Conflict & Justice

Ending the Afghan War with a whimper instead of a bang

The war in Afghanistan is winding down. Maybe not in terms of combatants killed, civilians injured, or international troops deployed, but neither side seems to have the stomach or the heart to prolong the conflict.

The battle continues almost by inertia.

The growing chorus of demands for a negotiated settlement is eloquent testimony to the nagging fear that the current situation could play out indefinitely. So it is no wonder that The Century Foundation, a non-partisan research institute, has called on all sides of the conflict to enter into peace talks.

Lakhdar Brahimi, former UN Special representative for Afghanistan, has co-chaired a special task force with former undersecretary for political affairs Thomas Pickering. Their report does not mince words: it is time to stop deluding ourselves that there will be a clear victory in this war.

“The best moment to start a political process towards settlement is now,” recommend the authors. “Recent fighting in Afghanistan has slowed the slide in the Afghan government’s authority, but after thirty years of war neither side today can expect soon to vanquish the other militarily. The growing sense of stalemate opens the way to a political phase to conclude the conflict.”

"Stalemate" is perhaps the gentlest word for the growing sense of hopelessness that is gripping many people in Afghanistan, Afghans and internationals alike.

Despite determinedly upbeat assessments of battlefield progress, those who actually live in Afghanistan are relentlessly bleak in their outlook. Ethnic tension is growing, especially in the north, where the Taliban are making inroads into formerly peaceful areas.

The confidence of Afghans in their own government is at an all time low, as a recent report by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) made abundantly clear.

Following the fraud-tainted Parliamentary elections in September, corruption scandals involving the president’s family and other well-connected political figures, as well as the deteriorating security throughout the country, many Afghans are wondering just how much better off they are under the new regime. The international forces are seen as occupiers and oppressors as often as liberators, making a mockery of the campaign to win hearts and minds that is supposed to be the centerpiece of the counterinsurgency strategy.

Even President Hamid Karzai, whose power depends on the international community, has been unable to conceal his wrath over recent civilian casualties, and has called on NATO and the U.S. forces to cease such operations on Afghan soil. But the prospect of a rapid withdrawal of forces is also frightening. Many expect civil war to break out once the foreign troops are out of the way.

Renascent warlords at the head of reinvigorated militias, trained and equipped with U.S. money, will most likely square off against those who try and limit their power. Taliban and other insurgent groups, with the generous backing of neighboring countries, will also make a lunge for power. It is not a comforting prospect. Brahimi and Pickering are not entirely correct.

The best moment for a negotiated political settlement was ten years ago. But it may not be too late to start the process now – provided there is a clear-eyed assessment of the current situation and pragmatic evaluation of prospects for success.

The Taliban have expressed a willingness to talk, provided that some of the preconditions for negotiations are dropped. Up until now, the United States has insisted that there can be no peace talks until the Taliban lay down their arms and accept the Constitution.

“Once we’ve done that, what is there to talk about?” said one former Taliban official. “They do not want negotiations, they want surrender.”

The Taliban are also insisting on the withdrawal of international troops before real talks can get underway. This is just as whimsical as the United States’ requirements. There will be no decisive battle to end this war; there will be no clear victory for either side. Nor will there be a comprehensive peace agreement to put an end to all arguments.

The contradictions at the heart of Afghan society will remain: the struggle between the traditionalists and the modernizers, between the north and the south, the various ethnic groups and the different branches of Islam. Women will continue to suffer as they fight for the most elementary rights. Poverty, unemployment, illiteracy and ignorance will continue to hold back progress.

These are not matters that can be settled by boots on the ground. They are problems that will take generations to fix.