In Afghanistan, all we are saying is ‘give peace a chance’
When I retired from the Foreign Service in 2017 after more than 31 years there, I taught conflict resolution to graduate students at the University of Washington in Seattle. My course used case studies from recent history to teach students what makes some peace efforts succeed and others fail.
One lesson was that when peace talks take time, they are more likely to lead to an enduring peace. But peace fails when a third party forces the two sides to reach agreement before they have hammered out all the details that make peace work. I used to joke with my students that one way to predict an enduring peace is to count the number of annexes to a peace agreement. More annexes mean more details resolved — and a greater chance of success.
In El Salvador and Guatemala, peace talks in the 1990s lasted more than two years and included agreements for resolving difficult issues. These agreements have stood the test of time because they were comprehensive. By contrast, peace talks in Angola, Chad, Rwanda and Sri Lanka were rushed to conclusion by a third party, and the written agreements were forgotten when the ceasefires failed.
I failed at retirement but didn’t want to rejoin the government. Instead, I returned overseas, and have been the country director for International Medical Corps in Afghanistan for the last year and a half.
Since I’ve been back, the U.S. and the Taliban signed an agreement to withdraw American troops, and the Afghan government and the Taliban started direct peace talks in Doha. The news that the U.S. and NATO would withdraw their remaining troops by 9/11 is much more than a headline when you live here.
Like nearly all Afghans, I have high hopes that the process launched late last year in Doha will lead to a lasting peace. Yet the talks are off to a rocky start, and there likely will be more drama and delay.
My worry is that the U.S. will push the parties to reach agreement before 9/11, to silence critics of the decision to withdraw remaining troops by then.
As my former students will tell you, quick agreements don’t hold. In “Peace Negotiations and Time,” Marco Pinfari analyzed 68 post-Cold War peace negotiations and found that the absence of time pressure led to durable peace agreements, especially for complex negotiations. If the peace doesn’t hold and lawlessness returns to Afghanistan, the U.S. and NATO could face another serious risk to our national security.
My advice to the Biden administration is simple: give peace a chance. Let the parties in Doha do their job, however long it takes. Let the United Nations mediate and support the process. Don’t overreact when drama sets in and one party or the other walks away. If the U.S. and the other powers leave them alone, history shows they will return and start talking again. Give them the time and space to negotiate the annexes that will resolve the tough issues on which any lasting peace depends. Don’t take shortcuts for political expediency. Afghanistan and the world could pay again in the long term.
Some will scoff and predict the Taliban will walk away from the talks when the last troops depart. They may be right; it’s very hard to read the Taliban’s intent right now. But if the U.S. and other countries encourage them to take the peace talks seriously and don’t interfere — even if the talks stall — we will learn a lot about the Taliban’s real aims for the future of Afghanistan. If we rush the process to get to an agreement too fast, it will be much easier for the Taliban to play along and hide their real strategy. Keep the pressure on the Taliban to take the talks seriously — including all the tough issues that must be resolved for the peace to hold. It’s our best strategy to avoid Afghanistan’s collapse.
A rushed peace is no peace. Let’s help the parties in Doha tackle all the roadblocks to a lasting peace, even when the process seems painfully slow. We don’t need another premature “Mission Accomplished.” In one of America’s final acts in Afghanistan, let’s give peace a chance.
Mark Ward is a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer and currently country director for the International Medical Corps in Afghanistan. He is thankful to University of Washington PhD candidate Lucas Olson for providing research behind this opinion.