The Strategic Context
Afghanistan has been continuously at war since April 1978. The root causes of the current phase of this conflict include ethnic and religious differences, as well as strong support for the insurgents from Pakistan and individuals in other countries. Afghanistan remains economically and politically weak. Corruption and the narcotics enterprise are key problems that are intimately connected to this political weakness, as is the resulting insurgency. Each feeds off the other. Presidential elections are scheduled for the fall. A 3200-person national Loya Jirga conference on peace making is being held in in Kabul in April and May of 2019. There is significant interest in ending the war among the people, the government, and the Taliban as well.
Afghan National Security forces have led the war effort against the Taliban and international terrorist groups for the past five years, suffering significant casualties in the process. Some 45,000 Afghan soldiers and police officers have been killed in action since the fall of 2014. Since 2001, coalition economic and security assistance has been significant.
The Taliban forces are hard pressed but have proven resilient. Insurgent casualty figures are illusive, but they likely mirror those of Afghan forces. The Taliban have made gains on the battlefield in the last few years. Their support from Pakistan continues, and their fund-raising efforts from the narcotics enterprise and “charitable” donations are apparently adequate. Nationwide, 82 percent of Afghans have “no sympathy” for the Taliban, with a few non-Pashtun provinces registering near 100% disapproval of them.
In the last published U.S. Government (USG) estimates, the Afghan government controlled or influenced 64 percent of the population with 26% of the population classified as contested, and 11 percent under Taliban control or influence. In terms of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, the government controlled or influenced 54 percent of them, with 34 percent contested, and 12 percent under Taliban control or influence. The government controls the cities and the major road networks. The Taliban and local terrorists are capable of terrorist attacks in any part of the country, as well as episodic, local attacks on major roads and the lesser cities. The enemy has never been able to hold any city. On the ground, overall, the situation is a stalemate.
After 18 years of war, the Trump Administration has continued the coalition leadership role and has begun direct talks with the Taliban. While the Trump Administration has professed a conditions-based strategy, it is clearly eager to make peace and lessen the costs of U.S. commitment to Afghanistan. The President is reportedly not strongly bonded to the continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan and had to be talked into his new South Asia strategy with its added troops and emphasis on conditions-based policies.
In all the United States has lost nearly 2,400 men and women in Afghanistan, with another 20,000 wounded. Our coalition partners have lost another 1,145. Since 2001, U.S. actual expenditures in and for Afghanistan top one trillion dollars. Yearly U.S. expenditures are listed today at $45 billion dollars, but that amount does not all go to the war in Afghanistan due to problems in the composition of various accounts in the Department of Defense (DoD) budget.
It is in this environment that we began our study of making peace in Afghanistan. From January to April of this year, a National War College professor and eight student-combat veterans, Team 6031, met weekly to consider two subjects: the American experience in conflict termination, and the potential for ending the war in Afghanistan. The material that follows is not meant to provide negotiators a searchlight to guide their journey, but only a few, well-lit candles to draw the attention of interested observers to important, and sometimes overlooked issues. We make no claim to having a comprehensive solution to ending the war in Afghanistan, only a few well-considered thoughts on the process and its aftermath.
We have divided our observations on Afghanistan into those about ending wars in general, U.S. objectives, negotiating peace in alternative formats, and creating the infrastructure and policy for future development and the maintenance of peace.
The American Way of Ending Wars
Our study of how the United States has ended wars was full of lessons. The process is difficult, hazardous, and, U.S. officials have generally not been good at it. With the exception of World War II, the United States has had little success in the last seven decades in ending wars effectively and efficiently.
In the Korean War, the United Nations command argued for years over the disposition of prisoners of war. In both the Korean and the Vietnam Wars, we pushed our allies to the back of the bus and never treated them as full partners. In the former case, our ally broke ranks on the handling of prisoners of war.
In Vietnam, we forced our ally to agree to the presence of strong enemy forces in South Vietnam. In extremis, the United States promised to come to Saigon’s aid, but U.S. domestic politics intruded. In 1975, we failed to come to South Vietnam’s aid. Congressionally mandated cuts to U.S. security assistance weakened the South’s artillery and air forces. South Vietnam had 800,000 soldiers in the field. They were defeated first, by the combined efforts of a massive Chinese and Russian security assistance effort, and then, by a Soviet-style, conventional attack by the powerful North Vietnamese army. While the peace in Korea held, the war in Vietnam ended in defeat for the South Vietnam and the United States. The image of U.S. and allied personnel being evacuated by helicopters from a building on the US embassy compound remains a symbol of the failure of our war termination efforts there.
