Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

How Not to Lose the Peace in Afghanistan

A U.N. peacekeeping mission could help avert civil war.

By , a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and director of Human Security Lab, and , a professor at Georgetown University and president of the Academic Council on the United Nations System.
A man dressed in a blue tunic and pants gazes out over a view of the city through peaked arches atop a high building.
A Taliban member looks at the city view from atop a building in Kabul on Sept. 20. Bulent Kilic/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

The United Nations Charter pledges “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” Afghans have been at war for several generations, and it is likely that the next generation will not see peace unless U.N. member states unite to prevent an intra-Afghan war. War prevention and peace, however, have not figured prominently as central goals for the U.N. in Afghanistan.

Instead, the U.N. system has focused on emergency humanitarian aid and, to a certain extent, countering terrorism. Outside of the United Nations, pressure is building to arm the opposition to the Taliban.

But there is a third way, between short-term humanitarian aid and fueling a civil war: deploying a U.N. or U.N.-supported peacekeeping mission. There is a fragile peace to keep in Afghanistan, and it is the duty of the United Nations to help keep it.

The United Nations Charter pledges “to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” Afghans have been at war for several generations, and it is likely that the next generation will not see peace unless U.N. member states unite to prevent an intra-Afghan war. War prevention and peace, however, have not figured prominently as central goals for the U.N. in Afghanistan.

Instead, the U.N. system has focused on emergency humanitarian aid and, to a certain extent, countering terrorism. Outside of the United Nations, pressure is building to arm the opposition to the Taliban.

But there is a third way, between short-term humanitarian aid and fueling a civil war: deploying a U.N. or U.N.-supported peacekeeping mission. There is a fragile peace to keep in Afghanistan, and it is the duty of the United Nations to help keep it.

The Taliban are in control for now, and the fact that they have stabilized Afghan society for a moment could be their biggest achievement, as it was partly the war-weariness of rural communities that enabled their swift rise to power.

But can they remain in control? According to the expert Fawaz A. Gerges and many others, the Taliban have only a tenuous hold over the country, do not represent a majority of Afghans, and are struggling to govern. The Taliban face challenges both from within their ranks and from other armed groups.

This trouble is unsurprising: According to research by George Mason University’s Philip A. Martin, more than half of rebel victories worldwide end in government collapse, infighting, coups, or defections. Afghans recently took to the streets in protest of the Taliban’s violent rout of the National Resistance Front from Panjshir Valley, as well as the Taliban’s treatment of women.

Ali Maisam Nazary, the National Resistance Front’s head of foreign relations, appeared in Washington recently to insist the resistance would continue and ask the United States for military support, which the group is also seeking from other international actors.

Scholarly research on civil wars and on Afghanistan point to a looming multisided conflict that, unless checked, could metastasize and spread across borders, similar to the conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Libya.

Despite what appears to be a complete Taliban victory, as a new report from Human Security Lab argues, the structural conditions for civil war in Afghanistan remain: a large population with 64 percent of people under the age of 25, low economic development, rough mountainous terrain, climactic pressures, territorialized ethnic fractionalization, and recent civil war.

The economy of Afghanistan is also near collapse—another predictor of civil war. And rebel groups are actively seeking third-party military support, which research shows exacerbates civil war onset and duration.

The consequences of such a war would be bad for human and regional security. Civilians suffer from armed conflict, and displacement camps are fertile ground for extremist and child soldier recruitment. Refugee flows threaten to destabilize neighbors, including countries in Europe.

Rather than take sides and foment continued war, the international community should support a durable peace in Afghanistan through a peace agreement and an international preventive peacekeeping mission. The Taliban could begin to earn the respect and recognition of the international community by requesting such help, and perhaps they could even gain full international recognition as part of a peace deal.

Research clearly shows that the promise of impartial peacekeepers helps convince conflict parties to sign peace accords, and, once deployed, they can prevent war from reigniting.

Even when factoring in the risks and downsides of such missions often reported in the media—troop casualties, abuses against civilians, or the potential to enable and legitimize an authoritarian government—the preponderance of rigorous quantitative research shows that peacekeeping on balance saves more civilian lives and contributes more to durable peace than any other policy tool.

