Secretary Panetta, Afghanistan needs a peace settlement, not more war

US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta arrived in Afghanistan, where US policy has been mostly military. Washington continues to view Afghanistan through the lens of war when it most needs peace – a negotiated settlement with insurgents and neighboring states like India and Pakistan.

Jim Watson/Reuters
US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (right) speaks with Afghanistan Defence Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak during a joint news conference in Kabul June 7. Op-ed contributor David Cortright says 'many of the obstacles to a negotiated peace agreement could be reduced if the US were to apply to peace even a portion of the resources it now devotes to war.'

If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, to paraphrase psychologist Abraham Maslow. United States Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta arrived in Afghanistan today, where America’s policy toolkit has been mostly military. More than 90 percent of expenditures related to Afghanistan are channeled through the Pentagon, and so Washington looks mostly for military solutions to the problems there.

Why do policymakers in the United States continue to view Afghanistan through the lens of war when what the country needs most is a focus on peace?

At the recent NATO summit in Chicago, the US military allies confirmed that they will withdraw most of their troops by 2014, but the US plans to maintain a residual military force to train and support Afghan security forces as they battle the insurgency. This will “Afghanize” the war, lowering US casualties and costs but maintaining military operations to kill and arrest insurgents.

The problem is that counterinsurgency policies have not been able to defeat the Taliban over the past decade, and it is doubtful that they will be more successful with fewer troops in the years ahead. Armed conflict is likely to continue with no end in sight, and could lead to renewed civil war. If this were to occur, civilian suffering would increase, and gains in social development and women’s rights would almost certainly be lost.

Most modern wars end through negotiated peace agreements not military victory. If a peace accord could be reached in Afghanistan this would bring security and stability to the country and reduce the appeal of armed militancy in the region. Research shows that peace processes are most successful when they are comprehensive and inclusive, with strong international backing. The chances of success also improve when agreements are monitored and policed by third party peacekeeping forces.

The Afghan government and NATO leaders have endorsed the goal of a negotiated peace with the Taliban and other insurgent groups, but attempts to begin the peace process have faced major obstacles and setbacks. Convincing the parties involved to reach a political settlement will require a major push and much greater focus from the United States and its international partners, including Pakistan.

Recent reports by the International Crisis Group and the RAND Corporation recommend the creation of a high-level UN-led mediation team to work with the Afghan parties and neighboring states to facilitate a comprehensive multifaceted peace process. The negotiations should seek an agreement between insurgents and the Afghan government and a diplomatic compact among neighboring states.

This will require cooperation especially from Pakistan, where the Haqqani network and other insurgent groups receive sanctuary and support, and also from India. Mr. Panetta is right to encourage greater Indian engagement in Afghanistan, but this should be done in partnership with Pakistan and other neighboring states.

Engaging insurgent groups would attempt to create more inclusive and accountable governance within Afghanistan. Involving surrounding states would be aimed at seeking pledges of noninterference and support for stabilization.

Admittedly the challenges in negotiating a peace settlement in Afghanistan are huge. The Taliban and other insurgent groups initially favored peace talks, but recently walked away from the process, demanding that US officials fulfill earlier promises to release an initial group of former insurgents from Guantánamo.

But many of the obstacles to a negotiated peace agreement could be reduced if the US were to apply to peace even a portion of the resources it now devotes to war. For that, America’s political leaders will need to put aside overused military means and pick up the tools of diplomacy and peacemaking.

David Cortright is the director of policy studies at the University of Notre Dame’s Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies.

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