An Endgame in Afghanistan?

After nearly 17 years of seemingly interminable war in Afghanistan, we may be approaching a turning point. Today, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani made a bold peace proposal to the Taliban, Afghanistan’s former government and current insurgency. In the proposal, which was made unilaterally and without preconditions, the Afghan government in Kabul is offering to recognize the Taliban as a legitimate political entity, enforce a ceasefire across the country, release Taliban prisoners, remove sanctions from the group, and create for the Taliban a political office in the capital or another location. The government is even willing to review the country’s constitution as part of a peace deal. All of this would be granted to the Taliban, as long as they would recognize the current government of Afghanistan as legitimate and respect the nation’s rule of law.

For those who haven’t been following the increasingly dire situation in Afghanistan, this may seem like a lot to give away in exchange for a peaceful resolution to the long-running conflict. Given the initial US objective of ousting the Taliban and removing a terrorist safe haven, granting the Taliban political legitimacy could look like taking a loss in our nation’s longest-ever war. This is far from the truth of the situation. As many observers have noted in the past, the Taliban is both too strong to be militarily defeated and yet too weak to win the war outright. The current level of US forces in Afghanistan is 14,000, recently increased by 3,000 soldiers as declared by President Trump, but if this war was not winnable with the 140,000 troops sent in by President Obama back during the ‘surge’ in 2009, it is unlikely that a tenth of that number will do the trick. Since the drawdown of US & NATO forces began in 2011, the Taliban has only gained more territorial control in Afghanistan and has increasingly been carrying out large-scale deadly terrorist attacks throughout the country, including in the very heart of Kabul. This trend shows no signs of slowing down, and the Afghan central government is rapidly losing its claim on legitimacy and governance of the whole of the country.

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Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.      Image Credit: The Financial Express

There are multiple solutions that could be proposed to this intractable problem, but Ghani’s effort at a negotiated settlement is likely the best chance Afghanistan has at cementing some sort of durable peace. The Taliban has, in the past, rejected peace talks with the Afghan government, calling them a “puppet regime” of the US, and has stated that it will only engage directly with the US to seek an end to the conflict. This is not a workable solution, as it would directly undermine the Afghan government which the US and our allies have fought so hard to establish and promote. A peace process directly involving the leadership in Afghanistan itself is the only true way for all parties to resolve this conflict, as an agreement between the external forces in the country and the Taliban alone would leave many loose ends in terms of the nation’s long-term stability.

There are many reasons to push for a negotiated settlement to end the conflict in Afghanistan, besides practical considerations of whether military victory is possible or likely. As I stated above, the Afghan government is struggling to assert control of its territory, especially with the massive degree of centralization involved in the current system. Political corruption, as well as the inability to serve local needs, has robbed the central government of most of its power. The history of the Afghan people speaks to the need for decentralized governance and the strong regional and tribal affiliations within the populace do not mesh well with a non-responsive local government. These issues are eroding the government’s legitimacy from the inside, and only sweeping changes will be able to stabilize the government and allow the nation to be at peace. Without reform, whether that involves the Taliban or not, the Afghan government as currently constituted will not survive. And reform in a nation that is partially controlled by an insurgency will not work without either the cooperation of the insurgency or that insurgency’s total military defeat (a tall task, and one which is unlikely).

The Taliban of today is also not the Taliban that the US and allies attacked after the events of September 11, 2001. Although it still carries out plenty of deadly attacks within Afghanistan, the Taliban has largely sworn off providing safe harbor to external terrorist groups and in some cases in directly involved in fighting the so-called Islamic State organization that has sprouted up in the country. This change in strategy by the group may allow the US to safely push for a peace settlement involving the Taliban, understanding that the leadership has learned its lessons from the war and will no longer support terrorist groups which wish to do harm to other nations. This is obviously not something to fully trust the Taliban on, but assurances in the right direction are a sign of progress and willingness to have an Afghanistan that no longer provides a breeding ground for international terror.

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Taliban fighters in Afghanistan.     Image Credit: VOA News

As potential investment interest in the country increases, both sides will have more of an incentive to come to the table to talk peace. This is already being seen with the development and construction of a large gas pipeline in Afghanistan to send energy from Turkmenistan to India and other South Asian nations; the Taliban has repeatedly stated that it approves of the infrastructure project and will work to secure the pipeline construction in areas it controls. This pipeline is slated to cost nearly $10 billion and would generate significant government revenue from transit fees assessed (anywhere from $400 million to $1 billion annually have been reported), as well as providing the Afghan people with a reliable source of energy. Projects like this that could materially improve the well-being of Afghans across the country may lead to further cooperation between the central government and the Taliban, a step in the right direction. One would think that a durable peace in the country would allow significant new investment, as Afghanistan is a resource-rich nation that has largely failed to gain international investment due to internal conflict and insecurity.

Most of all, the citizens of Afghanistan deserve an end to this devastating conflict and should have the full support of the United States and our allies in negotiating a long-term peace. It is ultimately up to those people, who have suffered extreme losses of life and property, to determine whether bargaining with the Taliban in order to achieve a sustained peace is an option they are amenable to. Increasingly, it looks like this is something that Afghans would be willing to accept in order to broker and ensure a sustainable peace, both due to the current government’s own issues and the Taliban’s slight moderation of some of its earlier unpopular positions, such as now allowing education for girls and a more public role for women in general.

It is high time for the belligerents in this war to negotiate a peace, for the sake of the country as a whole. For an example of what this might end up looking like, one only has to look to another armed insurgent group that carried out terrorist attacks within its country for years: Colombia’s FARC. The government of that nation just last year ended the decades-long war with the FARC through a negotiated settlement that allows for demilitarization and inclusion in the political process. In the long run, this may end up working out poorly for Colombia, but the continuation of hundreds of thousands of deaths was ended with a peace that will hopefully be lasting. We can only hope for the same result in Afghanistan.

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