Afghanistan

Hoping that peace comes to Afghanistan? Dream on.

Jan 30 '19
The most important condition for a peace deal to work is having a third party willing to help enforce the agreement. (EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

People react to cease-fires and peace settlements the same way they do to weddings. They generally feel optimistic and hope things work out. This describes how most of the world feels about the deal to end the civil war in Afghanistan: Everyone wants it to succeed. President Trump wants U.S. soldiers out of the country. The Taliban wants the United States out of the country. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani wants peace even if the United States stays. And average Afghan citizens? They just want the 17-year war to be over.

The framework deal reached between the United States and the Taliban has left many people hopeful that the war in Afghanistan could soon come to an end. But those of us who study peace agreements know that this is wishful thinking. This deal will almost certainly fail.

Three conditions help peace deals stick

Over the past 25 years, numerous statistical studies have examined the conditions under which cease-fires and peace agreements in civil wars succeed in ending violence. They all have very similar findings.

Three conditions are usually necessary for agreements to bring peace. The first involves military conditions on the ground. A military stalemate between the two sides is one of the best signs that the combatants will take a peace deal seriously (and therefore implement it). When there’s stalemate, combatants tend to be quite interested in compromise, but when one side is winning a war, there are few incentives to make concessions to one’s enemy.

Stalemate isn’t enough: The second condition is power-sharing. Successful peace agreements almost always provided political and territorial guarantees to the armed factions fighting the war. These guarantees could take the form of a specific quota of power, a guaranteed distribution of key ministries, shared control over executive positions or meaningful territorial autonomy. All of these can give competing factions a significant say in how the postwar government would be run and a stake in the deal.

By far the most important condition, however, is that a third party is willing to help enforce the agreement. When a third party agrees to assist with implementation, peace agreements almost always succeeded regardless of the initial goals, ideology or ethnicity of the participants. If a third party did not step in, these talks usually failed.

Sophisticated studies with different data, statistical techniques, measurements and time periods have all found that thirdparty peacekeeping has a large, positive and statistically significant effect on the success of peace agreements in civil wars as well as the duration of postwar peace. In fact, Fortna finds that the chances of going back to war drops by somewhere between 75 percent and 85 percent or more when peacekeepers are present.

The Afghan deal meets none of these conditions

This tells us a lot about the deal being negotiated in Afghanistan. This deal will almost certainly fail. Afghanistan has none of the conditions that we know lead to success.

First, there is no military stalemate. In fact, not only is the Taliban winning the war, but it understands that its military position will improve once U.S. troops are removed. It has made the removal of troops the key condition for signing the agreement.

Second, there is no plan for power-sharing. Under the current framework, the Taliban is being asked to “talk” with Ghani (something it has not wanted to do). However, specific power-sharing arrangements have not been discussed.

Finally, there is no third-party enforcement mechanism to guarantee this agreement. Any hope for peacekeeping arrangements will disappear when U.S. troops leave. It is no surprise, therefore, that the Taliban continues to fight the war even as negotiations proceed.

Neither side really wants a deal

So why are the United States and the Taliban negotiating when both probably know the talks are destined to fail? The answer is simple: Both sides have self-interested motives. Trump wants U.S. soldiers home to gain the appearance of a foreign policy victory. The Taliban wants U.S. soldiers out of the country so that they can pursue what they really want: victory. The real losers in this process are Ghani, who will be left without critical U.S. support, and the Afghan people, who will once again face war.

The political science suggests that the United States cannot withdraw from Afghanistan and get peace at the same time. Withdrawing U.S. forces will lead to more war, not less. Nor can the Afghans enforce this agreement on their own. Historically, almost no set of combatants in a civil war have been able to enforce a peace agreement without the help of a third party. It is conceivable that new technologies could be used to watch the peace without a large U.S. military presence. Armed drones could be used to monitor the movements of combatants in the field, verify compliance with the terms of the agreement and punish those who return to violence, providing a high-tech substitute for more-traditional boots on the ground. However, there are no signs that the Trump administration is interested in deploying such solutions. This means that the negotiations are much like an ill-fated wedding — full of enthusiasm but ultimately headed toward divorce.

Barbara Walter is a professor of political science at the School of Global Policy & Strategy at the University of California at San Diego.