Afghanistan: The Peace Negotiations Have Become an Extension of War by Other Means

In one of his most famous quotes in On War, Clausewitz states that, “War is not merely a political act but a real political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, a carrying out of the same by other means.” Far too often, however, peace negotiations become the exact opposite: They become “A continuation of war by other means.” Some – or all sides – combine negotiating with further fighting, threats, and intimidation, or they use negotiations as a cover for different forms of active struggle.

Even seemingly successful negotiations often fail to create stable countries or to avoid further fighting. They create enough political compromises to end the current fighting, but they do not lay the groundwork for reducing the causes of conflict. They fail to create sufficiently stable and effective enough political systems, levels of security, governance, economic progress, and rule of law to avoid new forms of conflict and create a successful state.

Even when peace negotiations are not a deliberate extension of war by other means, they often fail when the end result is to create a state with so many internal stresses or unresolved issues that the “peace” becomes a prelude to new and different forms of conflict.

Peace Negotiations as a Cover for Withdrawal? The Key Goal Was Leaving by May 2021

From the start, the Afghan peace process the U.S. agreed to in February 2012, seems to have been at least as much a cover for American withdrawal as an effort to achieve a real peace. While the U.S. never stated that withdrawal was its primary goal, its February agreement did virtually nothing to define what a peace with the Taliban could or should be. It placed far more emphasis on full withdrawal in 14 months than it did on creating the conditions for successful peace negotiations.

The U.S. virtually excluded a divided Afghan central government from the negotiating process. It set no clear conditions for a broad ceasefire or for reaching an actual peace settlement. It did not define how the negotiations would take place, and it seemed far more focused on establishing a clear date for U.S. withdrawal.

Even by Vietnam War standards, the U.S. acted without having established the preconditions that could force the Taliban to adopt more than a cosmetic peace settlement. The U.S. had not created Afghan forces as effective as the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), there was no equivalent to a massive bombing campaign that forced the Taliban to accept an end to the fighting, and the Taliban still controlled far more Afghan territory than the Viet Cong or North Vietnam ever controlled in South Vietnam.

Moreover, there was not even the hollow shell of a successful election in Afghanistan. The Afghan central government could not achieve even a cosmetic unity until it was blackmailed into an agreement in May, and much of the country which supposedly was under the control of the central government was actually controlled by local power brokers.

Leaving a Failed State

In fairness, there were good reasons for the U.S. to set a deadline for departure and to force negotiations even if they would not succeed. Nearly two decades of effort had not created an Afghanistan that showed clear prospects for being able to stand on its own. The Afghan political system, which the U.S. helped create after 2001, was a deeply divided failure – split at the top by rival factions and divided throughout the country by power brokers and areas controlled by the Taliban.

The Transparency International and World Bank assessments of the Afghan central government show that corruption is the rule, not the exception. The agreement to hold peace negotiations took place when the leadership of the Afghan government was so divided that the U.S. virtually had to largely exclude most leaders in the government from the initial negotiating process.

And, civil progress has been as limited as political progress for most of the last decade. Many exaggerated claims have been made about Afghan progress in governance, services, education, health, the rule of law, and the rights of women. However, reporting by U.S. government sources like the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) have made it clear that far too many have been false.

Outside groups like the World Bank, IMF, and Transparency International have made it clear that the Afghan government remained ineffective in many areas, and that Afghanistan failed to make progress in fighting poverty after 2008 – although U.S. aid peaked in 2011-2012. As of 2020, the only major success in its private sector was its narcotics industry – which was also its only real source of exports.

Open-Ended Subsidies and Civil and Military Aid

The World Bank has made it brutally clear that no Afghan government can survive without massive outside aid even if the Afghan central government and the Taliban could agree on some kind of combination between a modern and “Salafi” economy. The World Bank estimates that international grants finance 75% of Afghanistan’s public expenditures. The United States is the largest source of those grants.1

The Afghan central government’s total civil and security budget now totals around $11 billion annually while Afghan domestic revenues are only about $2.5 billion.2 The World Bank also notes that this dependence reflects,3

“the wide gap between revenues and expenditures…Total grants are equal to around US $8.5 billion per year. This is equal to around 45 percent of GDP, compared to an average of around 10 percent for low income countries.”

