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What we can learn from the Afghanistan peace deal

Eyes Wide Open exhibit set up outside D.C. capitol building
AFSC's "Eyes Wide Open," an exhibit that memorialized the civilians and soldiers killed in Afghanistan and Iraq and traveled through the U.S. to illustrate the human cost of war. Photo: Terry Foss / AFSC

In March, the U.S. government and the Taliban signed an agreement that includes a complete withdrawal of all U.S. military forces from Afghanistan by April 2021.

The deal is far from perfect. An outbreak of violence followed the signing of the agreement. Reconciliation between the Afghan government and the Taliban remains uncertain, as the Afghan government must now negotiate its own separate accord with the Taliban. And some of the most vulnerable groups, particularly women, did not participate in negotiations.

While the deal does not guarantee lasting peace in Afghanistan, the United Nations welcomed the agreement as a necessary first step to end the war in which more than 100,000 Afghan civilians have been killed or injured.

Since the war’s inception in 2001, AFSC has repeatedly called for peace and promoted alternative approaches to end the war, including engagement and dialogue with armed actors—without preconditions. The agreement would not have been possible without the use of these peacebuilding strategies.This is not the case in other armed conflicts, where pursuing political—instead of military—solutions is stymied by U.S. “war on terror” policies and practices, which hinder mediation, negotiation, dialogue, and quiet diplomacy.

The USA Patriot Act, passed after Sept. 11, and related "counter-terrorism" laws passed or modified at the time and after, remain major obstacles blocking peace. For peacebuilding organizations like AFSC, the Patriot Act’s prohibitions on contact with proscribed "foreign terrorist" organizations and individuals inhibits efforts toward peace.

It’s worth noting that the peace agreement in Afghanistan became possible partly because the Afghan Taliban is not designated a “terrorist organization.” Applying the terror label to the group would have restricted U.S. and Afghan government diplomatic contacts with the Taliban. Especially because, U.S. law makes it illegal to even urge armed groups to respect humanitarian principles or to cease fighting and negotiate.

Under U.S. law, providing any service, training, advice or assistance to proscribed indivduals or organizations violates the “material support" statute.  According to the ACLU, this statute effectively hinders the ability of human rights and humanitarian aid organizations to do their work. Under this law, "individuals can face up to 15 years in prison for providing ‘material support’ to [foreign terrorist organizations], even if their work is intended to promote peaceful, lawful objectives."

A 2018 civil case brought against The Carter Center illustrates just how the “material support” statute can impede peacebuilding efforts. The lawsuit claimed the organization, co-founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, was providing "material support" because its conflict resolution meetings were attended by groups designated by the State Department as “terrorist organizations.” Although the suit was eventually dismissed, in a similar lawsuit, another organization, Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA), had to pay a $2 million fine to U.S. authorities as part of a settlement. NPA was accused of providing material support to Hamas in Gaza, where it trained young people in democracy-building skills, such as organizing, advocacy, conflict resolution, and human rights.

After 9/11, the U.S. government has introduced more than 130 additional pieces of legislation that have restricted—and even criminalized—peacebuilding organizations, social movements, and activists in the name of security. These measures have inspired a slew of similar “counter-terrorism” legislation in countries around the world.

We know that peaceful ends can only be achieved through peaceful means. For many years, peacebuilding organizations, like AFSC have paved the way for peace by helping bring fighting factions together and providing alternatives to violence to redress grievances. Yet the U.S. continues to advance “war on terror” policies that are driven by fear and assume violent conflict can be resolved only through military solutions.

The peace deal in Afghanistan has shown how these narratives are misleading. Instead it reaffirms that the U.S. should pursue diplomacy and dialogue with all groups, including armed actors. But until post-9/11 policies and practices are revisited—and political and cultural narratives are transformed—efforts to reach peace agreements in other conflicts will continue to be sidelined.


About the Author


Saurav is the Shared Security Fellow at AFSC. He is interested in peace-building and global affairs. He is originally from Nepal and lives in Philadelphia.