The New York Times reported last week that U.S. officials are abandoning hopes of a peace settlement in Afghanistan. If true this spells disaster for the Afghan people and defeat for the American war effort.
It’s hard to know which is more tragic—the apparent U.S. decision to reject the strategy of peace, or the naïve and unrealistic basis upon which that strategy was initially based. U.S. officials believed that the military surge of 2009-2010 would batter the Taliban into accepting a ‘reconciliation’ process that essentially meant surrendering to the Kabul regime. That strategy was doomed from the outset and obviously has not worked. Insurgent forces remain strong and continue to exert influence and cause insecurity in many parts of the country.
The apparent strategy now is to let the Afghan government and the insurgents fight it out among themselves. The hope is that the Kabul regime will somehow prevail. That strategy seems equally doomed to failure. If the Kabul government could not defeat the insurgents with the backing of nearly 100,000 U.S. troops and tens of thousands of additional foreign forces, how will it succeed when most of those forces are gone?
The Pentagon is planning to keep ten to twenty thousand U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond 2014 to help prop up the Kabul regime, but it is unlikely such an approach will succeed when a much more robust force has failed. How long will Congress and the public support keeping U.S. troops in harm’s way for what is obviously an impossible mission?
The likelihood of the Kabul regime and the insurgents reaching a peace agreement on their own is very low. Research on peace agreements in other countries at war shows that the success of negotiation depends upon multinational support, usually led by the UN.
Rather than consigning Afghanistan to continuous war, the U.S. and its allies should pursue a multilateral peace strategy. Work to achieve a ceasefire, appoint a UN-led team of senior mediators to support negotiations both nationally and in Afghanistan’s fractious geopolitical neighborhood, and pledge financial and political support for the resulting negotiated agreement. That may be the only way to save the Afghan people from a grim fate and salvage at least some positive outcome from the long U.S. intervention.