an outside force to guarantee implementation of a peace agreement. “… the United Nations, major powers, members of the Islamic Conference and facilitating countries must guarantee implementation of the agreements.” 

The agreement should involve Afghan civil society and be comprehensive, which will make it much more likely to succeed. Data from the peace accord matrix maintained by the Kroc Institute at the University of Notre Dame indicate that 80 percent of comprehensive accords succeed.  

Once an agreement is reached, the United States should shift funding in Afghanistan from support for the war to far less costly funding for reconstruction and development. In order to build support in Afghanistan for a negotiated settlement of the war, the United States, European nations and Japan should commit to long-term budgetary support and development aid.

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