There is no reliable way to estimate Afghanistan’s future needs if the central government and the Taliban can agree on a peace. The World Bank has done a preliminary study, however, that warns that any peacetime Afghan government is likely to be at least as dependent on outside aid as it is now, and it would need more additional aid for real development. Any warfighting savings in security would be offset by the need to absorb and fund Taliban fighters while also keeping Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) personnel employed long enough to make a transition into the civil economy.

“Peace” Without Guarantees or Security

As for the security, it is brutally clear from SIGAR and reporting by the Lead Inspector General of the Department of Defense (LIG) in 2020, however, that Afghan security forces need far more help to develop as a force that can truly stand on its own. The central government is still losing ground and the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) cannot survive without U.S. combat airpower and forward-deployed train and assist support.

The U.S. has also failed to set any conditions for U.S. security guarantees if the peace process failed, if the Taliban kept fighting, or if the Taliban violated the terms of a peace which it previously agreed to. The U.S. no longer reports on how much of the country is under Taliban control, and how many other areas have effective national law enforcement and security or effective district governments.

(These civil and military issues are examined in depth, with full citations, maps, and graphics in Afghanistan: The Prospects for Real Peace, July 7, 2020,

Eight of the 14-Month “Peace Process” Are Now Gone, No One has Publicly Defined What a Peace Would Mean, and The War Continues

Eight of the 14 months in the peace process will elapse at the end of October 2020, and so far, there has been no progress towards defining and reaching an actual peace – and no clear progress towards ending the fighting. The Taliban has eased its pressure on U.S. and foreign forces – in return for ongoing force cuts and freeing Taliban prisoners. However, it continues to attack Afghan military and government targets in 24 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces and sometimes in the capital, Kabul.  

The fighting is still all too serious. the UN reported on October 14, 2020, that, “several districts of Helmand, including areas near provincial capital Lashkargah, and parts of neighboring Kandahar province have been affected. The highway between Lashkargah and Kandahar – Afghanistan’s second largest city – has been inaccessible due to the presence of improvised explosive devices (IEDs).”4

In the third week of October 2020, the Washington Post reported that, “the Taliban staged 356 attacks, two suicide bombings and 52 mine explosions across the country, killing 51 civilians and wounding 157. They said more than 400 insurgents were killed but did not give casualty figures for Afghan forces. A suicide bombing Saturday in Kabul, which killed at least 24 students, was claimed by the Islamic State group, a rival extremist organization.”5

Civilian casualties have dropped, but more because of a change in the focus of the fighting than any move towards peace. The UN reported on October 24th that, 6

The number of Afghan civilians killed and injured in the conflict has failed to slow since the start of intra-Afghan peace talks, although the overall civilian casualty figure for the first nine months of 2020 dropped by around 30 per cent compared to the same period in 2019, according to a new report released today by the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA)…The Mission’s latest quarterly report documented 5,939 civilian casualties (2,117 killed and 3,822 injured) from 1 January to 30 September 2020. High levels of violence continue with a devastating impact on civilians, with Afghanistan remaining among the deadliest places in the world to be a civilian.

… in the period from 12 September – the start of the Afghanistan peace negotiations between the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the Taliban in Doha, Qatar – to 30 September, there was no reduction in the documented number of civilian casualties caused by parties involved in the talks in comparison to previous weeks…the Mission raises its increasing concern over the intensification of the fighting in Helmand, as well as several indiscriminate attacks in Nangarhar, Laghman and Ghor along with an airstrike in Takhar and a suicide attack targeting civilians in Kabul that taken together killed and injured more than 400 civilians. 

There have been U.S. and allied force cuts, as well as the loss of U.S. facilities and bases. The exact levels of these cuts are unclear. The U.S. no longer issues credible reports on its real levels of military, civilian, and contractor personnel – levels far higher than the nominal and rounded numbers of military personnel – alone – that it does report.

