Afghanistan: War or Peace?

President Obama claims that the war in Afghanistan is ending, which is partly true for American forces, but for the Afghan people, the fighting continues and is intensifying. In 2013 nearly 3,000 Afghan civilians died, one of the highest totals of the 13-year war. Casualties among Afghan army and police forces are at record levels. So far during the war, more than 13,000 members of the Afghan security forces have lost their lives. Most of these deaths have occurred in the last three years, according to a New York Times analysis.

After 13 years of armed conflict, Afghanistan urgently needs a plan for ending the war and achieving a negotiated political settlement. Instead the United States is planning for what critics have called another decade of war. The recently signed Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) between Washington and Kabul calls for keeping 10,000 U.S. troops and an additional 2,000 NATO troops on the ground in Afghanistan for up to ten years. The mission of these troops will focus on training Afghan security forces, but U.S. troops will also be involved in ‘counterterrorism operations,’ which are commando missions and night raids against alleged terrorists that have aroused resentment among Afghan civilians.

The BSA calls for U.S. forces to have an ‘advising’ role, which means American officers will continue to guide Afghan combat missions. The agreement maintains the U.S. bombing raids and drone strikes that have caused civilian casualties and provided fodder for Taliban recruiters.

Rather than continuing to focus on military solutions, the Obama administration should pursue a diplomatic strategy to end the war. The inauguration of President Ashraf Ghani and the creation of a unity government in Kabul may provide an opportunity for progress in long-delayed and so-far unsuccessful efforts to establish political dialogue with the Taliban and other insurgent groups. The International Crisis Group has called upon the UN Security Council and Secretary-General to create a team of high level international mediators to bring together all major Afghan stakeholders in a negotiated political agreement that seeks to end the conflict.

The proposed diplomatic initiative could be part of a renewed UN mission in Afghanistan. The new mission would retain many of the humanitarian, development, and election support programs of the current mission, but would differ in adding the explicit goal of ending the war and fostering post-conflict stability. It would be charged with hosting multi-level negotiations and preparing for the implementation of the ensuing agreement. This would include the development and deployment of a neutral third-party peacekeeping force, which would be needed to help enforce the peace agreement and provide support for what is bound to be a difficult political and security transition.

After 13 years of fruitless and costly war in Afghanistan it is long past time to give peace a chance.

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