Assessing Afghan Conflict Resolution

 “I told those dedicated workers for peace and reconciliation that they should not be tempted to give up on their crucial work because of the frustrations of seemingly not making any significant progress, that in our experience nothing was wasted, for when the time was right it would all come together and, looking back, people would realise what a critical contribution they had made. They were part of the cosmic movement towards unity, towards reconciliation, that has existed from the beginning of time”

-Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Northern Ireland, 1998

17 February 2019

The following is my summary of a recent 3-day conference on Afghanistan conflict resolution and my personal views on the current and upcoming peace efforts.

These views do not represent the US Government or any other institution, and are my opinions alone based on this unclassified conference I was invited to present at.  I posted my presentation on the progress of the ANDSF previously.

Jason Criss Howk, Retired South Asia Foreign Area Officer, professor and author


Conference Purpose: US Central Command convened a multinational group of South and Central Asia specialists to discuss conflict resolution prospects in Afghanistan from numerous perspectives.

Attendees: Included diplomats, academics, military and intelligence leaders, and foreign policy specialists

Key discussion points:

Process: It will require a lot of trust building to reach a sustainable peace. This is a long-term process, don’t get caught up in the day-to-day drama.

  • Withdrawals of NATO-led coalition security forces must be conditions-based not calendar-based so the Taliban morale continues to drop
  • Afghans do not want international forces in their country forever
  • Afghans are very passionate about getting peace talks right, because they know a lasting peace is now possible.
  • Afghans know that peace isn’t assured and they do not take their partners for granted
  • Afghan youth are stepping up to create peace, utilize their passion
  • Peace enforcement is the critical part of the process, without a residual neutral military force the Taliban will cheat
  • 2/3 of all insurgencies end in one side or the other winning outright. 1/3 of all insurgencies end in a draw with peace talks.
  • Successful peace settlements have shared traits: 1. A military stalemate exists, 2. They come to some kind of power sharing agreement, 3. The internal and external constituencies support the settlement, 4. There is a 3rd party guarantor of the peace (watching/reporting, penalizing, deploying peacekeepers)
  • Even some of the best peace settlements haven’t gotten rid of all violence, be realistic
  • Colombia provides many useful lessons

Afghanistan has undertaken generational change. It is unlikely the largest sector of the Afghan population will allow it to go backwards. (65% of Afghans are 25 and under and have grown up with individual liberties that are possibly unmatched in Afghanistan’s history)

  • The ANDSF has allowed an entire generation of Afghans to see a light at the end of the tunnel.
  • There is hope

Afghan-Taliban settlement does not guarantee peace, but it is a step.

  • Women are very worried about the peace process and are not going to go backwards in society.
  • Other terrorists must be dealt with in the region and the narcotics issue as well
  • Peace deals must involve all Afghans and getting civil society, especially women’s groups involved will make them durable.
  • Peace deals must enhance
    • Unity
    • Territorial integrity
    • Women’s equality
    • Human rights for all

“Diplomacy is more like jazz than classical music, it requires a great deal of improvisation”

       -Ambassador Dobbins reflecting on a lesson from Ambassador Holbrooke

Metrics: Many analysts are looking at the wrong metrics to determine Afghan progress and Taliban durability

  • Afghan citizens now expect and demand accountable democratic governance
  • Much of the government beyond the security sector is still being built, but it is doing OK and gaining the trust of the Afghan people.
  • Civil service exams are now being given for the Kabul districts and 9 of the top scorers were women. They are being appointed district chiefs.
  • Taxi drivers are willing to wait 7 hours to vote, even at a cost of bringing home food. Democracy has taken root.
  • The ANDSF took over the security mission lead from international forces 5 years ago. With continued support they now estimate they can be self-reliant by 2024
  • Investments in various Afghan sectors are paying off, even if progress isn’t always visible.
  • Trade, energy, and becoming a transport hub are all forces for peace and prosperity.
  • Side note to this: Uzbekistan probably has the best grasp of the Afghan situation and is very involved in economic advancements in Afghanistan. A good area to reinforce.