While sources differ, nominal military personnel dropped from some 14,000 in late 2019; to 12,000 in early 2020; to 8,600 in July 2020 – with President Trump calling for only 2,500 in early 2021, although he mentioned having as few as zero troops by Christmas at one point in early October, without defining if he meant all troops or those with some combat elements or forward role.7 As for airpower, the U.S. ceased to report unclassified data on U.S. strike and IS&R sorties as well as munitions releases, as of May 2020.

It seems likely that the U.S. is already down to the point where it cannot sustain an adequate forward based train and assist effort, and it has lost much of its targeting and air strike capability against dispersed Taliban targets. It has certainly lost much of its presence in the field, the ability to properly monitor its military and civil aid programs in one of the world’s most corrupt countries, and much of its HUMINT capability and situational awareness. The U.S. may well have already lost enough facilities so that any rapid return in the face of a collapse of the peace process – or failed peace – would be difficult, time consuming, and costly. By early 2021, the U.S. may well be at levels where such a return will be impractical.

What a Real Peace Requires

The Taliban, the central government, and most Afghans already understand these realities. The question is what – if anything – can be done at this point to make fundamental changes that will produce a real and successful peace – and the probable answer is not enough. There is very little time for real negotiation – if they are possible – and there is an immense gap between the ideology and values of the Afghan central government and the Taliban.

The U.S. also faces two key outside transitions that will make it difficult to focus on Afghanistan. One is coping with the outcome of the U.S. elections. The other is dealing with the political, economic, and security impacts of the Coronavirus as well as the coming need to reallocate U.S aid and security assistance on a global level.

A real Afghan peace means addressing and resolving key issues that still divide and weaken the Afghan central government – and that means a peace must deal with the far deeper divisions between that government and the Taliban. They affect virtually every aspect of any new form of government that will emerge out of a peace settlement, in which there are no public indications that the peace talks have addressed a single issue.

With eight months to go, the central government and the Taliban must act to create:

  • A political structure that takes on the form of either an integrated government or some form of federalism, with a matching new approach to every level of governance, government services, security, and economic development.

  • New arrangements for creating and allocating domestic revenues and outside aid for budgeting and managing programs as well as money at every level of the government.

  • Structures and power sharing arrangements for economic development, infrastructure investment and development, banking and financial services, trade, business law, and employment law and worker protection – taking Islamic issues into account.

  • Choices must be made to either unify or create parallel military and security systems, as well as to deal with any outside military aid and support. Mechanisms must be developed to deal with incidents, clashes, and disputes, and to allocate resources to retirement and services.

  • Programs to deal with holdings of arms and weapons and to deal with reductions in military forces that offer transition programs and employment opportunities.

  • Agreements on a legal system, human rights, implementing the rule of law, policing, and local security. Given the importance of narcotics on Afghanistan’s economy, some agreement must be reached on revenues and legal enforcement of limits on production and exports.

  • Agreements of ideological hot button issues like education, freedom of expression, restrictions on social behavior, entertainment, and the rights of women must be addressed.

  • Calendars and methods of verification and of auditing for phased implementation of such measures.

  • The central government must also reach some solution to the role played by its power brokers, and the Taliban must do the same for its factions.

There are, as of yet, few indications that the Taliban and central government can find some form of viable compromise. Many are not major issues in most peace negotiations, but all are critical in Afghanistan.

Salvaging a Failed Peace Process: Is A New U.S. Effort Possible and Justified

Looking back on the history of peace efforts to date, there is no way to know whether a different U.S. approach to the peace process – one that was far more conditional in dealing with the Taliban and far more open about the need for the Afghan government to either achieve unity and real reform or see the U.S withdraw – would have been more successful.

There also is still some possibility – although it seems to be a limited one – that the U.S might help to create a more workable peace settlement if it offered conditional aid, worked with its allies to create an effective international aid effort, and provided some form of contingency guarantees in the form of combat air support and other aid to the Afghan government if the peace process or any peace agreement failed.

In balance, it may be too late to do more than rely on hope that the peace process will somehow work out in spite of the Taliban’s effort to exploit the negotiations and its continued use of violence.

  • There are few indications that the Afghan central government is achieving enough effectiveness, unity, and ability to use aid honestly to survive a transition to some form of joint government or federalism with the Taliban. More promises are no substitute for 20 years of failure.

