Despite plenty of recent experience in peacekeeping, Western militaries have largely forgotten how difficult it is to end hostilities in a conflict where they are a belligerent. Military officers are well versed in how to fight wars, but few are similarly educated in how to terminate them, and even fewer have the opportunity to actually bring them to a close. The signing of a tentative peace agreement between the United States and the Taliban brings this issue into sharp focus and provides a unique opportunity to reflect on the military’s role in conflict termination.
Afghanistan is once again demonstrating that conflict termination is a messy, uncertain, inherently political, and consistently violent process. The tumult of the experience in Afghanistan will hopefully re-teach planners how difficult it is to bring conflict to a politically acceptable close when the adversary is in a position of strength. As a result, it presents an opportunity to close a crucial gap in our collective military education by enabling a better understanding of how the military can satisfy a government’s revised political objectives when victory is no longer possible.
Why Understanding Conflict Termination is Important
As was recently highlighted by an MWI Contemporary Battlefield Assessment, a peace process is a journey; and short of unconditional surrender the only way to get to the desired destination—a political settlement—is to partner with the adversary. This requires empathy and compromise on all sides. Often, this is particularly challenging for military personnel whose careers have been spent trying to destroy the enemy with whom their government is now seeking peace.
Nonetheless, conflict termination is a crucial waypoint in a peace process and one in which the military can and should play an important role. Doing so requires political acumen from commanders and staff and the ability to put aside mental models built around using force purely to defeat an adversary. Instead, as Afghanistan is reminding us, inside a peace process the requirement is to use force cunningly to keep an adversary off balance, but also, critically at the negotiating table.
Conflict termination is best understood as achieving a reduction in violence that creates room for constructive discourse toward an enduring political settlement. Michael Tuck defines it as “how armed conflicts are brought to an end . . . focus[ing] on the point that marks the transition from armed conflict to a cessation of armed hostilities.” However, as William Flavin notes,
Conflict termination and resolution clearly are not the same thing. Conflict resolution is a long process. It is primarily a civil problem that may require military support. Through advantageous conflict termination, however, the military can set the conditions for successful conflict resolution.
The military’s key role in a peace process is, therefore, in calibrating the use of force to reduce overall violence as part of a strategy aimed at creating the conditions for political activity to recommence.
The twilight between war and peace exposes some glaring gaps in our philosophical preparation to terminate conflict. Western militaries have ample doctrine explaining how to fight and they have sufficient doctrine to assist peace to be kept. But, almost absent is any doctrine that helps planners visualize how military actions can actually assist in reducing violence to create a peace that can be kept in the first place.
Peace operations doctrine is usually premised on there being a peace to keep and largely conceives peacekeeping and peace-enforcement operations as steady-state or preventative missions, not war-termination missions. But what if, as has been the case in Afghanistan, Western militaries are among the belligerents rather than a neutral, internationally mandated intervention force? Similarly, campaigning doctrine pays scant attention to how to conclude a conflict. Termination is discussed in abstract terms, describing a government’s responsibility for determining when to terminate the war, rather than the military’s role in achieving this intent.
There is insufficient discussion of how operational commanders and their staffs should design military effects to enable the political conditions favorable to achieving a government’s negotiating objectives. This failure to understand how to achieve an acceptable termination point for the conflict, and how to use military means to achieve it, is among the reasons we are susceptible to becoming consumed by forever wars. Furthermore, placing blame solely at the feet of politicians when this happens is an abrogation of the professional military responsibility that should be expected as part of a healthy civil-military dialogue.
As American and NATO troops are currently experiencing, working in parallel with an adversary toward a common objective of conflict termination is cognitively one of the hardest things that can be asked of a fighting force. But, it should also be the hallmark of a professional military that its commanders and staffs have both the political and tactical nous to do so. This is the art of conflict termination, where military planners can give momentum to a political dialogue through “operationalizing peace.”
Implications for Military Planners
A more comprehensive understanding of the military’s role in conflict termination requires an examination of several key concepts. While these concepts are grounded by contemporary experience in Afghanistan they remain broadly relevant when considering how best to apply force in support of any nascent peace process. As such, this examination yields several conclusions that military planners must be prepared to account for.
