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.
The following discussion draft of a peace agreement is intended to jumpstart Afghanistan Peace Negotiations between the Islamic Republic and the Taliban. It sets forth principles for governance, security, and rule of law and presents options for power sharing that could help the two sides reach a political settlement that ends the war. The draft reflects a variety of ideas and priorities of Afghans on both sides of the conflict and is intended to focus the negotiators on some of the most fundamental issues they will need to address. Ultimately, the two sides will determine their own political future and the contours of any political settlement.
Afghanistan Peace Agreement
The following Peace Agreement between the two sides to Afghanistan Peace Negotiations is made in three parts.
- First are agreed guiding principles for Afghanistan’s Constitution and the future of the Afghan State.
- Second are agreed terms for governing the country during a transitional period of no more than [xx] months and a roadmap for making Constitutional changes and addressing security and governance matters critical to a durable and just settlement.
- Third are agreed terms for a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire and its implementation
Part One: Guiding Principles for Afghanistan’s Future
The two sides agree on the following principles to guide the outcome of their talks and to serve as the basis of a new Constitution and of the Afghan State:
- Afghanistan’s official religion will be the holy religion of Islam. A new High Council for Islamic Jurisprudence shall be established to provide Islamic guidance and advice to all national and local government structures.
- The ability of all Afghans to live peacefully will be paramount. Afghanistan will be a safe home for all of its ethnic groups, tribes, and religious sects. The safe, dignified, and voluntary return of refugees and internally displaced persons will be prioritized.
- The dignity, life, and property of all Afghans, as well as the protection of their civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights – including the rights to free speech and to choose their political leaders – will be respected and enshrined in the future Afghan Constitution. The future Afghan state will respect and uphold the will of the people, Islamic values, social and political justice, national unity, and the sovereignty and integrity of Afghanistan’s territory.
- The future Constitution will guarantee the protection of women’s rights, and the rights of children, in political, social, economic, educational, and cultural affairs.
- Afghanistan’s national entities and other public bodies – including educational and security institutions – will be recognized and strengthened as national assets that belong to and benefit all Afghans. This includes providing for the security of, and support to, public infrastructure, including schools, madrassas, hospitals, markets, dams, and other public offices.
- The future Afghan state will honor and support all victims of the past 42 years of conflict, especially the wounded, orphans, widowed, and disabled. A national policy of transitional justice will be developed that focuses on truth-seeking, reconciliation, healing and forgiveness in accordance with applicable Afghan and international law.
- Afghanistan will seek commitments from the international community to support and assist in the rebuilding and reconstruction of the country.
- Afghanistan will have a non-aligned foreign policy and will seek friendly relations with all countries and the international community. Afghanistan will adhere to international law, including treaties to which it is a party. No one will be allowed to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of Afghanistan’s neighbors or any other country. Afghanistan will insist that all countries not interfere in its internal affairs.
- The 2004 Constitution will be the initial template from which the future Constitution will be prepared.
- The future Constitution will provide for free and fair elections for Afghanistan’s national political leadership in which all Afghan citizens have a right to participate. Ultimate authority to take decisions of paramount national importance will rest with the country’s elected government officials.
- The future Constitution will set forth the structure of government and the balance of power among the different branches of national government and between the national and local levels of government.
- Ultimate authority to resolve constitutional and other legal disputes – including over the interpretation of Islamic law – shall rest with the independent judiciary. The High Council for Islamic Jurisprudence shall have a role in advising the judiciary.
- Afghanistan will adhere to the highest standards of accountability and transparency and shall take all necessary steps to fight corruption and to counter the scourge of illicit narcotics.
- The future Constitution will establish a singular, unified and sovereign Afghan state under a single national government, with no parallel governments or parallel security forces.
Part Two: Transitional Peace Government and Political Roadmap
I. General Provisions
F) The Peace Government shall represent Afghanistan in its external relations, including at the United Nations and other international institutions and conferences.
II. The Executive Administration
Option (1): The Executive Administration shall consist of a President, [xx] Vice- Presidents, cabinet ministries, independent directorates, and other bodies.
Option (2): The Executive Administration shall consist of a President, a Prime Minister, [xx] Vice- Presidents, [yy] Deputy Prime Ministers, cabinet ministries, heads of independent directorates, and other bodies.
**Note: This document sets forth a roadmap pursuant to Option (1) above. If the Parties choose Option (2), this document will need modifications to set forth the respective authorities of the President and Prime Minister.
The President and Vice Presidents [and cabinet] are named in Annex A, were selected based on agreement between the two Parties and are acceptable to both sides. The President [and Vice Presidents] shall only serve during the tenure of the Peace Government and shall be precluded from serving at any point in the future as Head of State or Head of Government in Afghanistan. The President and Vice Presidents may only be removed according to procedures in the current Constitution.
Administration will establish Joint Committees, with equitable representation of the two Parties to this Agreement, to develop national policies on other issues critical for peace, including (i) transitional justice, with an emphasis on the rights of victims on both sides, truth and. reconciliation; (ii) rehabilitation, livelihoods and reintegration of former combatants; (iii) economic development; (iv) counter-narcotics; (v) refugees and displaced persons; (vi)traditional dispute resolution; and (vii) any other issues as deemed necessary.
The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission established pursuant to the current Constitution shall remain intact and will be expanded to include [Taliban representation] [x) members appointed by the Taliban].
III. The National Parliament
Option (1): A bicameral National Shura shall be composed of: (1) a [xxx]-member lower house, including the 250 members of the current Wolesi Jirga and [xx] additional members to be named by the Taliban; and (2) a [xxx] member Senate, 28022021including (i) 34 Senators representing each of the respective provincial councils; (ii) [xx] Senators chosen by the Islamic Republic side; and (iii) [xx] Senators chosen by the Taliban.
New members of Parliament shall be named within [xx] days of this Agreement taking effect. Authorities for the National Shura include those powers enumerated for Parliament in the current Constitution. It shall follow existing Parliamentary rules.
Parliamentary decisions of paramount national interest, as defined by the Parties, need approval of [xx%] of the Wolesi Jirga members and [yy%] of the Senators. This Parliament’s term shall expire at the end of the Peace Government’s term and following elections for a new legislature.
Option (2): Parliament shall be suspended during the tenure of the Peace Government with legislative authority transferred to the Executive Administration. Members of Parliament shall retain their respective benefits, rights and immunities during the period of suspension.
IV. The Judiciary
The judiciary of Afghanistan shall be independent and comprised of a [xx]-member Supreme Court and other appellate and lower courts established by law. Each side shall name [yy] members of the Supreme Court, with the President naming the final member. Its members are listed in Annex B.
It shall include independent religious and contemporary legal scholars. Its rules of procedure shall be set internally. Supreme authority to interpret the current Constitution, the provisions of this Agreement and other existing laws of Afghanistan, and to issue final, binding decisions in Constitutional and other legal disputes, including disputes related to Islamic law, rests with the judiciary.
The Independent Commission for Oversight of the Implementation of the Constitution, established under the current Constitution, will serve in an advisory capacity to the Supreme Court.
Non-State, customary and traditional resolution of civil disputes shall be permissible and promoted so long as consistent with Afghan State law, including its protections for women’s rights and other individual rights as well as applicable international laws. The State has exclusive jurisdiction over criminal matters.
V. The High Council for Islamic Jurisprudence
A fifteen-member High Council of Islamic Jurisprudence (the “Islamic Council”) shall be established within [xx] days of this Agreement, to provide Islamic guidance on social, cultural, and other contemporary issues.
Each side shall name seven members of the Islamic Council, with the President naming the fifteenth. It shall also review all draft laws, decrees and regulations prior to adoption to ensure compliance with the beliefs and provisions of Islam. In cases where the Islamic Council and the Supreme Court disagree on Islamic law, a joint reconciliation session shall convene. If a resolution is not reached, the Supreme Court’s position is final and binding.
VI. State Leadership Council
A State Leadership Council consisting of the President, the Vice Presidents, the Speakers of Parliament, the Chief Justice and the head of the Islamic Council, along with [xx] other influential figures to be chosen by the President [with the unanimous concurrence of the Vice Presidents], shall meet on matters of national importance to provide guidance and advice to the Peace Government.
VII. Sub-National Government Structures
Option (1): Provincial Council membership shall be expanded by [xx%], with the Taliban appointing the new members, in the following provinces: [xxxxxxxx]. New members shall be chosen with special consideration for women and representative balance across demographic groups in each respective province.
Option (2): Provincial Councils shall be suspended pending adoption of a new Constitution, and their authorities shall be transferred to the respective provincial governors. Its members shall retain their respective benefits, rights and immunities during the period of suspension.
VIII. The New Constitution
A -member Commission for the Preparation of a New Constitution will be established within30 days of this Agreement taking effect, with  members named by each Party to this Agreement and the President naming the [21st] member.
Members of the Constitutional Commission will include both Islamic and contemporary legal experts. This Commission will prepare a draft Constitution after widespread consultation and present a final draft to a national Loya Jirga (“LJ”) for final debate and ratification within [xx] months. The composition of the LJ will be set by the Constitutional Commission in consultation with the Executive Administration and National Shura. The new Constitution will be consistent with the guiding principles agreed in Part One of this Agreement.
All elections to be held pursuant to the current Constitution are cancelled during the tenure of the Peace Government. [An Afghan election commission will be established to administer] [An international election management body will be invited to administer] free and fair national elections following the ratification of a new Constitution. These elections will be held pursuant to the new Constitution, other applicable laws and procedures, and in accordance with the guiding principles agreed in Part One of this Agreement.
Part Three: Permanent and Comprehensive Ceasefire
I. Ceasefire Terms
B) Other forbidden provocations short of violence shall include: (a) massing of forces not authorized by the Executive Administration, (b) setting up of similarly unauthorized checkpoints, (c) abuses or harassments of local populations, (d) the denial of citizens’ freedom of movement, (e) the planting of landmines or other dangers to civilians, (f) unnecessary patrols, (g) threats of force or (h) other actions reasonably deemed a threat by the other side to the peace and security of Afghanistan.
C) The Taliban agree to remove their military structures and offices from neighboring countries, and they agree to end military relations with foreign countries. Also, the Taliban commit that they will not expand their force configurations nor recruit new fighters.
D) Both sides agree to cooperate with relevant officials of the Peace Government, including the Joint Military and Police Board established by the President, on the successful implementation of the ceasefire and related security sector reforms, including the integration of forces.
II. Ceasefire Monitoring and Implementation
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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