Afghanistan: Another Peace to End All Peace?

It is too soon to say that the Biden Administration has taken on “mission impossible” in proposing the new peace plan that Secretary Blinken has sent to the Afghan central government and the Taliban, which is attached at the end of this commentary. It is not too soon to say that it has been saddled with an almost impossible legacy.

The Trump administration’s peace agreement in February 2020 was followed by massive real cuts in U.S. personnel and military support, but it was never followed by any public peace plan – and it certainly never produced serious progress. The result is that the Biden administration has now taken office with very real facts on the ground in terms of the limits to U.S. capability, but with no real facts in terms of some form of agreed interim government or agreement to any aspect of what kind of Afghanistan could emerge out of a “peace” between the Afghan central government and the Taliban.

It is now mid-March, and there is still a deadline for the end of May that would require the U.S. to remove all troops as well as U.S. defense contractors and civilian personnel. In practice, this has meant that the Biden Administration has been compelled to propose a peace settlement that President Ghani has already virtually rejected and one that the Taliban will probably only accept if it feels that it can impose its own rule once the U.S. leaves.

The problems the Biden Administration faces in having to propose a real plan – nearly a year too late for it to succeed – has become all too clear the moment one actually reads the full peace settlement attached to this commentary, and when one looks at the portions that are highlighted. A real peace between real enemies is a massive, complex effort. The text that Secretary Blinken has proposed highlights issue after issue that should have been resolved long before now – issues that should have been considered long before the U.S. unilaterally announced a peace “agreement” without any real definition of a “peace” or without any real agreement.

The Legacy the Biden Administration Inherited

The contrast between the Trump administration’s effort in February 2020 and a real peace agreement is all too clear the moment one actually looks at these new U.S. proposals in any detail, and it becomes all too clear that the effort under the Trump administration did not begin to even meet the conditions the U.S. set for withdrawing from South Vietnam.

There was no seeming successfully peace agreement and apparent defeat of the enemy. The South Vietnamese military or ARVN were far more effective than the Afghan forces. South Vietnam may have been divided, but it was not the scene of a divided country with ongoing major fighting. Its government – for all its weakness and corruption – was far more effective than the morass of internal divisions, power brokers, and corrupt leaders in the central government of Afghanistan.

If there is any historical parallel between the Trump effort and some previous peace effort, it seems to be the agreement that Neville Chamberlin negotiated with Hitler over Czechoslovakia in September 1938: “My good friends, this is the second time in our history that there has come back from Germany to Downing Street peace with honor. I believe it is peace for our time.” As 1939 warns, good intentions are no substitute for grim realities.

The Biden peace proposal advanced by Secretary Blinken is almost a 180-degree reversal of that Chamberlin approach. It attempts to rescue a peace effort that may already be dead, and virtually everyone that is affected will question at least some of the provisions highlighted in the attached text – and probably many that are not highlighted. It is, however, at least a good faith effort that emphasizes democracy and human rights as well as meeting the needs of the Afghan people.

The plan also offers at least a tenuous possibility of extending the peace process, demanding that the Ghani government makes a real peace effort, and creating the conditions where the offer of outside aid might – in spite of all the current indicators – just possibly lead the Taliban to compromise.

The Potentially Fatal Challenges to A Real Peace

At the same time, the recent reporting by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), by the Lead Inspector General of the Department of Defense (LIG), and by a wide range of media and outside analyses sound warning after warning that the Blinken plan and any other real peace proposal may now have to ask far too much and do so far too late.

The issues involved are many, complex, and often highly uncertain, but the latest SIGAR and LIG official reports to Congress, particularly the new SIGAR report entitled “2021 High Risk List” (May 10, 2021, https://www.sigar.mil/pdf/spotlight/2021-High-Risk-List.pdf) make it clear that the challenges in creating a real peace are massive.

The same is true of the reports that the World Bank (https://info.worldbank.org/governance/wgi/Home/Reports) and Transparency International (https://www.transparency.org/en/cpi/2020/index/afg) have issued on the gross corruption and incompetence of the Afghan central government. Furthermore, the Long War Journal (https://www.longwarjournal.org/mapping-taliban-control-in-afghanistan) as well as many other NGO and media sources have issued reports showing that the Taliban is winning now in the various rural and urban districts in Afghanistan.

In brief, such reports show that:

  • The Taliban is winning in the countryside and are still active in major population centers, including Kabul. It can win the equivalent of guerrilla warfare in the countryside; increase control lines of communication and roads, local courts, and actual governance; and exploit the fact that only a small portion of the Afghan National Army is really effective while the majority is now badly overburdened and can only succeed with U.S. contractors and air support. It has already lost much of its elite air support and drone capabilities.

  • The Afghan forces would have lost major battles in 2019 and 2020 except for the support of U.S. combat advisors and personnel as well as the massive combat air strikes and intelligence support. Many of the forces and facilities involved are now gone, but no unclassified data explain the scale of such cuts.