USA: The goal of the Trump administrations South Asia strategy is to lead all forces towards a reconciliation process. The US is not speaking for the Afghan government but just trying to get a dialogue started.

  • Nothing is agreed upon until everything is agreed.
  • Withdrawal will be linked to progress
  • The near-term objectives are:
    • 1. Cease fires
    • 2. Direct Afghan government and Taliban movement talks
    • 3. Keeping regional actors involved and informed so they can be positively engaged
  • Afghanistan war is currently a stalemate and neither side can win militarily
  • Afghan partners are helping the ANDSF to target Taliban leaders and supporting specific ANDSF goals so they can change this balance of power.
  • The longer the Taliban wait to start direct talks with the President of Afghanistan the less leverage they will have.
  • Topics so far included withdrawals, prisoner releases, future of counter-terrorism efforts
  • NO decisions have been made as we are just moving through the historical steps of conflict resolution and this is only the beginning of creating a framework for the talks.
  • The decisions of Afghan peace will be made in Kabul by the Afghan government and people.
  • We will continue to apply the proper military pressure to keep the talks moving forward

Taliban: Taliban are not likely serious at the movement, but they have made critical announcements that signal that peace talks are approaching and can be durable

  • Admitting it’s a stalemate
  • Admitting that a political solution is required
  • Not ruling out direct talks with the Afghan government
  • Will they submit to DDR?
  • Will they lose Pakistan safe-havens and materiel?
  • Likely seeking some more time to gain legitimacy and delegitimize the Afghan government through global talks. Not likely but they aren’t being logical.
  • Wants international troops withdrawn and wants its prisoners released.
  • Everyone might be reading this wrong and they might be seeking actual peace talks because their force is tired and they are losing key leaders too fast to remain effective.

Pakistan is still the key regional actor besides Afghanistan

  • Isn’t doing all it can and hasn’t changed its calculus about Afghanistan
  • They are still concerned about a Pashtunistan land grab by Afghanistan
  • What will they advise or demand the Taliban do?
  • They are stuck in a circular argument with others. Pakistan wants a peace process signed and then a cease-fire enacted.  Everyone else logically knows it must happen in the reverse.
  • Does admit there is no military solution, and they should know because they are driving the strategy.
  • Likely believes Taliban are winning, American is losing and leaving, and India will be kept out of Afghanistan.
  • China, UAE and Saudi Arabia could be pressured to cut off funding to get any changes in policy ($91.8 billion in external debt and that has increased 50% in one year.)

Regional Views

  • Major issues at play are terrorism, ethnic squabbles, narcotics, and political regional power
  • Pakistan is not doing everything it can, but we neighbors aren’t willing to tell them to stop
  • Afghan unity is a major part of the solution
  • ANDSF are pretty good and improving constantly. They are better than the Taliban fighters and should be supported and employed properly
  • Religious madrassas are still a thorn in the side of the region
  • There is a need for more intelligence sharing about religious extremist groups
  • Afghanistan’s problems are also our problems
  • Terrorists are the most destabilizing force in the region and can destroy our governments
  • All the models in the world can’t predict the human factors at play in peace talks
  • No regional neighbor acts in Afghanistan for only Afghan benefits. Examine motives.
  • This could be a new great game: Pakistan-Saudi-UAE-China alliance versus Afghanistan-Iran-India-US. Stranger things have happened.
  • Regional states could reach out economically to India and Afghanistan instead of Pakistan

My Take on the Conference Outputs

In 2009 Chris Kolenda and I huddled around a whiteboard in a Kabul office with two other people that were critical to assisting the Afghan government launch the Afghan government-owned and led conflict resolution process we are all monitoring so closely today. President Karzai had asked General McChrystal to support his peace push and our ISAF team was a result.  We cooperated with Ambassador Holbrooke’s SRAP team based in DC.

