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Drawing lessons from the failure of peace efforts in Afghanistan

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Editor’s note: The return of the Taliban to power in Afghanistan is a political failure that spans several administrations. Kate Bateman of the U.S. Institute of Peace draws lessons from the U.S. experience in Afghanistan, noting that the failure to consider negotiations when the U.S. position was strong had painful long-term consequences. This harm caused by inflexible positions, she argues, has implications for how the United States approaches other conflicts.

Daniel Byman

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Over the past 20 years, the United States has made strategic errors in its war against the Taliban. helped feed the insurrection and probably prevented a more rapid end to the war. The US government has become obsessed with a purely military solution, in defiance of a political solution. This overarching concern about inflicting a decisive defeat on the Taliban was reinforced by the perceived political risks of negotiating a peace deal with an organization viewed solely through the prism of the war on terror. The United States should learn from its experience in Afghanistan and the missed opportunities to achieve a better and faster end to the war. Policymakers should apply these lessons to other conflicts, starting with the war in Ukraine.

Lesson 1: Seek opportunities for peace when military influence is greatest.

The time when the United States exerted its greatest influence over the Taliban occurred in late 2001, when the regime was militarily defeated and ousted from power. From 2001 to 2004, dozens of senior Taliban officials proposed various forms of surrender And reconciliation in exchange for an amnesty. United States rejected them, excluded the Taliban from the new political order and banned Afghanistan’s interim leader, then President Hamid Karzai, from speaking with the Taliban. We will never know whether greater openness to such offers could have avoided two decades of war.

Later, as the Taliban insurgency emerged and expanded, the United States increased its military presence, which peaked in 2011 with approximately 100,000 United States And 30,000 NATO troops in the country. Despite the Taliban’s willingness to talk, American leaders have been very enthusiastic. skeptical on the prospects of a negotiated settlement. Military commanders sought to capitalize on the influx of troops to strengthen the American position before any negotiation, and overestimated President Obama’s desire to maintain a greater military presence. Some officials also feared the negotiations could undermine the war effort by forcing the military to enter into a ceasefire or reduce violence against the Taliban.

The Taliban did constant gains like the presence of foreign troops decreases over the next decade. When the United States came to the negotiating table in 2018, desperate to end the “Forever War,” it did so from a position of weakness. The tragedy is that, in the US-Taliban agreement of February 2020, the United States acceded to Taliban demands that it would never have considered earlier in the war, but which it could have resisted or countered when it was stronger. The agreement only assured the United States of the safe withdrawal of its troops, which fatally compromised the government of the Afghan Republic in its negotiations with the Taliban – and subsequently precipitated the withdrawal of American troops. the collapse Afghan security forces and the government that the United States has supported for 20 years.

Lesson 2: Be careful not to neglect peace efforts, especially when overconfidence in the war effort could dampen support for negotiations.

The United States never seriously invested in a peace process aimed at ending the war in Afghanistan before it was too late. Until 2018, the United States had always sought to achieve complete victory against the Taliban on the battlefield, either through its own military operations or those of Afghan forces. The United States’ immense focus on military victory rather than exploring a political settlement— illustrates the work of retired colonel and scholar Christopher Kolenda argument that the American government “has no organized way of thinking about the end of the war other than the search for a decisive military victory.

Despite years of warning signs that the Afghan government was losing the battle for legitimacy and that its security forces would not be able to support the fight against the Taliban without significant ongoing support, U.S. leaders continued to pursue a strategy that relied on reversing these trends. They believed – wrongly – that time was on their side. Department of Defense reports Congress overestimated the strength and legitimacy of Afghan forces compared to those of the Taliban. Part of the problem was that defense officials used bad data And change metrics capabilities of the Afghan army and police which overestimated their actual strength and cohesion. In turn, overconfidence the war effort limited policymakers’ appetite for the pursuit of peace. Why prepare and invest in a policy path to end the war if U.S. and Afghan forces are expected to turn the corner in the next six to 12 months?

