Stephen M. Walt

‘Peace with Honor’ in Afghanistan? The problem with historical amnesia

I’d like to believe that the United States and its (remaining) allies have got their act together and turned a corner in Afghanistan. Really. That’s more-or-less what New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall told us in a front-page piece yesterday, and it was the key theme of retired general Jack Keane’s appearance on Charlie Rose ...

Scott Olson/Getty Images
Scott Olson/Getty Images

I’d like to believe that the United States and its (remaining) allies have got their act together and turned a corner in Afghanistan. Really. That’s more-or-less what New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall told us in a front-page piece yesterday, and it was the key theme of retired general Jack Keane’s appearance on Charlie Rose a couple of nights ago.

It would obviously be better for nearly everyone if the Taliban were routed, if order and security were restored in Afghanistan, and if the United States could extricate itself from this costly and seemingly open-ended commitment. But there are at least two good reasons to view these upbeat reports with some skepticism.

First, U.S. commanders have emphasized in the past that this conflict is largely one of perceptions. If everyone thinks we’re winning, so the argument runs, then fence-straddlers in Afghanistan will tilt our way and popular support in the United States will remain high enough to keep us in the war. If everyone thinks we’re losing, by contrast, momentum will swing the other way, more Afghans will gravitate toward the Taliban, and support back here will evaporate. Unfortunately, this situation means we can’t really believe anything that our military leaders tell us about the progress of the war, because they have an obvious incentive to spin an upbeat story to reporters, or to people like Charlie Rose.

Second, as critics of the war have repeatedly pointed out, defeating the Taliban on the battlefield is nearly impossible as long as they can go to ground in local areas or flee across the border into Pakistan. And Gall’s story in the Times makes it clear that this is precisely what is happening now. This is undoubtedly why the Obama administration is making yet another effort to get Pakistan to do more on its side of the border, and dangling a fat new military aid package as inducement. And at the same time, we’re supposedly supporting negotiations with certain Taliban leaders, and we might even be willing to back some sort of deal.  

So let me tell you what I think is going to happen. The United States is going to spend the next few months trying to clear out or kill as many Taliban as we can find, accompanied by a lot of optimistic reports about how well we are doing. This won’t be about a "hearts and minds" approach or even a long-term strategy of nation-building; it will be about creating the appearance of momentum and success. At the same time, we’re going to try to shepherd a political process that can be sold as "peace deal" between the Karzai government and some moderate Taliban. If we’re really lucky and offer big enough bribes (oops, I mean foreign aid), we might get Pakistan to pretend to be on board too. And then Obama will claim "the Afghan surge worked" sometime in the latter half of 2011, and begin withdrawing U.S. troops.

As our numbers fall, the Taliban will regroup, Pakistan will help rearm them covertly, and the struggle for power in Afghanistan will resume. Afghanistan’s fate will once again be primarily in the hands of the Afghan people and the nearby neighbors who meddle there for their own reasons. I don’t know who will win, but it actually won’t matter very much for U.S. national security interests.

There are ample historical precedents for this sort of outcome. The Soviet Union concocted a peace deal before they withdrew in 1988, but their chosen successor, Najibullah, didn’t last long once they had left. (Notice, however, that their enemies in Afghanistan didn’t "follow them home" either). The United States achieved "peace with honor" in the 1973 Vietnam peace accords, but then Saigon fell two years later. No matter; the United States ended up winning the Cold War anyway. And then there’s Iraq,where the 2007 "surge" was hailed as a great military victory but is now unraveling. In each case, the peace deal was mostly a fig leaf designed to let a great power get out of a costly war without admitting it had been beaten.

Petraeus & Co. are trying to pull off something similar here, and it may well be the best that can be made of a bad situation. But there is a subtle, long-term danger in this sort of sleight-of-hand. If we tell ourselves we won and then get out, we will end up learning the wrong lessons from the whole experience. By portraying the Iraqi and Afghan "surges" as victories, we fool ourselves into thinking that this sort of war is something we are good at fighting, that the benefits of doing so are worth the costs, and that all it takes to win this sort of war is the right commander, the right weapons, and the right Field Manual. And if we indulge in this familiar form of historical amnesia, we’ll be more likely to make similar errors down the road.

Update: According to McClatchey, those recent stories about the United States facilitating peace talks between Taliban leaders and the Karzai government are part of an elaborate "psychological operation" designed to sow dissension within Taliban ranks. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but if it is, it suggests that the U.S. military is either still hoping for a decisive victory over the Taliban (which would make negotiations unnecessary), or it thinks that the Taliban has to be weakened a lot more before negotiations are likely to work. I think the latter is more likely, but it still leaves open the possibility of "declaring victory" and getting out, starting next summer. We’ll see.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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