Ending the war with a sustainable peace agreement

Only a true government of national unity can avert another catastrophic civil war like the one that leveled entire neighborhoods in Kabul in 1996 and killed an estimated 100,000 Afghans.

Intra-Afghan negotiations must start with a blank sheet of paper and be led by the United Nations. The chasm between the Afghan government and the Taliban is huge. Jean Arnault, who was appointed by the UN secretary general, should be given a mandate to help the Afghan government and the Taliban hammer out a peace agreement that provides for an interim government and a timetable for the demobilization of the Taliban’s fighters and most of the Afghan government’s security forces, including militias. After a peace agreement is signed, the UN will have to launch a nationwide initiative to disarm, demobilize and retrain tens-of-thousands of Taliban, government and irregular forces as well as a program funded by the international community to buy back and destroy millions of weapons that have flooded into Afghanistan over the past four decades.

Moreover, peace-keeping troops may be needed to prevent a security vacuum once western troops are withdrawn. 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.” 

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 begin to heal the bitter ethnic and political fissures

The Afghan government is an artificial construct dependent on western aid, largely from the United States, for three-quarters of its budget. Moreover, it is a government backed by warlords who have grown fabulously rich from industrial-level theft of foreign aid and, in many cases, income from Afghanistan’s flourishing drug trade. They emphasize that the gains of the last 19 years must not be sacrificed in an agreement with the Taliban, but the gains the warlords seem most concerned about are the riches they have amassed, not the rights of women, and certainly not the welfare of the poor. Indeed, today a far greater percentage of Afghans live below the UN poverty level of $1.20 a day than in 2001, when the United States first invaded Afghanistan.

The warlords are going to have to decide how they want to leave Afghanistan; by regularly-scheduled flights out of the Kabul airport or scrambling onto helicopters from the roof of the U.S. embassy. It is hard to believe that a notorious warlord like Abdul Rashid Dostum would be able to continue living in a country where the Taliban are part of the government and security forces.

Afghanistan has a narrow and rapidly closing window to avert a civil war, and it can only happen if the Afghan government and their western allies urgently come to terms with the new reality created by the impending withdrawal of western troops.

Intra-Afghan negotiations are certain to be protracted and contentious, but all parties agree that only a political settlement can bring peace to Afghanistan. In addition to representatives of the Afghan government and the Taliban, the negotiations should involve Afghan civil society, including women and young people, and must be comprehensive, which would make a final peace agreement 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.  

In order to build support in Afghanistan for a negotiated settlement of the war, the Biden administration as well as our European and Japanese allies should commit to long-term budgetary support and development aid.

Successful implementation of a peace agreement in Afghanistan could serve as a template for resolving other seemingly-intractable conflicts in the Middle East and northern Africa.

Achieving an enduring peace agreement