In the first Gulf War, rapid success on the battlefield left our military negotiators without clear instructions. General Schwarzkopf had to make important decisions on the spot. The United States encouraged revolt in the south of Iraq but did not back it up. Later, U.S. soldiers and marines under then-LTG John Shalikashvili had to intervene to protect the Kurds in the northern part of the country from further ravages by Saddam’s forces. Better post-conflict planning could have prevented both of these tragedies.
After the tumultuous second Gulf War, having successfully defeated and dispersed the remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the U.S. laissez faire policy toward the Maliki government enabled the Iraqis to drift and the leadership of their armed forces to decay. In 2014, a few thousand ISIS fighters defeated Iraqi forces and seized about one-third of Iraq, requiring subsequent coalition operations to eject them. An operational victory fell apart in the post-conflict diplomacy and administration. Letting Maliki be Maliki failed.
If there are central lessons in all of our post-World War II efforts to end local wars, they would be the need to proceed carefully, keep the coalition intact, and prepare for a long drawn out process. In some cases, significant post-conflict expenditures and a residual troop presence were necessary. Our nation’s historic impatience and the need to make domestic political gains at the expense of foreign affairs hurt our negotiators in every conflict termination scenario. Most importantly, the U.S. must avoid an exit strategy where the focus quickly shifts to the exit and not the strategy. To keep the strategy up front, the United States must be guided by its objectives in the mid- to long-term.
Political Objectives in Afghanistan
In the speech announcing his new South Asia Strategy, President Trump said in August 2017 that the “nation must seek an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made, especially the sacrifices of lives.” He noted that:
the consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable. 9/11, the worst terrorist attack in our history, was planned and directed from Afghanistan because that country was ruled by a government that gave comfort, shelter, and support to terrorists. A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum that terrorists, including ISIS and al Qaeda, would instantly fill, just as happened before September 11th.
The President concluded that “today, 20 U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan — the highest concentration in any region anywhere in the world.” Finally, the President took Pakistan to task for supporting the Taliban and other “agents of chaos, violence, and terror.
President Trump declared that “in Afghanistan and Pakistan, America’s interests are clear: we must stop the resurgence of safe havens that enable terrorists to threaten America, and we must prevent nuclear weapons and materials from coming into the hands of terrorists and being used against us, or anywhere in the world for that matter.” The President also declared that our integrated strategy would be conditions-based, and not one guided by “arbitrary timelines.” He pledged to work with the government of Afghanistan “as long as we see determination and progress.”
Our current goal is not a negotiated settlement. A negotiated settlement is a way to an end, not an end in itself. To stop a resurgence of safe havens that enable an attack against the homeland, the overall goal in Afghanistan, we must also have subordinate objectives that guide both the continuing conduct of the war and our negotiating strategy. Traditionally, those objectives include adequate support for the recognized, legal government of Afghanistan, significant aid to its armed forces, and, in extremis, the prevention of the overthrow of the recognized, legally-constituted government of Afghanistan. A full, short-term withdrawal of all US forces, a Taliban demand, will be hard but not impossible to square with these objectives.
Our objectives must also include support for basic human rights, and in particular, the political, economic, and social rights of Afghan women. The abysmal state of women within Afghanistan under Taliban rule prior to 9/11 has been well documented. Under the Taliban government, education for girls over the age of eight was banned, employment outside the home essentially forbidden, healthcare was greatly limited and movement was restricted. Following the fall of the Taliban, the Government of Afghanistan with the help of the coalition generated significant initiatives with respect to women’s rights and opportunities. Extensive legal protections have been enshrined in law. The 2004 constitution extends equality to women. The Afghan Civil Code provides rights for women to inherit or own property, sets the minimum age for marriage, and codifies a woman’s right to choose her partner or to initiate marital separation. Legislation protects a women’s right to vote.