Lesson 3: The pursuit of peace may involve greater political and bureaucratic risks than the pursuit of war.

Even though the United States double on counterinsurgency efforts early in Obama’s presidency in 2009, a handful of senior officials at the White House, State Department and Pentagon quietly agreed that the United States needed a Plan B In an interview, a former senior White House official told me that in early 2010, those officials created a small “Conflict Resolution Unit.” The cell helped pave the way for secret talks between the United States and the Taliban, which began later that year. These talks occurred episodically over the next several years, but remained largely “talks about talks” and focused on prisoner releases. They were blocked by diplomatic confusionTHE erosion of relations with the United States with President Karzai and the The refusal of the Taliban include the Afghan government in the negotiations (an American request).

But behind-the-scenes negotiations have also been paralyzed by serious political and bureaucratic obstacles within the U.S. government. A former senior State Department official told me that “there was never a willingness to take political risks that would have been necessary to advance the peace process.” For example, prisoner releases have encountered a range of obstacles: disagreements between the Department of State and the Department of Defense, congressional certification required for releases from Guantanamo Bay and the aversion of cabinet secretaries to associating with a politically risky prisoner exchange or with the discussions themselves.

Thus, at the height of U.S. military influence, the Obama administration never significantly funded peace efforts (e.g., as in the Balkans in the 1990s), nor aligned peace efforts Defense and State Department on a peace process. There was no United States an official on the ground in Afghanistan who was responsible for coordinating the military and political aspects, much less an official authorized to do so.

Lesson 4: Don’t demonize the enemy. When opportunities for peace negotiations arise, it will be more difficult to gain political and public support for talks.

During most of the American war in Afghanistan, talk with the Taliban was taboo. US presidents viewed the negotiations – and the prospect of any concessions to the Taliban – as politically toxic, even though many policymakers recognized there was a risk. no military solution at war. The taboo was rooted in maxim that the United States do not negotiate with the terrorists, the Taliban brutal treatment of womenand the post-September 11 rhetoric that made little distinction between the Taliban and al-Qaeda despite the different origins and objectives of the two organizations and the fact that no Afghan participated in the September 11 attacks.

The problem with a dehumanized black-and-white portrait of the Taliban was that it severely limited American policy options and blunted the desire to better understand the movement. By 2001, the Taliban’s simplistic perceptions – combined with the trauma of 9/11 and political pressures for revenge – closed the way to negotiations. These factors led the Bush administration to rebuff the Taliban’s attempts at reconciliation. A decade later, the same factors undermined the Obama administration’s behind-the-scenes negotiations and made modest confidence-building measures a priority as well. political lightning rod with Congress and the public.

Lessons for other conflicts

The U.S. experience in Afghanistan suggests that the search for military leverage should be coupled (perhaps discreetly) with diplomatic and other tools of national power. And it shows how failure to do so can prolong a conflict in a way that does not serve the interests of the United States and its partners, and can lead to a less favorable negotiated settlement down the road. It also demonstrates that accurate intelligence on battlefield trends and military capabilities, as well as the political will to admit that U.S. influence is waning, are essential in determining when to pursue a peace process. Moreover, without the White House’s attention and resources, U.S. efforts at peace negotiations may well fail.

While the subject of negotiations becomes ever more taboo in the war in Ukraine there are echoes of Afghanistan. U.S. policymakers should seek to maintain space for discussion – including within U.S. agencies – about various scenarios, outcomes, and potential policy processes. The work of to reflect on the conditions which would be conducive to negotiations, red lines holdand what results could prevent a relapse in hostilities can be done now. Critics might say such efforts demonstrate weakness and risk emboldening Russia. But if the United States fails to identify or shape potential opportunities for a just peace in Ukraine, American leaders may not be prepared to seize those opportunities when they present themselves.

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