  • The Afghan forces have improved, but still need more aid than the U.S. can provide without keeping train and assist and support cadres in Afghanistan.

  • The Coronavirus has greatly complicated Afghanistan’s economic problems, as well as those of many other U.S. strategic partners and the United States. When it comes to strategic triage, the U.S. has many higher priorities elsewhere in the world.

  • The U.S. has already cut its presence to the level where it can no longer properly support the ANDSF and the Afghan central government, and U.S. domestic politics and competing needs preclude a return and probably any meaningful security guarantees.

  • Other U.S. partners in military and civil aid have little reason to stay if the U.S. does not adequately support the Afghan central government or guarantee the peace process.

  • It is the central government that is now dependent on outside military and civil aid. The Taliban can probably endure any reductions or added conditionality in such aid, leaving the central government to be blamed by most Afghans.

But, There Are Some reasons for Hope

Proceeding with withdrawal and accepting whatever emerges out of what is largely a failed peace process may well now be the best option. It seems too late to try to retain a meaningful military presence in the form of trainers or to provide security guarantees.

This does not, however, rule out providing conditional U.S. financial aid to the civil and security aspects of whatever government emerges, U.S. support of conditional international aid efforts, and educational and training programs in the U.S. and other outside states – either at the time a peace accord is reached or to influence the situation as some new power structure emerges.

There are also some reasons for hope, in spite of the odds that such efforts will fail to bring lasting peace and stability:

  • The possibility the Taliban will divide. “Success” has killed many such ideological movements when they lack a powerful, unifying, and charismatic leader.

  • The Taliban may have a significant edge in the ability to use force, but it lacks broad popularity and many practical capabilities to govern and move Afghanistan towards development.

  • There is the possibility the Taliban will weaken or divide. The Taliban faces major challenges in staying in power, even if it “wins.” Its ideology will make it extremely difficult for it to attract aid, create a functional structure of governance and economy, or play a major regional role. Over time, a new regime or power structure may evolve.

  • Once the U.S departs, the burden of dealing with Afghanistan falls on Russia, China, Iran, and Pakistan – and to a lesser degree the “-stan” countries. The core of the problem shifts to states where the U.S. has no reason to try to reduce the burden.

  • The Taliban’s ties to al-Qaeda seem to continue, although the Taliban treats ISIS as a rival. It is far from clear, however, that Afghanistan remains a major source of potential terrorist attacks on the U.S., and a carefully targeted conditional aid program might both limit the risk that the Taliban will support such activity and also keep the Taliban active against ISIS.

Making such aid offers now – with all the proper conditions made clear – could also ease the reality that the U.S. effectively labeled a withdrawal plan as a peace process in creating the February 2020 agreement. It also would clearly shift responsibility to the Afghans for their own destiny – a reality they will have to live with in any case – and do so in a way that offers at least some real element of hope.

Afghanistan: The War Continues – Part One

Afghanistan: The War Continues – Part Two

Source: Adapted from UNAMA, “Afghan Peace Talks Fail to Slow Civilian Casualty Toll,” October 27, 2020,; and UNAMA, “Afghanistan Third Quarter Report on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict: 2020,” October 27, 2020,

This report entitled, Afghanistan: The Peace Negotiations Have Become an Extension of War by Other Means, is available for download at

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.

1 SIGAR, Quarterly Report to Congress, p. 101, April 30, 2020.
2 Mujib Mashal, “Afghanistan Needs Billions in Aid Even After a Peace Deal, World Bank Says,” New York Times, December 5, 2019,
3 Mujib Mashal, “Afghanistan Needs Billions in Aid Even After a Peace Deal, World Bank Says,” New York Times, December 5, 2019,
4 UN, “Thousands displaced by fighting in southern Afghanistan,” October 14, 2020,
5Pamela Constable, “Taliban shows it can launch attacks anywhere across Afghanistan, even as peace talks continue,” Washington Post, October 25, 2020,
6UNAMA, “Afghan Peace Talks Fail to Slow Civilian Casualty Toll,” October 27, 2020,
7 Hollie McKay, “Taliban attacks increase as US troops move toward total withdrawal from Afghanistan,” Fox News, October 7, 2020,

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy