Last month, U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the Afghan peace process, closing off for the time being a rare opening to resolve a long, stagnant, and unpopular war. Whatever one thinks of the specifics of the deal that the U.S. representative at the talks, Zalmay Khalilzad, had nearly finalized with the Taliban, the episode was a perfect demonstration of the conflicted, often self-defeating view of peace agreements that mires U.S. foreign policy.

The Security Council Chamber at the United Nations headquarters, in Manhattan, Sept. 1, 2015. (Piotr Redlinski/The New York Times)
The Security Council Chamber at the United Nations headquarters, in Manhattan, Sept. 1, 2015. (Piotr Redlinski/The New York Times)

Trump’s decision followed months of criticism in Washington that the talks were legitimizing the Taliban, delegitimizing the Afghan government, giving away too much, extracting too little. Some of the critiques were reasonable. Most ignored basic realities: Afghanistan is not a winnable war, the years-old stalemate is unacceptable to most Americans and all Afghans, and a political settlement—albeit one that requires painful compromises—is the only remotely desirable way out of the dilemma. Yet when a possible path opened to such an agreement, much of the American polity recoiled.

The incongruity is hardly unique to Afghanistan. Most U.S. policymakers from several administrations would like to see peace agreements end civil wars across the Middle East and Africa. The same is true of nuclear pacts with Iran or North Korea, if one defines these as peace agreements of a sort. (The latest attempt at talks between Washington and Pyongyang on Oct. 5 broke down after less than a day.) In each case, the United States is confronted with a problem that has persisted for years or decades, and most U.S. officials by now want to escape an unfavorable status quo.

Diplomatic efforts to do so, however, encounter similar criticisms: too much offered, too little extracted, too kind to U.S. enemies, and too harsh to U.S. friends. When such criticism swells, leaders tend either to abandon existing agreements or to deprioritize diplomacy in favor of politically safer displays of toughness. In turn, the United States tends to pour money into each standoff; it tightens sanctions without halting an adversary’s nuclear and missile programs; its troops kill and are killed, with little prospect of altering the battlefield. Wars or lower-level conflicts grind on by the year and decade.

Talks do occur in each conflict but rarely as the top U.S. priority behind which all levers of power align—and rarely with a realistic vision of the outcome. That is what must change.

Even when the United States wants a peace deal in the abstract, at least four largely psychological impediments tend to impede progress.

What are these impediments? Find out on Foreign Policy, where this article was originally published.

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