U.S. objectives should include protecting the progress that is most evident in the areas of health and education. “The key advances for women in the health sector since 2005 include: a lower maternal mortality ratio; a lower fertility rate; an increase in qualified female health professionals; and a far wider network of health facilities capable of providing reproductive healthcare.” Female enrollment in public schools has gone from essentially zero in 2000 to three million, with a 15% increase in the literacy rate. Afghan public opinion towards female education has also improved, with over 80% of the population supporting the concept. Significant gains have also been made with respect to employment and participation in the political process.
The gains, however, have been uneven. Significant regional variation in treatment of women exists and legally enshrined rights are not always granted in practice. The attitude of the Taliban and their supporters is mixed, to say the least. Overall, Afghanistan remains a challenging environment for women, certainly among the worst states globally. This is tragic, not only for human rights but also for modernization and economic development.
The impact of female empowerment on state stability and economic progress is well documented. Improving female education status brings a wide range of benefits: increased standards of living and overall economic growth, improved maternal and child health, decreased population growth and early child bearing, as well as increased social capital. Overall, female empowerment, “contributes to reducing income inequality and boosting economic diversification and, in turn, supports economic resilience.”
A McKinsey report from 2015 found that by achieving parity between male and females worldwide, global gross domestic product could be increased by 28 trillion dollars. Finally, female achievement has been linked to a decrease in intra and inter-state violence.
Overall, creating a positive environment for women launches a reinforcing cycle of increased health, greater economic growth, and decreased violence. Afghanistan is clearly in dire need of this virtuous cycle; “backsliding on gender equality in Afghanistan would undermine the security, stability, and development of a country in which both the U.S. and Afghan governments have made significant investments.” The question then turns to how does this evidence relate to what actions are necessary within the peace process to ensure forward movement with respect to women’s rights.
While women’s rights support themselves politically and economically, they also offer significant leverage over the Taliban. Human rights symbolize to the world the changes in Afghanistan over the last two decades. The more the Taliban tout their new, progressive views toward women, the more they appear reasonable and acceptable, but, at the same time, they indict their disastrous rule of the country (1996-2001) and sow discord among their more traditional rank-and-file. If the Taliban suggest back-tracking on human rights, they build resistance among progressive Afghans and Americans who recognize the revolutionary effects of the explosion of human rights in Afghanistan that came with the 2004 Constitution. The improvement of women’s rights in Afghanistan is a major accomplishment of Afghan and coalition efforts. It is a lever for our side in any negotiated settlement. Women’s rights are human rights, and the preservation of these rights deserves a prominent place in U.S. strategy.
How to Negotiate a Peace: Other Options
At present, US negotiators under Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad are pursuing direct talks with the Taliban, who refuse to sit down with what they call the “puppet government” in Kabul. This obviously has produced tensions between Kabul and Washington. Indeed, our direct negotiations with the Taliban appear to give credence to the Taliban slander of the Kabul government. If any party here is a puppet, it is the Taliban, who are dependent on Pakistan. Direct negotiations have also created a tension between talking with the enemy and the likelihood of elections this fall without Taliban participation.
Team 6031 was not in a position to evaluate these talks, which by definition must remain confidential. We salute Ambassador Khalilzad and his team. We wish them all possible success, but in the meantime, the United States should also be wary of Taliban perfidy and attempts to find ways to gain leverage on the battlefield. Clearly, if we are risking so much to talk with them, we should insist on an immediate, nationwide ceasefire. On our side, if necessary, we can gain leverage by continuing to pressure Pakistan, raising aid to the government in Kabul, and making more vigorous use of the military instrument. If the Taliban become recalcitrant, absent a ceasefire, we should consider escalation on the battlefield and its safe havens in Pakistan.
If the direct approach fails, we could adopt a regional approach, involving the United Nations, the Taliban, the Government of Afghanistan (GoA), Iran, Pakistan, and possibly India and China for balance. This sextet could meet in the region. Other potential members could be Afghanistan’s neighbors to the north, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan. A smaller forum might include only the Taliban, the GoA, Pakistan, and the United States. Such a forum could get regional buy-in and let the participants build coalitions and solicit aid from sponsors to achieve results.