Without the 2010 international acceptance of President Karzai’s vision for a long-term and durable peace process, that had the even more critical support of the Afghan people, none of today’s talks would be happening.  If you never start a peace process, you can’t start the negotiations that will one day turn into a durable peace.  (Surprisingly there were many “experts” that said it was not time to start a peace process…as if there was some mythical “best time” to start returning the war back to the diplomats.)

“If war is an extension of politics, then to politics it must return.”

-Sir LtGen Graeme Lamb

As we recorded the scenarios and concerns on the whiteboard, we made a bullet-list of 4 nations that would be crucial to the success of Afghanistan’s future durable peace negotiations.  At the top of that short list was Pakistan.  As we sat in silence looking at our coffees after a long talk I walked up and drew a horrible pair of eye-glasses on the board and we called them Pakistan’s India-Colored Glasses. We discussed that above all factors “the lens” through which Pakistan views this war in relation to their regional power struggles will unfortunately make all the difference.

Thinking back through my year helping Afghan Minister Mohammed Masoom Stanekzai and my boss Sir Graeme to achieve President Karzai’s vision I have seen almost every prediction come true.  There is a pattern for conflict resolution at the end of uncivil-wars (or civil-wars, or small wars, or long wars, or insurgencies) and we had studied all the patterns.  None of them will match the Afghan solution completely but they are all instructive when laid on top of the combined picture of Afghan culture, history, and government.

Typical conflict and conflict resolution patterns might include:

Political disagreements, political violence, war, diplomatic outreach, establishment of a peace process framework by one or both sides, trust-building, cease-fires, negotiations,  cessation of hostilities, signing of formal peace agreements, peace enforcement mechanisms, long-term and painful reconciliation processes (Reintegration, Disarmament, Demobilization (DDR) processes also occur throughout the cycle but usually near the end)

*some conflicts have multiple groups facing a government and require these steps to repeat for each


Let me explain where I think the Afghan peace process is and where it will go in the next 5-10 years based on my understanding of previous conflict resolution patterns and my understanding of Afghanistan’s history and the Afghan people.

I believe that we will look back and realize that the late 2018 and early 2019 months were the tipping point in the peace process that has been underway since 2009.  There is a momentum for peace talks that is fueled by many factors.  Some factors include the Afghan National Army and other security forces; American foreign policy changes; Afghan national unity; the Afghan people (especially its youth); changes in the Pakistani economic and security situation; and a general weariness for war by the junior leaders and foot-soldiers of the anti-Afghan forces arrayed along the Pakistani border.

Some predictions and then some assessments of the current situation follow:

  1. I believe in 2019 you will see more cease fires. They will be short at first but are a critical trust-building exercise and can help each side assess who has control of their forces and how serious they are about negotiations.
  2. You might see face-to-face talks between the Afghan Government and the Taliban, the Taliban are now publicly admitting they are in a military stalemate and that a political solution is their only option…and that direct talks are not off the table. They have already sat down with past Afghan government officials including: female parliamentarians, a president, vice presidents, governors, cabinet ministers, and many others. It’s a step.  Those meetings might turn out to be more positive than negative.
  3. Splintering of anti-Afghan forces and continued fighting amongst different terrorist groups as they vie for Pakistani support and terrain on both sides of the border
  4. Increased meddling by Pakistan military elements in Afghan affairs (also some positive political assistance from Pakistan civilian leaders)
  5. A commitment by the NATO-led coalition to continue their defense cooperation support until they are asked by the legitimate Afghan government to scale it down,
  6. Continued United Nations support for the current legitimate Afghan Government and the international forces helping them. Also continued UN support of peace processes.
  7. Continued statements from religious leaders undermining the very essence of the Taliban ideology for murdering the Afghan people.