  • The Taliban not only have kept fighting Afghan government forces, they still have links to Al Qaeda, elements of the Pakistani Army, and even ISIS.

  • The Afghan Army cannot survive without extensive U.S. combat air support, intelligence support, contractor support, and some $3.6 billion a year in outside aid.

  • Reform plans have not ended serious corruption and waste in the armed forces.

  • Figures like 2,500 remaining troops are little more than dishonest nonsense. For all the public affairs statement about the drawdown of troops to 2,500, the ANA cannot function without some 18,000 contractors – 14,000 of which will leave if the U.S. meets the May deadline. The ANA can only maintain 20% of its own equipment in spite of its goal of 80%. The Air Forces depends on contractors for 94% of its maintenance.

  • Serious issues exist about equipment losses and possible transfers to Taliban forces.

  • Real world efforts to create an effective Afghan National Police that can function in contested areas have nearly collapsed as corruption and exploitation are endemic, and the police cannot function without outside contract support. They now maintain only 12% of their equipment and their goal is only 35%. Efforts to create effective local forces that are not corrupt, exploit the population, and/or are dominated by local factions and power brokers have continued to fail.

  • There are no real world indications that the Afghan forces can operate independently by 2024 or at any other predictable time in the future even if the U.S. stays in some form.

  • The Afghan central government is actually a mix of rival power brokers at both the national and regional levels. It requires some $3.3 billion in annual aid to survive, much of which is stolen or wasted.

  • Some data on poverty rates indicate that they have risen from a low of some 38% at the peak levels of international aid to over 68% by the end of 2020. The World Bank has estimated that even with a real peace and with international aid paying for some 80% of government security and civil operations, Afghanistan would need some $5.3 billion more in civil aid to put its economy back on the path to stable development. However, this figure depends on an honest and unified Afghan government pursuing an idealized development plan.

  • Corruption is critical, as are divisions at the provincial, ethnic, and sectarian levels. There are no public data on who really rules in given population centers. Data no longer are reported on the actual level of governance by district, and many districts supposedly under government control only seem to have a limited presence – sometimes not extending beyond the District capital.

  • Official and Taliban links to narcotics trading are also critical – the one real Afghan source of international trade income in a nation with a massive trade imbalance.

  • Foreign aid is often wasted or stolen. A SIGAR study of civil aid contracts shows that less than 20% of spending resulted in effective facilities.

  • The real-world level of medical aid, progress in education, and women’s rights is not publicly quantified and is far more limited than some public reporting suggests.

Strategic Triage: Other Humanitarian and Strategic Priorities Seem to Dominate

These data only cover part of the problems involved, but they provide two grim warnings: First, no U.S. peace efforts may now be able to succeed because the Taliban has reason to believe that they are winning and that they can transform any peace effort into the equivalent of a military victory by other means.

Second, any U.S. effort to salvage the situation will simply throw good money (and lives) after bad, wasting resources that could be far more effective in dealing with other countries that pose at least as great of a potential threat to the U.S., its allies, and the world as Afghanistan does.

Here, it is critical to remember that the U.S. not only has its own domestic needs, but it faces a far more troubled world – with far more civil conflicts and states that desperately need aid – than it did when it invaded Afghanistan in 2001. Real-world U.S. foreign policy must not be based on pursuing failed crusades. The issue is not how many people will suffer in a given country if the U.S. shifts policy, but rather how many more people will receive credible benefit if the U.S. shifts its resources to more honest and effective regimes that will use its aid effectively.

It is equally critical to remember what the strategic priorities are in terms of U.S. national interests. Here, to be blunt, Afghanistan is not the “graveyard of empires,” it is the graveyard of Afghans. If the U.S. does leave after what should be its last peace efforts and a failed Afghan response, there are many countries that are far more important to the U.S. and that now pose their own threat of extremism or ties to key competitors and threats. The U.S. needs to exercise “strategic triage” – both to serve real world humanitarian interest and its own strategic interests.

Given these realities, the U.S. should pursue the peace plan it has advanced, but it must do so on precisely the conditional level that Secretary Blinken raised in his cover letter to President Ghani. Either the Afghan Central Government now makes a full effort, or the U.S. should leave and end it role in Afghanistan as well as its aid. The U.S. should make it openly clear that the key failures were caused by the Afghan government, and that U.S. aid to other countries and regimes will be strictly conditional in the future. The U.S. made a massive effort. It had its failures, but no outside power can help a government that will not or cannot help itself.

Second, the U.S. should make it clear that regional powers must now try to deal with their neighbor and take on their own responsibilities. There are worse approaches than shifting the burden from whatever emerges in Afghanistan to China, Russia, Iran. and Pakistan.


This report entitled, Afghanistan: Another Peace to End All Peace?, is available for download at https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/210311_%20Cordesman_Afghanistan_Peace.pdf?4hMSL6bS71OHKSrj4NZqZ1FbEMaxOP4Q

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the United States Department of Defense and the United States Department of State.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy