Research: Commentary

Wars eventually end with negotiated settlements

August 29, 2016 | Press Release

By Bill Goodfellow

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The announcement that the Colombian government and the FARC revolutionaries have reached a deal to end that country’s 52-year-old civil war is a reminder that all wars, however intractable they may seem at the time, eventually end with negotiated settlements.  An estimated 220,000 people died in Colombia’s civil war and over five million were displaced. 

The Center for International Policy was one of the U.S. nongovernmental organizations working for a negotiated settlement of the war in Colombia.  Robert White, who was CIP’s president from 1990 to 2010, was a political officer in Bogota in 1970, early in his Foreign Service career and long before he became ambassador to Paraguay and El Salvador.   Soon after joining CIP, he began to promote peace negotiations between the government and the FARC.  In 1998, Ambassador White and Adam Isacson, then director of CIP’s Latin America program, took the first congressional delegation to Colombia to meet with FARC leaders in the jungle of what was then referred to as Farclandia, a huge section in the center of the country that President Andrés Pastrana had ceded to FARC control to facilitate peace talks.  Ambassador White and Adam took another delegation to meet with the FARC in Mexico City.  They wrote reports, op-ed articles and testified before congressional committees advocating negotiations as the only way the war would ever end.

The Center for International Policy also promoted negotiations to end Central America’s civil wars in the 1980s.  Costa Rican president Oscar Arias was inaugurated in May 1986 and I first met him in Guatemala at the first Esquipulas summit meeting later that month.  Jim Morrell, CIP’s long-time research director, and I wrote op-ed articles, longer scholarly pieces, testified before congressional committees and gave dozens of talks around the country promoting the Central American peace process.  We also produced hundreds of thousands of copies of what we called “Arias Primers,” which graphically illustrated the provisions of the agreement.  The primers were reproduced by nongovernmental organizations in the U.S. and, in Spanish, in Central America.  We became in effect President Arias’s public relations team in the United States promoting the Central American peace process. 

I was in Guatemala City on the 7th of August 1987 to witness the five Central American presidents signing the final peace agreement.  In 1989, the United Nations took over the implementation of the agreement, which finally ended civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua and led to the demobilization of irregular forces in the region.  Oscar Arias was awarded the 1987 Nobel Peace Prize.

In the summer of 2009, I made my first trip to Afghanistan as part of a congressional delegation sponsored by CIP.  The next year, we published a landmark report entitled, “A New Way Forward: Rethinking U.S. Strategy in Afghanistan.” The report was published under the name of the Afghanistan Study Group, which I coordinated with Steve Clemons of the New America Foundation.  The report, signed by more than 50 prominent scholars, former government officials and NGO activists, called for a drawdown of U.S. forces and political reconciliation in Afghanistan.

When we published our report in 2010, there were 100,000 American troops in Afghanistan plus another 40,000 troops from various NATO countries.  The goal was a military victory over the Taliban, and for the most part, our report’s recommendations were ignored, although the Obama administration did begin a gradual drawdown of U.S. forces.

Today the United States has fewer than 10,000 troops in Afghanistan plus another 4,000 from NATO countries and the war is, at best, stalemated.  Gone is any talk of a military victory over the Taliban.  Although the United States has supported on-again off-again negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban, it is clear that if there is to be an agreement, the United States will have to dramatically step up its support for negotiations.

 So far this year, there have been four meetings of Taliban and Afghan government representatives as well as diplomats from the United States, Pakistan and China.  The talks were suspended this spring after a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan killed Taliban leader Mullah Mansour. 

To date, the Afghan government has offered the Taliban little more than an opportunity to negotiate the terms of their surrender.  They would be obligated to abide by the 2004 Afghan constitution and accept the legitimacy of the Afghan government.  This is a non-starter for many reasons, especially in the wake of the Taliban’s recent battlefield advances. 

To have any chance of success, a final peace agreement would have to allocate cabinet positions to members of the Taliban and the constitution would have to be amended.  A true power-sharing agreement would draw the Taliban into the political process, where they would be at a considerable disadvantage. The Taliban are a formidable military force, but their brutality and their religious fanaticism have alienated many Afghans, particularly those living in cities.  Most observers believe the Taliban have the support of between 10 to 20 percent of the Afghan population.  While they would be unlikely to win a nationwide election, the Taliban could win elections in provinces bordering Pakistan.

As part of any peace agreement, the United States and NATO would have to withdraw all combat troops within an agreed-upon time frame and shut down the six remaining military bases. 

To maintain security in the cities and to reassure all parties that the agreement would be judiciously implemented, the UN or some other international body would have to deploy peace-keeping troops. As well, the United States should convene an international conference to press Pakistan and other neighboring countries to respect the neutrality of Afghanistan; otherwise foreign powers will continue to support proxies inside Afghanistan and undermine any peace agreement. 

A negotiated political settlement, although not without considerable risks, offers the best and perhaps only hope of ending the war and giving Afghans an opportunity to rebuild their lives and their country. 

There is reason to believe that Afghanistan could provide the Middle East with a model of peaceful conflict resolution similar to what the five Central American presidents achieved when they signed the Esquipulas peace agreement in Guatemala City 29 years ago.  As in Central America, the key to peace in Afghanistan would be allowing the Afghans to settle their differences as free as possible of outside meddling.

Early next year, we will publish another Afghanistan Study Group report and will encourage the newly-inaugurated U.S. president to mobilize international support for a negotiated political settlement of the war in Afghanistan, now America’s longest war. 

It is easy to conclude that the war in Afghanistan will go on forever.  But the announcement that the Colombian government and the FARC have successfully negotiated an agreement to end their bitter 52-year civil war underscores the fact that all wars eventually end and usually as a result of negotiations between the opposing parties.  

Both the FARC and the Taliban have horrible human rights records, but the Columbian government finally sat down and negotiated a peace deal with the FARC.  On the 6th of July, President Obama said, “The only way to end this conflict and to achieve a full drawdown of foreign forces from Afghanistan is through a lasting political settlement between the Afghan government and the Taliban.”

Bill Goodfellow

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