The Afghan National Defense and Security Forces: Strengthening

The modern and capable ANDSF is the cornerstone of the peace process. Not sufficient to cause it to succeed but critical to success, without it—this is a whole different story (which would sound like the post-Soviet era peace efforts)

  • They aren’t perfect; but most are good and some are great—and they improve weekly. They know their weaknesses and the civilian government is directing them and supporting them in their efforts to decrease their flaws.
  • Their professionalism, respect for the people, and respect from the people is a game changing variable when you examine long conflict resolution timelines
  • The ANDSF is absorbing high casualty rates and still recruiting and retaining personnel reasonably well—they are now going on the offensive nation-wide because the professionalism of their leadership at all levels is reaching an irreversible point.
  • They have the will to fight and courage. Do not underestimate these attributes.  Every Infantry NCO knows what this means, ask one.
  • If the international community pulls all support for them, it endangers the peace process
  • If the international community continues a long-term and smaller defense cooperation mission with the ANDSF, they will help the Afghan people through this painful process


The Afghan government: Stable (elections will tell the tale)

  • The government is stable and providing more security oversight and services to its people every day, although services progress at district level can be difficult to see
  • There have been no coups or assassinations of any leader since 2001. This is a better track record than the Taliban movement and for that matter Pakistan.
  • The security forces respect the government
  • We are not seeing major lapses into Warlordism
  • Women and young Afghans are increasingly entering the government at all levels and changing the culture towards a more inclusive and efficient system
  • The Afghan disunity that will occur during the presidential elections is a risk to the peace process. If the nation maintains a united front the Taliban and Pakistan will have lost that round of the battle.
  • Do not underestimate the ability of Afghans to pull off a diplomatic miracle like the world witnessed at Bonn in 2001 after the Taliban fell.

“We were both right. Whichever path we chose would not be easy”

                       -Envoys Dobbins (US) and Brahimi (UN) disagreeing on how to set up the Bonn talks 2001

The Afghan people: Strengthening (more quickly every week)

  • The power of social media and old media in uniting and informing the Afghan people cannot be underestimated. I have seen a historic uptick in public discussions of critical issues since 2002.
  • There is a measurable feeling of hope and belief in the inevitability of progress
  • I don’t think they will allow society to regress again

The Taliban insurgency: Weakening (slowly)

The Taliban movement is still in existence mostly due to Pakistani support in the way of safe-havens and martial materiel.  They are not as strong as they think they are.  I actually believe they are a bit overconfident right now, and foolishly relying on the Pakistani military structure that uses them like puppets.  They are not the only terrorist group that Pakistan employs and they are not the most critical to the Pakistan anti-Indian strategy.  Changes that may be forced on the Pakistan government from the outside will endanger the Taliban support.

  • I am not optimistic they are actually interested in face-to-face talks with the Afghan government right now. They are likely continuing their long-standing effort to free prisoners, gain more political recognition as a government without a state, and keep the morale of their foot-soldiers up
  • The Taliban elders are now burying their sons regularly, and some burying their grandsons. That has a deep impact on morale from top to bottom
  • They are now absorbing losses at all levels at a faster rate, when leaders can’t rest, they make mistakes, when foot-soldiers can’t rest, they lose morale. Being on the run this winter will make next winter look like a nightmare instead of the rest phase it has been in the past.
  • They have lost much of their ideological support by the continuing statements from religious leaders globally stating they are not a mujaheddin force and their actions are not Islamic. They need the propaganda title of “honorable Muslim” to recruit their young cannon fodder.  This is a major blow that they are complaining about publicly. They are feeling the effects of better Afghan strategic messaging.
  • They are not hurting for recruits. Pakistani (gulf Funded) madrassas continue to fill their ranks. Unless this changes, they will continue to recruit, although the level of training in their force will continue to decline as the ANDSF trims off their seasoned members.  Sending boys into battle untrained is what destroyed the Soviet Era Afghan Regime Army.
  • They say the constitution is a problem for them, watch to see if they backtrack on that issue
  • They went from saying the ANDSF must be disbanded to saying it should have some reforms.

Pakistan (Weakening, but stubborn)

  • The Pakistan government has not changed its calculus about supporting terrorist groups in an effort to make itself a more secure nation
  • Numerous issues are impacting the government, its not clear if they will be able to react the same to more economic issues.


