Negotiating While Fighting in Afghanistan

October 15, 2010 Topic: Counterinsurgency Region: Afghanistan Blog Brand: Paul Pillar Tags: InsurgencyIslamismToryWar In AfghanistanIslam

Negotiating While Fighting in Afghanistan

Americans like to think of war and peace as two distinct states. But the United States has often negotiated with the enemy while fighting them at the same time—and is doing so again in Afghanistan.


Reporting about the initiation of preliminary talks with the Afghan Taliban, and about the Obama administration's acceptance and even facilitation of such talks, has generated commentary and some skepticism about what we can and cannot expect from a dual track approach of combat and negotiation in Afghanistan. Skepticism is not surprising; Americans like to think of war and peace as two distinct states. They like wars to end the way World War II did, with their military forcing the enemy's military into submission and with peace treaties being something for diplomats to negotiate after guns have fallen silent.

But the United States has had plenty of experience negotiating while fighting; its involvement in both the Korean and the Vietnam Wars ended that way, with two years of negotiations in the former conflict and five years in the latter. The War of 1812 also ended that way—despite the slowness of early nineteenth century trans-Atlantic communications, which resulted in the Battle of New Orleans being fought after a peace treaty had been signed. War being an extension of politics by other means, simultaneous exercise of military and diplomatic instruments should be considered the norm rather than the exception. Frustrations and complications experienced in the aforementioned and other wars are not reasons to reject negotiating an end to an ongoing war; they are reasons to learn from earlier experiences and to shape our techniques and expectations accordingly.


A book I wrote some three decades ago on negotiating ends to wars suggests some observations about techniques and expectations, in addition to the general endorsement I already have given to the whole idea of talking with the Taliban while the Afghanistan war continues. An appendix to that book summarized “Lessons for the Statesman at War” derivable from study of earlier wars. It presented 44 such lessons, but I will spare you most of them and instead mention only a few ideas especially pertinent to the current conflict.

One key concept is that it takes two sides (at least) to negotiate a peace agreement, which implies that we cannot just focus on what circumstances would be acceptable to our own side for making peace. We also need to consider what circumstances would be acceptable to the adversary, lest a mutually acceptable opportunity for making peace be missed. A frequently heard argument applied to the war in Afghanistan is that more time is required to soften up the Taliban so they will be in a weaker position in any settlement of the war. The argument overlooks the fact that insofar as such softening works to our side's bargaining advantage and thus to the Taliban's disadvantage, for that very reason it would make the Taliban less likely to want to negotiate and more likely to keep fighting in the hope of restoring some of their bargaining strength. 

The need to keep in mind the adversary's calculations in this way applies to negotiating terms and conditions as well as timing. One of the conditions commonly raised regarding Afghanistan, especially given the uncertainties about renewed warfare that would persist even with a peace agreement, concerns whether the Taliban should surrender their arms. Rigid insistence on a precondition that they do so is apt to be a deal-breaker, or at least would unnecessarily delay progress toward a settlement. My Lesson Number 35 is: “Leaving the enemy's capability for future combat intact may induce him to accept terms that he would otherwise reject.”

It would be a mistake to get wound up tightly about preconditions of any sort, whether it be a demand from our side for the Taliban to disarm or a demand from the Taliban's side for a timetable for withdrawing NATO troops. In the settlement of many past wars, kerfuffles over conditions for negotiating are very common but in the end rarely make much, if any, difference. If one side lays an issue on the negotiating table, it is on the table, regardless of how much the other side says it is not yet willing to discuss it because some condition hasn't been met. If the two sides are talking about anything, they are in position to talk about everything. Talks about talks have a way of sliding into just plain talks. Hence Lesson Number 12: “In order to overcome inflexibility caused by the prior imposition of conditions, begin negotiating with a supposedly limited agenda or with an ambiguous understanding about fulfillment of conditions. If both sides are willing to talk, negotiations on all issues will take place anyway.” This is supplemented by Lesson Number 41: “Do not waste time over the agenda. Any agenda will probably be discarded anyway.”

As the United States approaches what I hope is the final phase of its already long involvement in this war and formulates a negotiating position for ending (or exiting) it, we need to bear in mind that sunk costs really are sunk. Especially given the nature of the war in Afghanistan, in which many fighters in the Taliban's ranks have taken up their arms relatively recently in response to our operations and occupation, we need to heed Lesson Number 26: “Resist the tendency to think of past costs as an investment in a war in which the effects of violence on the enemy are not really cumulative.” And before getting too fussy about what we demand in peace negotiations, amid the hazard of getting stuck even longer in a quagmire, we should heed as well Lesson Number 25: “Remember that your next military decision will be followed by still another, and that the total cost of the war may exceed the value to you of any particular settlement terms.”