The Afghan Taliban announced the launch of their annual spring offensive on April 25, on the same schedule they’ve stuck to for many years. At the same time, the United States is reported to have dropped more bombs in Afghanistan in the first quarter of 2018 than in the same period of any of the last fifteen years. This persistence—and, indeed, intensification—of the conflict might seem to suggest that conditions are not suited to pursuing a peaceful settlement.
But a more clear-eyed view is that the war in Afghanistan is now as ripe for negotiated settlement as it is ever likely to be. Military stalemate is an essential precondition for negotiated conflict resolution, and the war has been stalemated for nearly a decade already.
Afghanistan is a three-party conflict—the United States, the Afghan government, and the Taliban—with a fourth, shadow party, Pakistan, providing, at a minimum, valuable safe haven and freedom of movement for the Taliban. Each of the parties has shown interest in negotiations at various times over the last sixteen years, but the peaks of interest by each party have never coincided.
Though the signals have been mixed, the Trump administration appears to be following the pattern of its predecessor in imagining a political end-game in Afghanistan, but focusing predominantly on a military effort to try to turn the tide of the conflict, in hopes of negotiating from a position of greater strength.
In the aftermath of bloody attacks in Kabul, President Trump said on January 29 that talking with the Taliban would be a long way off, if ever. Other U.S. officials subsequently implied that his remarks shouldn’t be taken too literally. During a March 13 visit to Kabul, for instance, Secretary of Defense James Mattis publicly defined victory in Afghanistan as “political reconciliation,” but suggested a strategy of peeling away and reintegrating Taliban elements in bits and pieces. That version of reconciliation has already been tried and so far failed and is unlikely to motivate a group that is holding its own on the battlefield to take a U.S. call for settlement seriously.
Senior U.S. military officials for many months now have articulated a goal of achieving Afghan government control over 80 percent of the country’s population to set the stage for negotiations. This vision of political settlement looks more like negotiating terms of the Taliban’s capitulation rather than terms of compromise and power-sharing.
The premise underlying the “80 percent” goal is that rolling back the Taliban to that extent will persuade them that they have no opportunity for military victory, fracture the group, and severely damage their leverage in any negotiations. This goal is being pursued through more aggressive air strikes and by moving U.S. advisors closer to Afghan forces involved in offensive operations.
This approach is highly suspect for several reasons. First, although a favorite concept of counterinsurgency specialists, “population control” is probably not a particularly meaningful concept in Afghanistan, a country that is run by a government too weak to truly control the population. Afghan populations that appeared controlled at one point in time have rapidly proven susceptible to insurgent advances.
Second, several recent cases of insurgency suggest that the Taliban is perfectly capable of surviving, maintaining cohesion, and continuing to undermine the government while controlling only a small portion of the population, especially while it enjoys safe haven in Pakistan. The Rwandan Patriotic Front, for instance, survived for years in neighboring Uganda before returning to militarily overthrow Rwanda’s Hutu regime. Various Islamic militant groups in the Philippines have survived for decades, despite the fact that only an estimated 5 percent of the country’s population is Muslim. An insurgency’s resilience is not determined by the portion of the population it controls.
Third, neither more U.S. troops nor more intensive airstrikes are likely to turn the tide decisively. Recent RAND research examined approximately fifty cases of foreign military interventions. It found that foreign troops can help prevent a partner regime from losing to insurgents, but they do not improve the odds of victory, even when deployed in large numbers. Negotiated settlements involving substantial concessions to the insurgents are typically the best outcome that foreign interveners can hope to obtain. The same research found that even intensive air campaigns usually yield only very short-term improvements in security. The U.S. drone strike campaign in Pakistan, for instance, was successful in reducing militant attacks in the short term, but almost as soon as the U.S. ended its period of intensive strikes, militant activity returned to its prior levels.
Each side in a conflict wants to negotiate from a position of strength; if all sides continue to seek military advantage, negotiations will never commence. The Taliban has already shown itself to be highly resilient. In such circumstances, stalemate is an adequate precondition for negotiating.
U.S. forces have already proven to the Taliban that the group cannot win an outright military victory. Keeping a sustainable level of troops in Afghanistan while seeking a negotiated settlement is necessary to demonstrate U.S. resolve to prevent the Afghan government’s defeat. But more-intensive U.S. military operations are unlikely to achieve more than ephemeral gains. A more-intensive U.S. diplomatic push for negotiations, however, could capitalize on the stalemate to stabilize Afghanistan by bringing the Taliban into the political fold, enabling the United States to focus on counter-terrorism concerns in the region.
At a February 28 conference in Kabul, President Ashraf Ghani offered the Taliban a peace process without preconditions. In a “letter to the American people” two weeks earlier, the Taliban claimed a preference to solve Afghanistan’s problems through peaceful dialogue and said that it wanted positive and constructive relations with all countries of the world. Neither of these moves guarantee that both of those sides are fully prepared to go down the difficult road of making peace. But these developments do beg the question whether the United States is ready to prioritize peacemaking and to escalate diplomacy.
Laurel Miller is a senior foreign policy expert at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation. From June 2013 to June 2017 she was deputy and then acting special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the U.S. Department of State.
Stephen Watts is a senior political scientist and Associate Director of the RAND Arroyo Center’s Strategy, Doctrine, and Resources Program.