One-sided peace agreements do not bring about peace
The fact that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has ordered his forces to take the offensive once again against the Taliban and its terrorist partners is perfectly understandable. It is not merely the result of twin terrorist outrages on May 11 — an attack on a Doctors Without Borders maternity ward in Kabul that left 16 people, including two newborn children, dead and a suicide bomb that killed 24 people attending a funeral. It is also a product of Ghani’s frustration with a peace process that he never trusted, because he was never brought into it.
From the start of the process aimed at bringing peace to Afghanistan, Ghani was uncomfortable with its one-sided nature. That the negotiation was manifestly the centerpiece of the Trump administration’s plan to withdraw the maximum number of troops from his war-torn country hardly reassured the Afghan president. It quickly became clear that — notwithstanding President Trump’s assertion that “I really believe the Taliban wants to do something to show we’re not all wasting time” — the agreement that Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad painstakingly negotiated was worth little more, and perhaps even less, than the paper on which it was written.
It did not take a brilliant political or military strategist to recognize that Washington’s negotiating posture was merely a cover for Trump’s desire to fulfill his campaign promise to end the Afghan war. He did not even bother to hide this objective, stating, “It’s time after all these years to bring our people back home.”
For its part, the Taliban did not cease its attacks on the Afghan army, the police or civilians while negotiations were ongoing, nor did it do so once it reached an agreement with the United States. Indeed, it actually increased attacks during the six weeks since the agreement was signed. In effect, the Taliban views the agreement for what it really is: An American white flag of surrender that abandons Ghani’s government. The Taliban’s leadership, therefore, has no incentive to do anything that might prop up Ghani and his administration. On the contrary, it has every reason to continue its efforts to take down the Kabul government.
In that respect, the Taliban leadership is behaving much as Ho Chi Minh did when the Vietnam War dragged on and popular American protests against the war intensified. Ho recognized that the Paris Peace Accords of 1973 and the American “Vietnamization” policy were merely a cover for U.S. troop withdrawal. Accordingly, he did nothing to limit Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap’s sustained, and ultimately successful, effort to defeat the Army of Vietnam and seize Saigon. At least the Paris accords included America’s nominal ally, the government of South Vietnam, as well as the Viet Cong and the Hanoi regime. The agreement with the Taliban did not even do that much.
It therefore should come as no surprise that Ghani reached the same conclusion about Washington’s real intentions as did Ho some five decades ago, and as has the Taliban today. Ghani’s protests against Washington’s willingness to meet with Taliban leaders in Qatar while freezing his government out of the peace talks went unheeded. So, too, did his denunciation of the agreement when it finally was reached. Efforts to exchange prisoners with the Taliban have come to naught. And the ceasefire was a chimera.
There is a disturbing pattern to the Trump administration’s approach to peace talks. In both the Doha agreement with the Taliban, and its “deal of the century” to bring about Middle East peace, the administration has dealt with only one of the affected parties. In that respect, it differs from all other accords in which the United States has negotiated successfully. These have ranged from Theodore Roosevelt’s crucial role in achieving the 1905 Treaty of Portsmouth that ended the Russo-Japanese War, to Richard Holbrooke’s efforts that culminated in the 1995 Dayton Accords that ended the Bosnian War, to George Mitchell’s 1998 Good Friday Agreement that included not only the British and Irish governments, but no fewer than eight Northern Ireland parties and groups.
Roosevelt won a Nobel Peace Prize for his successful effort to end the Russo-Japanese War. Trump has lusted after the prize. Given his failure to recognize that peace negotiations must include the parties most directly involved, the prospects for the self-proclaimed master of “the art of the deal” to win that prize and achieve any sort of meaningful peace agreement, either in Afghanistan or in the Middle East, look very dim indeed.
Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.