In fact, where the international community did not stand up such a mission—such as in Syria and Libya—catastrophic civil wars ensued. In contrast, a U.N. preventive deployment in what was then called Macedonia effectively prevented war.

A peace mission need not be large: According to the Human Security Lab report, even a 5,000-troop mission could help. Maj. Ryan van Wie, an instructor of international relations at the U.S. Military Academy, wrote in War on the Rocks this week that a somewhat larger investment of 10,000 to 12,000 peacekeepers could provide even better geographical coverage in Afghanistan.

Those peacekeepers need not be Western: Numerous impartial, non-Western countries including Indonesia, Nepal, and Morocco have experienced peacekeeping contingents that could be called on should there be a plan in place.

And it need not be a Chapter VII enforcement mission, unless one were desired by the parties. As one of us has previously argued, even an observer mission can create a foothold from which an imperiled country can climb its way from endless conflict to first fragile and then durable peace.

Skeptics of a peacekeeping mission often say that the Taliban would never ask for help, or, if they did, they would not cooperate with a peacekeeping mission once deployed. But this view underestimates the Taliban’s own historic willingness to innovate and explore multilateral solutions.

In 2001, it was the Taliban who offered peace talks, and the United States who rejected them. In 2009, the Taliban themselves indicated they could accept a peacekeeping a mission if it came from Muslim-majority nations and not the West.

With the Taliban as the de facto government, such a mission would still assist them in achieving their own goals, such as making credible commitments to Afghanistan’s minority populations and creating durable peace with such adversaries as the National Resistance Front, which has signaled a desire for a settlement but also a willingness to keep fighting.

Some might say the Taliban have already won a peace through force. But military solutions are fleeting and unpopular: Afghans poured out in protest after the Taliban’s military incursion into Panjshir. By contrast, peacekeepers build confidence in a negotiated settlement acceptable to all conflict parties. Even if the Taliban are less inclined to seek third-party help now that they are in power, Georgetown University’s Desha Girod argues that the international community has significant leverage over the Taliban that is conducive to inducing and sustaining arrangements leading to a durable peace.

The view that the Taliban might consent to and see benefits in such a mission is also supported by the quantitative work on peacekeeping’s effectiveness.

Though Afghanistan is seen by some experts as a hard case for consent, a working paper by Timothy Passmore, Jaroslav Tir, and Johannes Karreth shows that it is actually countries like Afghanistan with a high degree of international economic interdependence that are likeliest to both consent to and cooperate with peacekeeping missions. That’s because for such countries there are “tangible incentives to both allow [peacekeeping operations] and to help fulfill the mission of return to peace.”

Afghanistan is a member of the World Trade Organization, heavily dependent on aid, and deeply connected to the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. It is also the only country in Central Asia that is a member of all three of the following regional economic groupings: the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, the Economic Cooperation Organization, and the Asian Development Bank’s Central Asia Regional Economic Cooperation Program.

Perhaps most importantly, the international community holds what the Taliban want: recognition as a legitimate government and the financial means with which to govern. The international community should offer this recognition if the Taliban seek a multilateral mission to support an intra-Afghan peace deal.

That mission could also provide confidence-building measures to the international community that the Taliban truly mean to join the community of civilized nations, govern wisely, share power, and cooperate in preventing transnational jihadi terrorism. Such a mission, perhaps structured on terms the Taliban themselves once suggested, could support a peace process that could avert a civil war.

The Taliban leaders have indicated a desire for assistance and an openness to international guidance. U.N. relief chief Martin Griffiths recently told the BBC that Taliban leaders he spoke with told him regarding human rights issues, “Please help us address these issues together. We need patience. We need to learn how to do it.” This guidance should include assistance with conflict resolution and prevention.

Durable peace is the prerequisite for addressing issues such as human rights and economic development. U.N. member states should offer to do all they can to help Afghanistan’s conflict parties negotiate, secure, and maintain an intra-Afghan peace.

Charli Carpenter is a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, a senior research fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, and director of Human Security Lab. Twitter: @charlicarpenter

Lise Howard is a professor of government and foreign service at Georgetown University and president of the Academic Council on the United Nations System. Twitter: @HowardLise

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