The Pakistani people (Strengthening)

  • The people in Pakistan seem to be building confidence to challenge their government and military but not together
  • Each part of the nation is strengthening on its own, not as a nation
  • Unclear if they can pressure the government to spend resources at home, or if the military will develop a new unifying issue to galvanize nationalism

America (Stable)

  • US positions are seemingly changing often, but it does seem that all have agreed to slow downsizing based on conditions
  • This could change in a tweet…
  • The South Asia strategy is believed to be working and its goals are clear (stated above)
  • America must continue to “herd all the cats” in the international community so they don’t derail Afghan efforts

The NATO led coalition (More Stable)

  • NATO and its RS coalition partners seem to be more resolute and measured in their statements and its unlikely they will rapidly withdraw even if the US suddenly changes its mind.

Long Term:

Reconciliation will continue from 2020-2060. It will take 2 full generations for Afghans to become united fully and to allow some of the least-offensive Taliban to re-enter society. Some senior Taliban leaders will remain exiled, others will enter the political process and become very unpopular.  Some will try to restart insurgency and criminal enterprises but will be hunted down by the NDS and ANDSF. Women will be the deciding factor in the durability of the peace process and reconciliation.  Right now, they have little reason to be forgiving of the Taliban, so the Taliban have a lot of work to do.  NATO-led coalition nations will play a key role in peace enforcement if the process is to find success.

Pakistan: My advice to anyone that has ever asked me to advise them on Afghan issues is to try to resolve Pakistan issues and concerns too…

Pakistan economic and water scarcity issues will exacerbate security issues, terrorism, and separatist movements.  Depending on how they treat the Afghan government in this peace process, this might be catastrophic for the Pakistan government if Afghanistan decides to be active in this effort. Pakistan can be successful in unifying its nation if they focus internally and decrease their posturing against India and Afghanistan. Their continued rough treatment of Pashtuns and Balochis could doom their internal security and cause neighbors to interfere.

Afghanistan will survive the current presidential elections and the ANDSF will continue to increase in professionalism and capability. Air power, professionalism, and respect for the Afghan people will enable them to keep terrorist, criminal, and separatist violence at acceptable levels. The government will continue to improve its capabilities at provincial and local levels, while at the federal level they determine the right level of authority to keep the nation together without creating distrust in a strong central government.  It’s likely the provincial governors will become an elected position.  The ANDSF will decrease in size as the violence decreases and the National Military forces will cede day-to-day domestic security operations to the police and national guard-like forces, as the national army looks at exterior threats and even peace-keeping operations in other nations.

The Afghan people will continue to unify as a nation, a new nation, that is focused on human rights, equality for women in the society, and economic progress on many fronts, including a new tourism sector. Afghans will find the correct balance for religion in their nation and continue to be one of the most devout nations in the world.


It is easy to dismiss any peace plan by saying that something has been tried before.  But, remember that the time in history and the actors involved are two game-altering factors.  Think about the DDR and reconciliation plan that General Grant and General Lee agreed to in the US civil war.  Had that been proposed at a different time in the war, or been an agreement between any two other leaders it might have failed completely.  As it turned out it was one of the fastest developed and most durable peace plans on record in human history.  The negotiators matter, the culture matters, the timing matters…all of these can greatly affect the outcome.  That also means anything can be tried twice or even three times, it just might work.

Never forget that political science is an art not a science.  Human beings are unique and completely unpredictable variables, and that means no experiment can be repeated with guaranteed success; but also, that any experiment might be a success.

Taking a chance on peace talks is always worth the risk.  If you never start peace talks…you never start peace talks.

The following are some comparisons between the 1980s and 90s reconciliation efforts of the communist Afghan regime and today’s Afghan government as well as comparisons between the mujaheddin and the taliban approaches.  It is almost like one author has been involved in writing the insurgent talking points during both of these events.

Insurgent demands 1980s versus 2019

Afghan govt positions 1987 vs 2019

2018 Afg govt offer

2018 clarified Afg govt offer

#afghanistan #peace #pakistan #taliban #indai #iran #SaudiArabia #UAE #conflictResolution #reintegration #reconciliation #ddr


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