Give Peacekeeping a Chance in Afghanistan

6 July 2021, 1638 EDT

As U.S. troops withdraw from Afghanistan ahead of the 9/11 deadline set by the Biden administration, the urgency of reaching a diplomatic agreement to end the fighting increases. The United States and the “Extended Troika” (China, Russia and Pakistan) have urged the Afghan government and the Taliban to reduce the level of violence and negotiate a settlement. Washington has proposed a draft plan for direct talks between Kabul and the Taliban within the framework of a UN-hosted international conference and peace mission. The goal is to establish an interim transitional authority that includes Taliban representation, a ceasefire agreement and a roadmap for creating a new government to define the country’s political future.

Missing from the new plan, however, is a formula for establishing interim security arrangements during the transition period. Experience from peace processes in CambodiaBosniaCôte d’Ivoire and other countries indicates that third party security guarantees as part of a comprehensive peace mission are essential for successfully ending internal armed conflicts. The United States and International Stability Forces have been unsuited to playing that role, largely because counter-insurgency involves siding with the sitting government against a rebel force – an approach that means continued conflict. But the absence of security arrangements is often associated with failed peace efforts. As both of us have written elsewhere, there is a third way: to establish a United Nations (U.N.) peacekeeping operation in Afghanistan.

Why Peacekeeping Works

Unlike counterinsurgency, U.N. peacekeeping involves the insertion of a multilateral force with the consent of both parties to a civil war, mandated to provide security, enforce the peace and protect civilians as a nation emerges from conflict and rebuilds itself. Often undertaken in conjunction with a wider peacebuilding effort involving U.N. civilian agencies and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), peacekeeping involves the use of force only in self-defense or in defense of civilians. Unlike a counterinsurgency mission, which is aligned with the host government, U.N. peacekeepers remain politically neutral. They are committed only to the protection of civilians from both warring parties. Meanwhile, they serve an important function in observing the peace process, thus enabling warring parties to overcome information gaps and commitment problems.

Evidence from post-conflict experiences in many countries indicates that peace processes are more likely to succeed when they are supported by international peace missions and third party peacekeeping forces, while those without external support and security protection often fail. Post-conflict transitions with U.N. peacekeeping support increase the chances of durable peace and inclusive democratic processes.

In short, unlike U.S. nation-building or counterinsurgency efforts, U.N. peacekeeping missions work. Virginia Page Fortna, a professor at Columbia University, has studied 47 peace missions in the context of 115 periods of peace following conflict and found peace lasts longer with the presence of a U.N. peace mission. According to political scientists Hanne Fjelde, Lisa Hultman and Desiree Nilsson of Uppsala University, peacekeeping missions do a better job of reducing violence against civilians than 20 years of counterterror operations have done in Central Asia. Because a broader range of nations shoulder the burden of contributing and rotating troops, peacekeeping missions can also have greater staying power.

Lise Howard, a professor at Georgetown University, has argued that peacekeeping is more successful than counterinsurgency because of how peacekeepers get the warring parties to change their behavior—above all to stop fighting. Rather than using compellent force against rebels, as counterinsurgents do, peacekeepers influence both sides of a conflict. They do so in three ways: verbal persuasion, financial inducements and coercion short of offensive military force, including surveillance and arrest. Coupled with other forms of international involvement—such as parallel peacebuilding missions led by civilian human rights, humanitarian and development agencies and NGOs—peacekeepers can contribute to a sense of sustainable security in post-conflict societies, thereby creating the conditions for peace.

Crucially, peacekeepers also help address the dynamics that impede peace agreements or cause them to fail. Barbara Walter, from the University of California-San Diego has long pointed out that civil war termination suffers from two serious bargaining problems: information asymmetries, because parties are motivated to misrepresent their capacities, and difficulty in credibly committing to settlements, when parties have previously defected from agreements. Elizabeth Menninga and Alyssa Prorok’s analysis of multiple conflicts in Africa shows that third-party involvement is key to resolving these kinds of information and commitment problems.

It is important to develop plans for interim security arrangements now, so that security issues are on the table in the negotiating process. The prospect of a third party force to monitor and enforce a negotiated agreement could improve the chances of a successful outcome. It would increase confidence that peace agreement commitments are implemented and offer the promise of protection during the fragile post-settlement period.

A U.N. Mission in Afghanistan?

In a recent paper in the Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs, Maj. Ryan C. Van Wie of the U.S. Army argued that a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan could help resolve problems currently hindering an inter-Afghan settlement, by providing the parties with a needed impartial intermediary to monitor compliance and de-escalate disputes, thereby helping to build trust. As A. Walter Dorn has argued, such a mission could draw and build on indigenous Afghan forms of conflict resolution, thus splintering the insurgency and bringing multiple parties to the table.

To be effective, such a mission would need sufficient troops. Van Wie suggests at least 5,000, with a battalion based in Kabul and regiments in three other major cities. But he adds that a 25,000-troop mission with coverage over the whole country would have the highest likelihood of success. It would also need a robust mandate. This is the single best predictor of mission success according to University of Ohio political scientist and former peacekeeper Kofi Nsia-Pepra. Adequate financing of the force would be essential. Van Wie’s various proposals would cost between $500 million and $2 billion annually, but this is pennies compared to the annual cost of the U.S. military engagement.

While there is some question as to whether the Taliban would consent to such a mission, there is reason to think that it would be more amenable to a U.N. Peacekeeping mission than a security force composed of great power invaders. In fact, officials of the Taliban previously proposed replacing U.S. troops with Muslim peacekeepers and pledged not to attack such a force. Under the U.N. model, a mission to Afghanistan could be composed of troops from neutral third-party Muslim-majority countries such as Indonesia, Egypt and Bangladesh.

U.N. missions are not without their own flaws, of course. As Columbia University’s Severine Autesserre shows in her book “Peaceland,” they can create islands of internationalism surrounded by seas of local discord, walling themselves off from the societies they serve and devaluing local expertise and ways of knowing through their everyday habits. The infusion of expatriate wealth into a post-conflict economy can create opportunities for employment, education and internationalization, but it can also create power imbalances and resentment. Some of these issues have emerged during the U.S.-led military mission.

These are manageable problems, though, and over time the U.N. system has improved its responses to them. Moreover, they are a small price to pay for the benefits a peace mission offers: confidence-building, monitoring, civilian protection, police training, education and the development of a culture of human rights.

[cross-posted at Peace Research Institute of Frankfurt Blog]

This post is co-authored by Charli Carpenter, Director of Human Security Lab at University of Massachusetts Amherst and visiting fellow at the Peace Research Institute of Frankfurt; and David Cortright, Professor Emeritus at the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies and Director of the Global Policy Initiative of the Keough School of Global Affairs, University of Notre Dame.