Regardless of the exact forum, the United Nations could be a great addition. The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has been in-country since 2001 and has a significant degree of support among the Afghan population. On the other hand, it also has enemies, especially among the Taliban. UNAMA may well provide its biggest contribution after the outline of a peace agreement has been completed. For example, it could provide a small peacekeeping force to secure the government or the capital, or supervise the inevitable processes surrounding Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR), discussed below.
If negotiations fail or are too slow to reach an agreement, another way to make peace is to create peace on the ground in certain districts or provinces, and, over time, let local ceasefires and potentially, power sharing arrangements spread to neighboring areas. Two analysts noted the possibilities for such local initiatives
To wait for the grand bargain may be to foreclose on a far more likely path to peace in Afghanistan: peace in pieces. If peace is to come to Afghanistan, it is most likely to come one village at a time, one district at a time, and one province at a time; like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, set in place one at a time. Reconciliation among Afghans is the ultimate goal but may be a bridge way too far to depend on. Reconciliation, when it succeeds at all, is a process that unfolds in phases over time; often over a very long time. A more realistic goal for the coalition and for Afghanistan is nonviolent coexistence. But with the recalcitrant Taliban and recent infiltration of the Islamic State, even that seems ambitious.
One good feature of a peace in pieces approach is that it builds on the all-important local dynamics in Afghanistan. Provinces under ceasefire could attract more local funds from World Bank programs, and support from Kabul. They would also need unobtrusive coalition protection. Less gunfire and more jobs would increase the attractiveness of areas that have local ceasefires. A peace in pieces approach can come before or after a peace agreement, or serve as an interim solution while an international process is being developed
A New Strategic Narrative
Strategic communications remain a significant challenge to the implementation of any policy recommendations related to the peace process in Afghanistan. Unless the U.S. is willing to increase its military or economic commitments in the region, the information instrument of national power will have to help break the stalemate and encourage the parties to cooperate. The primary challenge facing the U.S. is the lack of any strategic American narrative articulating its dual commitment to both the peace process and the survival of the Afghan government. The absence of such a narrative encourages speculation that the United States is not committed to sustaining long-term support to the Afghan government and other U.S. strategic objectives.
This has led several U.S. commentators to equate the current peace process, which appears to exclude the Afghan government, with U.S. capitulation. In addition, the U.S. population’s relative indifference to continued military operations in Afghanistan is a significant impediment to a negotiated settlement. While the population’s lack of engagement with the issue provides the U.S. with freedom of action to pursue its policy preferences, it also denies the U.S. bargaining leverage. Specifically, the U.S. is unable use public sentiment to send the costly signals that enable coercive diplomacy. This is exacerbated by media coverage of the war that focuses attention on negative developments for the United States and its allies. From a strategic communications perspective, these are complicating informational conditions to support a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan.
Resolving this strategic communications challenge would require the U.S. government to execute a disciplined communications process that maximizes the impact of Presidential tweets and public statements, public diplomacy, military public affairs, and information operations. Such a process would synchronize the information instrument with the diplomatic and the military instruments, helping the United States to accomplish its long-term objectives.
The U.S. currently lacks mechanisms for effective interagency coordination of its communications about its national security policy. To synchronize and coordinate its use of information, Washington should designate a National Security Council official to lead a policy coordinating committee to coordinate and synchronize U.S. government communications. Alternatively, the Administration could designate a lead executive department to fulfil those functions.
The U.S. government must then use these new mechanisms to inform both international and domestic audiences of U.S. commitment not only to the peace process but also to the sustained support to the Afghan government to ensure that the Taliban will never again have the resources necessary to take Kabul. This will require the Trump Administration to rally the American public behind the peace process.
While this may prove especially difficult given where the U.S. is in the election cycle, such a display of Presidential fortitude would send a strong international and domestic signal of America’s dual commitment to both the peace process and the Afghan government. Most importantly, the U.S. must then back-up Presidential action to rally the American public with sustained communications to key audiences in the region. The U.S. must ensure that as the administration increases U.S. resolve domestically, evidence of that resolve becomes more visible on the ground in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
After Peace is Made
U.S., UN, Afghan government, and NATO planners should be working overtime to plan for what needs to be done after a peace is signed. Team 6031 saw no indication that such a planning effort was underway, except informally at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). Among the key, post-conflict tasks will be the administration of the peace, which might be assigned on UNAMA or an ad hoc international consortium of interested regional powers. A second consideration might be fund raising to support the peace process and transition current international aid programs. A third consideration would be the urgent need to address the narcotics problem in Afghanistan. Finally, there may be a role for an international peace keeping force or armed monitors to supervise the ceasefire and to work with cadres who are working on DDR, the fourth task.
