February 27, 2020

Peace in Afghanistan? We’ll See

Why not just sign the peace deal — any peace deal — walk away and call it good?

Note from the author: I served four years in Afghanistan over the course of several deployments and several more years preparing myself and others for deployments by studying Afghan history, language, and culture, as well as reams of lessons learned from unsuccessful British, Soviet, and — thus far at least — American efforts to tame South Asia. I don’t consider myself an expert by any means, but I believe that experience makes me at least as qualified to comment on the news and rumors surrounding peace talks with the Taliban as some of the pundits who have saturated the Web with articles that range from praising President Donald Trump for leading boldly and fulfilling his campaign promise to end “forever wars” to describing our efforts in Afghanistan as “America’s greatest strategic disaster.” While articles like those satisfy readers’ demand for decisive and definitive assessments, foreign policy in general — and Afghanistan in particular — doesn’t lend itself to binary and linear conclusions. It’s shades of grey, not black and white.

At the risk of being indecisive and indefinite, the honest answer to whether the agreements that have reportedly been reached between the U.S. and the Taliban are a win for the U.S. is probably “we’ll see.” But that’s not a very satisfying — or politically advantageous — piece of ground to claim. Unfortunately, our foreign policy decision makers’ (over)confidence that they actually see their options and potential outcomes in black and white is a primary contributor to the forever wars. Our diplomats and soldier-statesmen have heard how excellent they are for so long that it’s understandable that they may overestimate their ability to resolve “wicked problems” like those posed by the Graveyard of Empires. That’s not to say that our military and diplomatic leaders and decision makers aren’t better than everyone else’s, just that even the best may not be good enough for a problem set like Afghanistan, particularly given the wrinkles caused by political priorities that change every few years.

With so little to show for the thousands of casualties sustained and billions of dollars spent, why should we keep muddling along trying to find a solution for what may well be an unsolvable problem? Why not just sign the peace deal — any peace deal — walk away and call it good?

For one, although it hasn’t lived up to the promises, we have made progress: Afghan security organizations are larger and more capable than ever; a generation of bureaucrats and technocrats have come up through the ranks of ministries and businesses and have seen and largely bought into an Afghan version of “what right looks like”; Afghan families have grown accustomed to more liberties and a generally higher quality of life than they enjoyed under the Taliban and aren’t anxious to go back. Given the foundation that has been laid, an enduring Taliban-supported reduction in violence would give the government and people the breathing space they need to cement the progress and keep building. Walking away before we’re sure the mortar has set risks everything coming back down in an ugly crash.

Second, to paraphrase the investing disclaimer, future results aren’t automatically going to track with past performance. Just because the return on our investment over the last dozen or so years has been undermined by bad policies and decisions (with a healthy dose of hubris mixed in) doesn’t mean that we have to keep following that trend line. We need to be realistic and pragmatic about what’s within the realm of the possible — minimized, not eliminated corruption; professional and “Afghan good enough” security services, not scaled down versions of the NYPD or British Army — and translate that into clear objectives. Four more years of a Trump administration would provide much needed stability with respect to the mission and objectives. That stability in turn, would also make it easier to accurately assess future results.

Peace is good thing, as are treaties that foster and ensure it. But we need to remember that it comes at a price. Some of the price has already been paid; some of it won’t come to light until years or decades later. As we negotiate, we can’t let the fact that we have already made an enormous investment lead us to an all-in-with-the-Taliban bet that comes with a big (and TBD) “after the sale” sticker. The people who have borne the brunt of the up-front investment deserve better than simply signing something in order to be able to check a box that a campaign promise was met or having their efforts tarred with a label like “America’s greatest strategic disaster.” But at this point in the negotiations, the most honest prediction that even a relatively experienced Afghanistan watcher can probably offer is, “we’ll see…”

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