The important question nobody is asking about the US defeat in Afghanistan

The important question nobody is asking about the US defeat in Afghanistan
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In liberal circles, the stunning Taliban victory in Afghanistan has provoked belated recognition that America’s costly “nation-building” venture was unrealizable. At the same time, many conservatives are expressing fear that the abrupt U.S. military withdrawal will increase the threat from jihadist terrorism. But neither side has inquired about an alternative policy that could have better protected both U.S. and Afghan interests. That would have been pursuit of a third party-mediated, internationally-supervised, compromise political and military settlement — one based on ground-level realities, leavened with as much justice and accountability as could have been achieved. 

The desirability of and potential for such a political solution to the long-running military stalemate had been emphasized for more than a decade by the three leading international scholars of Afghan politics and the Taliban: Barnett Rubin, Gilles Dorronsoro and Antonio Giustozzi.

Such a resolution in Afghanistan would have looked nothing like the skimpy three-and-a-half-page agreement signed by former President TrumpDonald TrumpBaldwin calls Trump criticism following 'Rust' shooting 'surreal' Haley hits the stump in South Carolina Mary Trump files to dismiss Trump's lawsuit over NYT tax story MORE and the Taliban in February 2020. Absent from that document were the key ingredients of third-party mediation, international supervision and mechanisms for addressing the main political issues dividing Afghans.


This was the “standard international treatment regime” developed to treat civil wars at the end of the Cold War. America, under both Republican and Democratic presidents, was strongly involved in the successful achievement of negotiated settlements of 10 multi-year civil wars between 1989 and 2005: in Bosnia, Burundi, Cambodia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mozambique, Nicaragua, Northern Ireland and Sudan. Several of these struggles were more lethal than the one in Afghanistan. Each conflict attracted a prime mediator — a regional organization, the United Nations, the United States, even a lay Catholic group — assisted by various governments.

Deploying professional conflict resolution skills and mobilizing diplomatic “carrots and sticks,” mediators worked with the contending parties and their external supporters to fashion often ingenious political compromises. Generally, these settlements included new or revised constitutions, democratic elections, military demobilization and integration, and the return of refugees. They also contained transition periods during which international and civilian forces provided security and supervised implementation.  

While some of these accords have been subject to strain and modification, none of the countries concerned has slid into a new civil war. To be sure, there were a few failed agreements — notably in Rwanda, Darfur Province of Sudan and Angola — but these were largely attributable to weaknesses in the plans themselves and insufficient external backing for their implementation.

From a broader perspective, U.S. policymakers’ failure to pursue a negotiated political settlement in Afghanistan was part and parcel of their remarkable forgetting of post-Cold War peace processes. This amnesia — amid post- 9/11 fears of Islamist terrorism, transient enthusiasm for the democratic promise of the “Arab Spring,” and growing distrust of Iran and Russia — helped produce major U.S. foreign policy losses and unfathomable human suffering. This was the case even where the U.S. relied on air strikes, CIA covert action and military assistance to partners instead of combat troops as in Afghanistan.

Thus, in Libya, wishful thinking about “pro-Western” challengers to dictator Moammar Gadhafi led the U.S. and NATO to pursue “regime change” via air strikes, spurning a promising African Union effort to promote a negotiated settlement. The outcome was Gadhafi’s overthrow and a boost for jihadist terrorism (remember Benghazi?), recurrent civil war inviting multiple foreign interventions and an outflow of arms and Islamists that fueled conflicts in several neighboring African countries. In Syria, U.S. and allied covert military aid to “moderate” rebels was effectively countered by increased Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah aid to dictator Bashar al-Assad.  

Refusing to prioritize U.N- sponsored peace negotiations, the U.S. contributed to monumental Syrian war casualties, a massive refugee outflow that strengthened the anti-democratic right in Europe and heightened tension with Russia and Iran. American military support for Saudi Arabia, as it intervened in the complex civil war in Yemen, sapped energy from U.N.-led negotiations and drew Iran further into this ruinous conflict.

As the Biden administration faces important decisions concerning ongoing conflicts in Yemen, Ukraine, Libya and several African countries, the current generation of policymakers and their institutions would do well to recover the suppressed memory of peacemaking. All of us need to move from lamenting Afghanistan to learning from it. 

Stephen R. Weissman, a political scientist and former staff director of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Africa Subcommittee, has published articles and book chapters on U.S. policy towards Afghanistan, Angola, Burundi, El Salvador, Libya and Syria.