Wednesday, February 26, 2020


Peace in the wake of prolonged insurgency is difficult to achieve. Accords are hard to implement, insurgents resistant to disarmament, demobilization and reintegration. Backsteps inevitably follow forward moves. Afghanistan will be the hardest peace mission in living memory. Nevertheless, America needs to create buy-in, push workable terms and support peace, even as we expect backsliding.

The Afghan war, initiated in response to 9/11, was a “just war.”  Afghanistan — under Taliban and al Qaeda control — offered training, staging and power-projection for those horrific terrorist attacks. President George W. Bush, with bipartisan support, responded decisively. The United States routed the Taliban, trained military and civilian security forces — part of my job as assistant secretary with Colin Powell — and enabled free elections.   

Still, the 18-year engagement has exacted a terrible cost — more than $1.07 trillion from American taxpayers, 2,440 American lives lost, more than 20,000 wounded Americans, not counting veteran suicides. It is time to end the conflict. Doing so will be hard, arguably harder than bringing peace to the Philippines after World War II, Vietnam, El Salvador or Colombia. Here is why.  

Whatever a final accord between the U.S., Afghan government and Taliban looks like, it must be realistic. That means reinforcing representative government, disincentivizing Taliban and non-Taliban insurgents, incentivizing participation in politics, ending entrenched human rights abuses, and — most importantly — preventing Afghanistan from ever again becoming a staging ground for anti-Western terrorism.

That is a tall order, making peace hard to come by. In contrast to post-World War II, Philippines and Vietnam, Afghanistan’s threat to the West is from non-state actors. Regardless of who signs the potential accord, questions will remain on enforcement.   

Will Afghan leaders be able to prevent a resurgence of the Taliban, al Qaeda and ISIS terrorists? Can Taliban leaders control affiliates, never mind non-state adversaries and external terrorists — some of whom aim to remake the terror infrastructure that permitted 9/11?

By contrast to the post-war Philippines, which encountered persistent insurgents, and post-war Vietnam, which fell to communism two years after U.S. troop withdrawal, Afghanistan’s economy is all but non-existent. The Afghan economy will require a mass infusion of Western aid, if peace is to hold.

An uptick in U.S. aid will incentivize stability and strengthen the Afghan government. But Afghanistan has no infrastructure — virtually no paved roads, rail or aviation, insufficient and undermanned hospitals and schools, no national power grid, clean water or credible security. Legitimate agriculture is challenged by poppy cultivation, heroin traffickers and warlord profiteering. Will that suddenly end?    

By contrast to post-war El Salvador and Colombia, Afghanistan is not near thriving economies, has little history of legitimate agricultural and industrial trade in the region, and few external actors willing to provide capital investment without security assurances. Afghans are not widely educated or economically integrated, and have little history of self-rule, never mind effective federal rule. 

Moreover, the Catholic Church played a major role in shaping and keeping El Salvador’s peace, while the nearby United States helped Colombia, based on long-standing security, economic, cultural and political ties. Absent sustained U.S. commitment, peace in El Salvador and Colombia would not have held.  

In short, the counterforce to Afghan peace is considerable. It includes internal ideological indifference, habituation to violence, distrust of central authority, entrenched local corruption, deep-seated terror ties, weak institutions, no experience with democracy, minimal economic infrastructure, a history of drug profiteering, and holdover anti-Western sentiment. Other than that, it should be easy.

Net-net, the Trump administration is right to push peace in Afghanistan, encourage self-rule and set conditions for withdrawal of U.S. troops, ending a costly, seemingly interminable and distant war. But realism is essential. Having cobbled together incentives, announced a seven-day “reduction in violence” and next steps, this will be a hard nut to crack.  

Americans are ready to come home, but any peace accord must assure Afghanistan is never again a staging ground for terrorist attacks on the United States.  To get there, we must support the Afghan government, political stability, economic infrastructure and integration. Short of that, peace in Afghanistan is a pipedream. 

• Robert B. Charles served in the Reagan and Bush 41 White Houses, as assistant secretary of State under Colin Powell, and managed law enforcement training in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is a former 10-year Naval Intelligence Officer (USNR).  

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