Afghan watchers and Afghans often too easily categorize people into various camps when it comes to ending the violence in Afghanistan. Some labels include: fight until the last dead Taliban, peace talks at all costs, once international forces leave peace follows, and international forces need to come home—who cares about peace.
Never shrinking from voicing my opinion on Afghanistan, I think it’s crucial to discard these simple theories/labels and study the more nuanced approaches to achieving peace. If I had to be categorized, I would fall mostly into the talk AND fight approach to bring about Afghanistan security building. Let’s unpack that view.
Background on Violence in Afghanistan
The Afghan violence has been fairly steady since the 1970s, and there are a number of factors that cause the violence. One of them is violent militias and terrorist groups continuing to seek control of the nation. These groups are supported by many outside nations and internal leaders. The Pakistani-backed violent groups (like the Taliban) have inflicted much of the harm since the 1970s and likely the majority of the civilian deaths since 1996.
With that backdrop, it should be clear that this is a long-war scenario similar to Northern Ireland or Colombia in duration. Afghanistan’s violence will likely not end in a WWI or WWII fashion with commanders from the victorious and defeated sides declaring an armistice, and letting the victors settle the scores for the war. It is most likely this war will end in one of three possible ways—either the government wins slowly, the insurgents/terrorists win painfully, or one side gets tired enough to make peace with the other in an uneven joint-governing structure as a political party.
From my limited 19-year experience working on or in Afghanistan, I am leaning towards the first or third option. Most likely for me, is that over time (and it could be a long time) the Afghan elected constitutional republic will gain the upper hand and defeat the Taliban by weakening them so much they have no leverage left to ask to control any share of the government. The second most likely option is that the Taliban will realize they cannot win in the long-term and will treat for peace before they lose too much leverage to gain a share of power.
Why Talk and Fight for Afghanistan Government?
If the Afghan republic will most likely win a (somewhat total) victory over a long period of time, why should the Afghan government keep holding out an olive branch to the Pakistani proxy called the Taliban? There are some very useful reasons for fighting against the Taliban while simultaneously offering them peace-terms to stop fighting. Let me detail some of them.
The “Talk and Fight” approach I am referring to, is the idea that the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan gains more diplomatic credibility and international support, and will more quickly defeat the Taliban by strengthening its security forces, fighting the Taliban, and talking to any Taliban interested in seeking a peaceful solution at the same time.
The diplomatic credibility of being the side of the war offering peace terms is useful to the Afghan government and people. It shows the world that you are the side seeking peace, and not just victory at all costs. As actual diplomatic talks with the Taliban are underway that credibility is critical. It shows the world every day that the UN-backed Afghan government is not the aggressor. It shows the world every day that the Taliban are making a decision to murder innocent Afghans rather than accept a peaceful solution. The government was the first side in the war since 2001 to offer real terms of peace. The government should never reverse that offer. To do so would decrease the trust they have earned from all nations, and from the Taliban members that might be the first to cease fighting and make peace.
The international support gained by the Afghan government by following the talk and fight approach has been critical to the funding of the Afghan budget. As Afghanistan’s economy is decades from full self-sustainment it needs the support of partner nations to keep the lights on. The international funding for the ANDSF is even more critical to the Afghan people at this point in the long-peace building process. The donors that are closely partnered with the Afghan security sector see the talk and fight strategy as the most promising option and if the Afghan government withdrew from peace talks it could end some large funding streams. The UN is supportive of the talk and fight approach, even if they won’t say it. That UN support for aid and development, now and in the future, is extremely valuable.
Finally, the speed of ending the violence in Afghanistan matters. The longer the war and terrorist attacks drag on, the more Afghans will die. Everyday innocent women, children, and men are killed, mostly by the Taliban and their terrorist partners. While the ANDSF will likely win a long-term war against the Taliban (if funding of the ANDSF continues) the cost of that long war will be too many more dead civilians. A shorter war isn’t guaranteed by continuing to offer peace terms to the Taliban, but it has proven to be a powerful factor in ending long wars.
Shortening War in Afghanistan – No Easy Button
As the length of the war is unknown it is worth the chance for shortening the war by following the talk and fight approach. It is certainly beneficial to the Afghan people to continue to stay in the peace negotiations to sustain diplomatic credibility and international support.
What is known is that as long as the Afghan republic is truly committed to peace negotiations, they International community will continue to support them. It is likely the international community will also fund the government and partner with the security forces as long as the Afghans hold out an olive branch. It is also very likely that all the support from many nations could end quickly for the Afghan people if they stop talking and only fight the Taliban and their terrorist network.
I must mention that no matter what strategy anyone follows, peace is not going to happen unless the world pressures Pakistan to change its behavior towards Afghanistan; and that Pakistani shift also entails Afghans changing some of their behavior towards Pakistan. There is no easy button for ending long and deeply personal wars, but there are obvious mistakes that should be avoided that can cost more lives.