Small Wars Journal

“Peace in Pieces” in Afghanistan

Fri, 05/04/2018 - 5:02am

“Peace in Pieces” in Afghanistan

Joseph J. Collins

April 27, 2018 marked the 40th anniversary of the start of war in Afghanistan. This coming October, the United States will mark 17 years on the ground there.  It is past time for this conflict to end and even the Taliban seems to be coming around to that sad conclusion.  The Taliban made a peace offer to the United States, President Ghani countered with an open-ended offer, local Taliban leaders have reached out to their opposite numbers on the ground, and most importantly, there have been spontaneous peace demonstrations in nearly half of Afghanistan’s provinces.  The people, as usual, are out in front of their leaders. 

Convergence is the phenomenon that charts the networking and transformation of illicit networks, like the Taliban.[i]  It is a widespread phenomenon and has created dysfunctional dynamics across the globe, from the FARC in Colombia to Hezbollah in the Levant to insurgents in the Philippines and North Africa.  My task today is to consider what convergence means for making peace in Afghanistan.  

To state the bottom line up front, convergence means that the fractiousness inherent to all things Afghan will be magnified. It will complicate peace making and peace building.  It will militate against the grand bargain-type solutions to peace making that more organized states and insurgent groups tend to pursue.  Convergence is a complicating factor, but not an insurmountable obstacle to peace.     

By making peace in Afghanistan, I do not mean concluding negotiations or signing documents, which are only first steps toward the goal, but rather, the creation of real peace, where we have an Afghanistan at peace at home and with its neighbors, a peace as good as that which existed from 1933 to 1978. 

For the sake of argument, let’s consider the creation of a classical peace agreement.  The most commonly noted method is the grand bargain approach, where, in this case, between 4 and 12 parties would negotiate formally in one or more connected fora. 

If there could be a grand bargain in Afghanistan, the first step in creating a comprehensive peace would be an agreement between Pakistan and Afghanistan.  Without that meeting of the minds, no comprehensive peace negotiation can succeed.  By reason, carrot, or stick, Pakistan must work alongside Afghanistan to create a grand bargain, or at least, a meeting of the minds.

At or around the same time, there must be a reversal of the Taliban’s military fortunes.  Insurgents don’t quit when they are winning, or when they think the other side is going to falter. The coalition in Afghanistan has new tools, more personnel, and wider authorities to get the job done.  This is not likely to be a good season for Taliban fighters, although they have considerable opportunity for terror strikes and small tactical victories.

After the two neighboring governments have made an agreement and the Taliban has been “softened up,” then the Government of Afghanistan and the Taliban could come to terms. 

After a pact was signed, the real work would come in the execution of the agreement, not in the negotiations.  Following an agreement, peace building among former combatants and ethnic groups in the country can take place.  Over the next few years, processes like DDR--- disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration of combatants---will follow.  

A Grand Bargain and all that needs to precede it are improbable in the next year or two.  There is virtue in studying and preparing for some sort of Grand Bargain, but this process has a troubled past, and its present is fraught with complexity.  Pakistan finds it hard to change its ways.  They imagine the specter of India in their rear area.  The Taliban swear that they won’t negotiate with the Government of Afghanistan and require the withdrawal of all foreign troops.  Too many Afghans and Pakistanis have found ways to make war work for them.  Peace will break many rice bowls. 

Short of an effective grand bargain that leads to a comprehensive peace, what can be done in the meantime?

First, for the foreseeable future, the most rewarding approach to peace in Afghanistan may well be what I call, “Peace in Pieces.”  It could proceed alongside grand negotiations or come after those negotiations. Most likely, it will precede them.

Peace in Pieces does not mean that a Grand Bargain-type negotiation could not take place.  Both could well coexist.  In the unlikely event of a near term Grand Bargain, there would be problems of implementation. For example, if Pakistan and Taliban Central agreed to make peace, what is the likelihood that all the major insurgent field commanders would obey?  Even if the Grand Bargain could be achieved, somewhere between many and a significant number of major insurgent commanders would likely continue to fight and have to be talked down off the ramparts.

Likely, however, activities under the heading of Peace in Pieces can and should precede a Grand Bargain negotiation.  The Government of Afghanistan and the coalition could assess the Taliban forces, target commanders on an area basis, and then, using carrots and sticks, “negotiate by action,” and then later in person to make a separate peace.  Negotiation by action could include persuasion, bribery, or even using reinforced offensive tactical operations. Ceasefires in place could play a role as well.

Before negotiating in person, the Ghani government and the coalition would have to have an agreed-on package of incentives.  What could a group gain beyond those things that are given to individuals who reconcile? Could the bruised Taliban forces receive government medical care?  Could their best men be integrated into the ANA and ANP?  Could Taliban leaders become district heads or even Provincial governors?  Could they have candidates in the next parliamentary elections? How would the government protect compliant Taliban groups from the wrath of other Taliban elements?

In summary, opportunities for Peace in Pieces may arise of their own accord, but they can also be created by Afghan government and Coalition assets working in teams to focus all instruments of power on selected Taliban entities, working from the most vulnerable groups back toward the more powerful and coherent groups. 

