President Trump is doggedly seeking a workable peace in Afghanistan. He is right to do so, but the process will be hard. In the late 1990s, work in Colombia led to a bipartisan push for stability, demobilization, and eventually peace – but backsteps were many. Later, working for Colin Powell at State, we trained law enforcement in Colombia, Kosovo, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Peace was always the goal but often elusive.
The endgame is harder to achieve than to conceive.
Realistically, peace after a prolonged insurgency is difficult to enforce. Feelings run deep; losses loom large. Regrets constantly resurface. Once an agreement is inked, implementation begins – but participants often stumble. Getting things done is harder than agreeing to do them.
The process of making peace real involves putting down arms, stepping back from violence, asserting self-discipline and patience, suppressing natural fear. Once accustomed to war, combatants are resistant to disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration.
Objectively, creating lasting peace in Afghanistan will be hard. The country suffers endemic poverty and corruption, dashed hopes, and distrust of imported ideas. Still, America’s interests are served by working to create buy-in from disparate, disconsolate, opposing parties.
Once a peace accord, complete with sequential steps, is signed – backsliding is inevitable. Jealous, angry, scared violators and agitators, warlords, and terrorists will try to undo what is done, undermine peace. We must persist, encouraging the young Afghan government, new Taliban leaders, and sources of mediation to stay with it.
Peace after war is never smooth, especially where losses were heavy. Hope seems more like naivete or fantasy. Still, those who persist are sometimes unexpectedly rewarded. In Afghanistan, the lift will be heavy, but choices are few. A strong argument exists for peace.
American prosecution of the Afghan war – in response to 9-11-01 – was necessary. This was a “just war.” Afghanistan, under Taliban and Al Qaida rule, permitted terrorist training, staging, and power-projection. George W. Bush, with bipartisan support, responded as he had to – and decisively.
The US routed the Taliban, helped secure the nation, trained security forces, and made possible elections.
Perpetual war, however, is not something Americans want or can afford. This 18-year war has exacted a terrible human and financial cost – even if necessary. We have lost 2,440 Americans, another 20,000 wounded. The United Nations estimates civilian losses at 100,000. Dollar-cost to Americans tops $1.07 trillion. President Trump is right: If peace is within reach, seize it.
From a historical perspective, peace in Afghanistan may be harder than securing the Philippines after World War II, Vietnam after 1973, El Salvador or Colombia in the 1990s. Here is why.
Whatever the peace accord, it must center on the Afghan Government and Taliban, America as surety.It must be realistic and enforceable. It must back representative government, disincentive Taliban and non-Taliban insurgents, encourage reintegration and demobilization, end entrenched human rights abuses, and – most importantly – prevent Afghanistan from staging future anti-Western terrorism.
Words are easy, actions hard – and this may be the toughest peace in our lifetimes. By contrast to post-war Philippines and Vietnam, Afghanistan’s threat is non-state actors. That makes enforcement tough.
Big questions surround any accord: Will Afghan leaders be able to stop resurgence of the Taliban, Al Qaida, or ISIS terrorists? Can Taliban leaders control outliers, non-state adversaries, and external terrorists?
Post-war, the Philippines confronted a Communist insurgency. Even recently, they have had to suppress an Islamic insurgency. Vietnam fell to communism two years after US troop withdrawal. And Afghanistan’s economy is on life support. Objectively, Afghans will continue to need training, security assistance, and a large infusion of Western aid, if any peace is to hold.
Empirically, US aid gives diffuse actors a reason to support peace. But Afghanistan possesses no infrastructure, so the climb to self-sufficiency will be steep. The country has few paved roads, no rail, or real aviation. They are without needed hospitals and schools, power grid, clean water, and – in many places – security. Legitimate agriculture is challenged by poppy cultivation, heroin traffickers, and warlord profiteering.
By contrast to post-war El Salvador and Colombia, Afghanistan is not near big economies, has little history of trade – outside drug trafficking. Without credible security, private foreign capital will not flow into the country. Absent investment, Afghanistan will remain among the poorest nations. Afghans are not without dreams, but they are uneducated. The country is not economically integrated, trained in self-rule, or schooled in tolerance. These also steepen the climb.
In El Salvador, peace was encouraged by the Catholic Church. In Colombia, cultural aspirations blended with a foundation of education and business relationships to reinforce peace. Even in these cases, absent sustained US financial commitment, peace in El Salvador, and Colombia would have stumbled.
In short, the challenge in Afghanistan is unique. Obstacles are ideological, acculturation to violence, endemic corruption, enduring terrorist groups and warlords, little experience with democracy, minimal education, and lack of cohesion. Making things worse, no economic infrastructure, plus the drag of drug trafficking and anti-western sentiment complicate progress. Other than that, peace is easy.
In truth, Afghanistan needs peace – and we need peace for Afghanistan. Accordingly, the Trump Administration is right to aggressively push peace, including self-rule and an exit for US troops. Americans should – whatever their politics – support President Trump’s push to end this war.
That said, realism is central. The seven-day “reduction in violence” is not “peace.” The final accord must assure Afghanistan is never again a staging ground for terrorism. That outcome requires US support, allowing Afghans to find political stability, economic infrastructure, and global integration. Without realism, peace in Afghanistan will be elusive. Net-net, Trump is right – time to steer into the wind, do all we can, wrap this conflict up – for good.