The Taliban has agreed to a reduction in violence that is so close to a ceasefire that many news outlets call it that. But there are specific reasons why it isn’t an actual ceasefire which reveals a great deal about conditions on the ground. These conditions have some parallels with America’s withdrawal from Vietnam which make this minor difference between a ceasefire and a reduction in violence incredibly portentous.
Ceasefire or Frozen War?
Military theorist Edward Luttwak wrote a landmark article in 1999 called Give War a Chance that described the limits of ceasefires. One of the benefits of war is that it can produce a peace after both sides realize that further military conflict will not achieve any long-term goals.
Ceasefires often short-circuit that process and freeze the conflict before war induced exhaustion leads to accommodation. The ceasefire then acts as chance for both sides to to reorganize and rearm and essentially continue the conflict at another time. Luttwak pointed to the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and the Yugoslavian Civil Wars as examples where ceasefires, armistices, or peace forced by outside powers actually prevented long-term solutions, and often shielded one side or the other from the consequences of losing the war.
Uncomfortable Fact: The US Has Not Accomplished Its Mission in Afghanistan
Afghanistan is where the difference between a reduction in violence and a ceasefire applies. The United States has been fighting in Afghanistan for almost 20 years and they haven’t defeated the Taliban and nor have they been able to sponsor a stable Afghan government. The Afghan Government is weak and it is seen by many as illegitimate. As much as the US doesn’t want to admit it, they simply haven’t accomplished their military objectives. But they want to leave, so they must come to some sort of accommodation with the Taliban and major warlords.
Thus the Taliban doesn’t want to cede its winning position on the ground. For example, they reserve the right to attack convoys of supplies from the capital to outlying regions. And they will not allow a ceasefire to erode their position. While the Taliban has been despicable in many ways, from the standpoint of military logic their opposition to a unilateral ceasefire is understandable, and the US should be commended for working out the beginnings of an agreement that recognized this military reality.
During the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon paved the way for “Vietnamization” and many Americans left. Many analysts concluded that when North Vietnam was attacked several years later the US could have provided key aid and support that allowed the South Vietnamese government to survive the attack, but the political will to do so had vanished.
The Post-9/11 Impulse to Root Out Terrorists Has Faded
Now, the US is hoping to end its 20-year engagement by keeping a force in Afghanistan but clearly having one foot out of the door. The current reduction in violence is expected to allow the US to remove up to 5,000 of its current 14,000 soldiers. President Trump’s instincts have repeatedly made him declare that he wants to bring the troops home and stop “endless wars.” A ceasefire that allows the Taliban to keep its gains on the ground will be a driving force in a post-war Afghanistan. The lessons of Vietnam suggest within a few years they might even make a strike to seize the entire country. When that happens, it is likely that the American people and its leaders won’t care. The post-9/11 impulse to root out terrorists has faded. The American people are tired of war, and more importantly, their leaders haven’t made the case clearly and convincingly on why America should continue to be there.
The difference between a ceasefire and reduction in violence seems like one of those subtle distinctions that elites obsess over. But in fact it’s an important difference that shows the Taliban is not willing to abandon its gains and that the US and the Afghan Government are willing to acknowledge them. Combined with domestic sentiment against the war and the historical parallel of Vietnam, it suggests the US is on the way out and is more concerned about getting out of the country than about Afghanistan’s future.