Second, to prepare to engage in any sort of negotiation, the Ghani government and the Coalition need to have plans for peace implementation on a local and later, on a national level.  Issues there may include: modifications to the Constitution to allow local and provincial elections, DDR, aid to local fighters, land reform, improvements to local justice systems, repair to reconstruction sites, etc.

Local Community Development Councils will be central to reintegrating the Taliban groups.  Based on the old National Solidarity Program and President Ashraf Ghani’s Citizen’s Charter, these 35,000 local, democratic, gender-integrated development councils are tailor-made to decide local issues associated with reintegration. With permission, World Bank funding could be used by the councils to help the national government make and keep peace on a local level.

The Afghan Government would have to lead on this process, but to delay planning only helps the enemy.  A small group of government and Coalition interagency planners should be charged with planning for both Peace in Pieces or the Grand Bargain negotiation.  Judging from peace demonstrations, the planners may be behind the situation on the ground in many areas. 

Third, the theory of convergence suggests that there will always be a Taliban and some of it will be dysfunctional to building a stable peace.  The Taliban is already a set of complex and multifunctional organizations and networks.  There may be a few elements that are purely insurgents, but most groups are already engaged in some sort of illicit activities, with narcotics and smuggling being the most obvious, but profiteering from checkpoints and taxation perhaps being the most common.  The Taliban’s illicit networks will morph and complicate peace building after any kind of negotiation.

A post-peace Taliban group has options.  It might become a political party.  Others could become an organization of holdout insurgents or terrorists --- like the offshoots of the IRA. A Taliban group may even keep the same name, abandon its ideological roots, and become primarily an organized crime network, as much of the FARC did in Colombia.  It is also possible that years hence, groups using the Taliban brand would become synonymous with small-time bandits or smugglers.

The networks of the Taliban could also evolve into quasi-legitimate business groupings, part legal and part illegal.  This is highly likely with the Taliban associated with narcotics traffic, which already involves extortion, private security, transportation, laboratory and inventory management, and genuine agribusiness.

Consider the frightening model that Hezbollah provides.  It is at once a Lebanese political party, an insurgent group, a well-supplied militia, an Iranian expeditionary force, and an organized crime network, involved in car theft, kidnapping, and narcotics trafficking on three continents. The government will have to work hard to keep the Taliban from becoming a significant fraction of a Hezbollah equivalent.

All of this will complicate peace making and peace building. In the end, the development of an effective Afghan state will take place after the end of Pakistani collusion with the Taliban, the end of the nationwide insurgency, the end of a multi-generational battle against Taliban remnants, the defeat of corruption and narcotics trafficking, and the development of functioning governmental institutions and rule by law.  Our children and their children will have their work cut out for them! Washington doesn’t want to hear that, but it is true nevertheless.

That brings me to a final point and that is about time and optimism.  There is much confidence being spread about these days.  That is understandable at a time of rising resources and a new strategy, but it is also risky.  Consider this press statement by the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, on March 28th of this year:

Dunford believes the right levels of resources now back the strategy, and this should bring new capabilities, boost confidence and build momentum in Afghanistan. This should bring pressure to bear on the Taliban to stop fighting and give them the incentive to reintegrate with the Afghan population and, more broadly, to seek some political process in Afghanistan for peace. 

“With the conditions-based strategy now, the Taliban is looking at perpetual war that they cannot win,” Dunford said.[ii]

The chairman further saluted the growing capabilities of the Afghan Air Force and the American advisory effort, noting their potential contribution to securing more of the population to assist the 2019 election, helping to reduce casualties among Afghan forces, and furthering the process of reconciliation.  These are high aspirations.

We must temper our optimism. The public in the United States has read comparatively little of the new strategy compared to what it reads about terrorist bombings in Afghan cities. We must be careful of optimistic statements that portend this year is the one where there will be, in effect, “a light at the end of the tunnel,” when at the same time so many terrorist strikes in Afghan cities could have the effect on the U.S. public of a slow-motion Tet Offensive. We must be careful of generating expectations that are not liable to be accomplished in a single year or fighting season.

In the end, the creation of peace in Afghanistan will be as difficult as it is both warranted and overdue.  If we can’t have peace as a whole, we need to begin by creating Peace in Pieces.

The thoughts expressed here are the author’s own and not necessarily the view of any government agency.

End Notes

[i] The term convergence was popularized by Michael Miklaucic, the editor of PRISM, NDU’s journal of Complex Operations.  The concept is detailed in two edited volumes, Convergence, edited by Miklaucic and Jacqueline Brewer, and Beyond Convergence, edited by Hilary Matfess and Miklaucic.  They are available for free download on the PRISM website at


[ii] DoD Public Affairs, “Dunford Encouraged by Afghan, Coalition Effort in Afghanistan,” at

About the Author(s)

Joseph J. Collins, a retired Army Colonel, served DoD in and out of uniform for four decades.  His decade plus in the Pentagon was capped off by service as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Stability Operations, 2001-04. He taught for 25 years at West Point and the National War College, and for more than two decades in Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program. He is an author in and co-editor (with Richard Hooker) of Lessons Encountered: Learning from the Long War, NDU Press, 2015. Collins is a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations and holds a doctorate in Political Science from Columbia University.