DDR will be critical, and employment may be the toughest part. Jobs are scarce. As one observer noted,
Employment opportunities vary by district and province following the pattern of rural or urban development. More Afghans desire the employment opportunities that complement the strides made in education, the prevention of infant mortality, and increased life expectancy. The Taliban should be prepared for a job market that is fragile at best. A former Taliban commander may find himself as part of a construction crew refurbishing the very buildings he had damaged or repairing the same stretch of road where he had previously collected illegal taxes.
Some members of the Taliban might be a good fit for service in the security forces. Integrating a Talib into the security forces would be a challenge but could have some positive side effects, especially if it helped to curb corruption. At the same time, if a ceasefire holds and peace takes root, the government will want to reduce security forces to save money. It may well be prudent, however, for foreign donors to fund larger-than-required security establishment for a few years after peace takes hold in order to help transition Taliban fighters.
Past efforts at DDR may hold valuable lessons to inform our efforts and determine an appropriate way ahead for Afghanistan:
As Dee Dee Derksen outlines in her study of the history of DDR efforts in Afghanistan there are three important lessons to be learned. First, it is crucial to provide the necessary intelligence support to map the armed groups to inform the process. Second, there must be effective assessments of labor markets to make appropriate determinations regarding capacity, and types of employment available for reintegration. This effort should also inform any necessary training programs that should be put in place. Finally, there must be development of effective incentives that facilitate DDR without creating alternative markets, as has been the case with weapons buy-back programs.
Additionally, various sources suggest that there are at least ten key elements of an effective DDR program in Afghanistan.
It needs to be a part of the negotiated political settlement.
It must be developed for the unique aspects of the Afghan human terrain, and in recognition of Afghanistan’s historical and cultural context.
The program needs to be owned by the Afghan government.
It needs to be based on binding legal agreements that deal with the issues of amnesty, and consequences for those who return to violence.
It must include all armed groups within Afghanistan.
There must be effective measurable metrics that are not solely based on the number of participants, but also include changes in the security situation for average people.
There must be credible assurances backed by local leaders that the government will meet its obligations under the program.
Participants must sign a pledge witnessed and affirmed by local leadership to reinforce long-term compliance.
Participants must submit to biometric collection to aid with enforcement.
The program, to include reintegration, must be effectively funded by external actors.
It is difficult to chart the way ahead to accomplish our objectives and end the fighting in Afghanistan. While war weariness is clearly a factor for all concerned, the war could conceivably continue at this level for some years. The United States is not in a perilous position. It does not have to “cut and run,” nor has the war taken a drastic turn for the worst. Although both are hurting, neither side is desperate. Moreover, there is no equivalent of a North Vietnamese Army that could bring about a decisive military victory for the Taliban. Peace is clearly in the interest of all parties; all concerned have given mightily to this war. Today, time is on the side of the United States and its allies, if we choose to use it. For the United States, the key recommendations that stand out from this study are:
First, to remain patient and guided by long term objectives.
Second, to march in lockstep with its Afghan and coalition partners.
Third, to keep pressure on Pakistan to make peace and encourage Iran, India, China and Russia to play constructive roles.
Fourth, to seek a nationwide ceasefire as soon as possible.
Fifth, to accelerate interagency and coalition planning for post-conflict Afghanistan, and
Finally, to craft a new strategic narrative to convince friends and foe alike that the United States is in Afghanistan not just for a temporary peace or a “decent interval,” but also to accomplish its long-term strategic objectives.
About the Authors: Team 6031 consists of Dr. Joseph Collins of the National War College faculty, the coordinating author of this article; Army COLs Charles Hornick, Justin Reese, Matthew Sheiffer; Army LTCs Chad Froehlich and Karen Radka; Marine LtCol Erick Clark; Navy Commander Lloyd Edwards; and Navy Medical Corps Captain Frank Mullens. Questions or enquiries should be directed to JosephCollins22@gmail.com.
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