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Peace in pieces: Will Afghanistan’s long war ever end?

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By Joseph Collins and Michael Miklaucic, Opinion contributors

April 27 marked 40 years since the communist coup in Afghanistan. Twenty months later, the Soviet army invaded. Though the belligerents may have changed over the past four decades, the country has not known peace since. For the 35 million Afghans, by far the majority of whom were born after 1978, life and war are indistinguishable. The United States has been at war in Afghanistan for 17 years, longer than any other war it has fought. Our fates have become inextricably entangled. When and how will the long war in Afghanistan end?

The goal of the international coalition's Operation Resolute Support is to strengthen the Afghan state, particularly the Afghan National Defense Force, so that Afghanistan can be secure and at peace with itself and its neighbors. Recent developments are somewhat encouraging. In February, the Taliban published a letter to the American people expressing a desire for peace talks, though calling for a complete U.S. troop withdrawal. Then, President Ashraf Ghani extended a peace offer to the Taliban, accepting their role and offering to talk without preconditions. The United States has ratcheted up the pressure on Pakistan to stop destabilizing Afghanistan.

But the Taliban still refuse to talk to the government of Afghanistan. Pakistan still keeps all its options open. The fighting season is about to start again. And America's commitment to stay the course, despite its new strategy for South Asia, remains questionable under a president who doubts the wisdom of expeditionary wars. Much awaited parliamentary elections are scheduled for October, but just last Sunday bombs exploded at voter registration sites in Kabul and Ghazni killing 63.

Diplomats hope for a breakthrough, a grand multinational bargain with the Taliban and the government of Afghanistan in the central negotiating roles. Yet there are so many contentious issues, competing interests, and conflicting requirements. Afghanistan has 39 provinces, 398 districts, and many thousands of villages. To wait for the grand bargain may be to foreclose on a far more likely path to peace in Afghanistan: peace in pieces. If peace is to come to Afghanistan, it is most likely to come one village at a time, one district at a time, and one province at a time; like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, set in place one at a time.

Reconciliation among Afghans is the ultimate goal but may be a bridge way too far to depend on. Reconciliation, when it succeeds at all, is a process that unfolds in phases over time; often over a very long time. A more realistic goal for the coalition and for Afghanistan is nonviolent coexistence. But with the recalcitrant Taliban and recent infiltration of the Islamic State, even that seems ambitious.

The current parliament is past its sell-by date, but national elections may not be the best way to achieve reconciliation. As the recent attacks suggest, they may even be a conflict catalyst. There are other, local processes to build on. The World Bank-funded Citizens' Charter Afghanistan Project, based on the now completed National Solidarity Program, seeks to improve the delivery of infrastructure and social services through locally elected Community Development Councils (CDCs), of which there are over 35,000 throughout the country. These constitute a plausible basis to work toward nonviolent coexistence at the local level.

Recently popular, grassroots, pro-peace protests have spread from the Taliban heartland in Helmand to more than half of Afghanistan's provinces, calling for a ceasefire and talks between insurgents and the government. Building upon a grassroots movement may not be diplomatic orthodoxy, but orthodox diplomacy does not have an impressive record of success in Afghanistan.

If we hope to help build an Afghanistan at peace with itself and with its neighbors, governed by effective and inclusive institutions under the rule of law, our children - and their children even - will certainly have their work cut out for them. But by building on the proven potential of the CDCs, and seizing the opportunities created by the grassroots peace protesters, if the coalition is adaptive and quick, it may just achieve peace, one piece at a time.

Joseph Collins, a retired U.S. Army colonel, is University Professor and the former director of the Center for Complex Operations at National Defense University. In his last policy assignment, he was deputy assistant secretary of defense for stability operations (2001-2004), where his team worked mainly on Afghanistan issues. His nearly 28 years of military service include infantry and armor assignments in the United States, South Korea, and Germany; teaching at West Point in the Department of Social Sciences; and a decade of policy assignments in the Pentagon.

Michael Miklaucic is a senior fellow at National Defense University Institute for National Strategic Studies, and the editor of NDU's journal, PRISM. He has served in various positions at the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Department of State, including chief operating officer for the USAID Office of Democracy and Governance, and rule of law specialist in the Center for Democracy and Governance. In 2002-2003, he served as the Department of State deputy for war crimes issues.

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