A fresh approach to peace in Afghanistan
An effective peace process is possible and desirable in Afghanistan. Success, however, will require a careful, step-by-step course to test bona fides, build confidence, reduce violence and encourage the difficult negotiations in which Afghans themselves determine the political future of Afghanistan.
U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad has been working to re-engage the peace process in visits to the region, in meetings with international players, and in fostering the just completed detainee swap — two kidnapped professors from American University of Afghanistan in exchange for three Taliban prisoners in Afghan government custody.
The detainee release is a welcome sign that the Afghan government and the Taliban are interested in continuing efforts toward peace, and it signals hope for a fresh approach to confidence-building. However, the complicated process to accomplish the swap and the finger-pointing along the way underscore the serious challenges to seeking an end to the 40-year war in Afghanistan and the 18 years of major U.S. engagement.
Earlier approaches pursued by the Obama and Trump administrations were based on rational analysis of how to get the parties to the table. Efforts starting in 2010 sought to enact a difficult set of confidence-building measures to convince the Taliban to meet with the Afghan government. After a sequence of actions was agreed between the Americans and the Taliban, Afghan President Hamid Karzai objected that his officials must meet with the Taliban before other measures took place. That scuttled the process for over a year.
In 2013, an effort was made to achieve progress by opening a Taliban political office in Doha. The U.S. assured the Afghan government that the Taliban office would not look like an embassy or use the name “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.” When the Taliban staged an ostentatious opening ceremony that violated these assurances, Karzai was outraged, having already suspected American motives, and progress was halted.
During these negotiations the Afghan government, at Taliban insistence, was sidelined. In response, rumors swirled in Kabul that Khalilzad hoped to create an interim government, with Afghanistan’s national security adviser making public accusations against Khalilzad. Talks seemed frequently punctuated by mass-casualty Taliban attacks. Yet, after nine rounds, negotiators crafted a deal in which the Taliban offered assurances on counterterrorism and an agreement to begin peace talks with the Afghan government in return for U.S. military withdrawal. The agreement still needed approval by the U.S. and Taliban leadership.
President Trump invited the Taliban to Camp David to ink the accord and begin their talks with the Afghan government. When Taliban attacks killed a U.S. soldier, however, President Trump canceled the process. Relief in Washington and Kabul was palpable among those who doubted the agreement would lead to serious Afghan-to-Afghan peace talks. Since then, fighting has intensified and casualties have increased.
This difficult history illustrates what behavioral scientists well know — that when the stakes are so high, decisions are often based more on emotion than objectivity. Afghans have been at war for over 40 years. Hundreds of thousands have died. Emotional scars run deep.
Confirmation-bias entrenches viewpoints. For those fearful of the Taliban, statements attributed to Taliban commanders about defeating the Afghan government and denying women’s rights carry more weight than Taliban official statements about counterterrorism, human rights and peace. Those favoring a rapid peace process tend to draw opposite conclusions. Reasoning does not easily change minds.
To enhance chances for success, a peace process must account for the animosity and mistrust. The United States should make clear that Afghanistan’s future must be decided by Afghans alone and that there will be no separate U.S. peace with the Taliban. It is important to recognize that the Afghan government perceives that it has the most to lose. Requiring large concessions from them is likely to spark unrealistic demands for the Taliban.
The U.S. approach needs to test credibility and build trust via a step-by-step process, and, if successful, work toward reductions in violence and toward Afghan political negotiations. Efforts may best advance by initially pursuing simple measures that do not require large concessions and building from there. These could include coordinated statements of peace principles, shared disaster hotlines, joint civilian casualty investigations, etc. If the Taliban fail to partake in such steps, then the futility of additional efforts will be clear. Both sides need to demonstrate and build credibility, however.
As each party meets initial credibility tests, the confidence-building measures should gradually increase in specificity and tangible action. When problems occur, there can be a return to simpler measures. The key is that each party make and keep credible commitments, while working toward direct Afghan government participation and a sustainable peace agreement.
Success in this process should build momentum toward violence reduction. Reduction of violence could begin with time-limited restrictions on military activities — a temporary local ceasefire for polio vaccinations, for example — and work toward commitments that are larger in scope and duration, to include a general ceasefire.
The vital process of political negotiations should overlap these efforts. Informal intra-Afghan dialogues, such as the one convened in Doha in July 2019, should continue and deepen, while the other confidence-building steps are under way. The more Afghans discuss their political future, the more realistic political negotiations become. The support of neighboring and partner countries in encouraging and hosting dialogues will be vital. U.S. envoy Khalilzad has been working to rally international engagement, just as he fostered the detainee swap.
This work can continue with fresh vigor fueled by the releases, but it will take time. Building trust will not come easily, and it will need to continue after any agreement is reached.
One can deeply empathize with Afghans who want to live peaceful lives, U.S. veterans who want the war to end, humanitarians who want to protect gains in human rights, Americans who want U.S. troops home, and security experts who seek counterterrorism certainties.
A step-by-step trust-building process has been more successful in past conflicts than have secret, elite deals. This approach could enable President Trump to responsibly end the seemingly “endless” war in Afghanistan.
Ambassador (Ret.) Earl Anthony Wayne served at the U.S. embassy in Kabul from 2009-11. He is a Distinguished Diplomat in Residence at American University’s School of International Service and writes on Afghanistan and other topics from the Wilson Center and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Col. (Ret.) Christopher D. Kolenda, Ph.D., commanded American troops in eastern Afghanistan and served as the secretary of Defense’s representative in the 2010-3 talks with the Taliban. He is an adjunct senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security.