The Centrality of Politics and Calibrating Violence
Operationalizing peace does not mean instrumentalizing it. Instead, it is the orchestration and synchronization of military activities to support a desired political outcome: the reduction of violence. Diplomats and politicians may go down in history for their roles in achieving peace, but the peaceful resolution of conflict is a whole-of-society endeavor. For this reason, it is critical for military planners to account for the interests and agendas of all potential stakeholders when focusing on conflict termination. The use of violence can shape multiple audiences: internal and external, on your side and theirs. A failure to understand this almost guarantees that military actions will affect a delicate political balance and potentially undermine the peace process they aim to support.
Critics will argue the military should stay out of peace discussions. As Afghanistan has proven, however, often it does not have that luxury. Instead, the military can do everything possible to ensure that all resources are focused on reducing violence levels, enabling diplomats to work toward a negotiated settlement. This requires a conscious attempt to ensure all military action is for information effect to achieve political outcomes or change political calculations. Absent this framework, violence loses its meaning as a way for each side to communicate during a peace process. In this context, it is crucial to understand the politicking when seeking to calibrate military force to enable political dialogue. Keeping both sides willing to negotiate is a difficult balancing act. For example, it is important to achieve a position of relative advantage, but too much tactical success has potential to undermine the delicate stalemate that incentivizes negotiation.
The Afghanistan experience reinforces the importance of understanding violence as part of the peace dialogue. The willingness to surge or restrain the use of force during a peace process signals political intentions. In particular, violence will usually increase in the lead-up to a political settlement as both sides try to eke out the greatest possible advantage to support their respective negotiating strategies. All violence in war is inherently political, but never is it more politically sensitive than during a peace process. Ultimately, violence carried out within the context of a peace process should be geared toward supporting a negotiating position. This, however, relies on detailed insight into the negotiating strategy, particularly the specific conditions required to enable it.
To create these conditions planners could seek to harness the appeal of peace in the way they design and conduct military activities to achieve advantageous political conditions. Here, they must understand the speed or tempo of peace and calibrate the use of force accordingly, as military actions can either create momentum for peace or seriously retard it. Over the last eighteen months in Afghanistan that has meant the careful calibration of violence to support the continuation and advancement of peace talks—particularly those now concluded between the United States and the Taliban.
As the military balance in Afghanistan shifted to favor the Taliban, the character of the conflict should have become much clearer. Afghanistan was, from the outset, a civil war in which Western forces chose a side, not an insurgency. The failure to understand this fact ensured enormous military effort was focused on reconciliation and reintegration without having actually convinced the Taliban they were beaten. This fallacy was repeated by successive commanders; however, in the last eighteen months reconciliation and reintegration has, appropriately, taken a backseat to the more pressing military concern of disrupting the Taliban’s territorial expansion. This is a military objective that staff can plan toward and is far more tangible than the social pressure envisaged by reconciliation and reintegration efforts. Arguably, this more traditional military effect has also been more important for maintaining the stalemate conditions necessary to incentivize continued political discourse.
Furthermore, reconciliation and reintegration are not the same things. Nor are they individually or collectively required to terminate a conflict. But, if they are going to play a role then it is important the military does not co-opt them. Afghanistan has conclusively proven that reconciliation cannot be compelled. To reconcile requires conciliation, compromise. You might be able to compel an adversary to give up their arms, and potentially to reintegrate within society, but it is highly unlikely you can compel the rebuilding of trust and forgiveness implicit in true reconciliation.
Every stakeholder will have a different view on what peace looks like. Visioning can be an important tool for diplomats to use to help adversaries understand areas of common ground as a basis for progress. The military can play a role here: particularly powerful can be military-to-military back channels to inform or set the basis for diplomatic activity. However, military efforts cannot replace or subsume the difficult political discussions necessary to reconcile a divided nation. For this reason, focusing martial activity toward enabling reconciliation is unlikely to be the best use of the military instrument while an adversary still holds an advantageous military position.
Relentless targeting of enemy leadership has become a cornerstone of the post-9/11 wars. This approach was honed in Afghanistan with brutal efficiency. However, the efficacy of this tactic should be questioned as the Taliban’s strength has continued to increase despite consistent, high-profile leadership casualties. In fact, the efficiency of the targeted leadership killings may have actually created the highly resilient military force that now controls vast swathes of the country.
Dead leaders are a relatively simple measure of performance to track but understanding the impact of this as a measure of effectiveness is much harder. This is particularly so if, paradoxically, the perceived success is strengthening rather than weakening the resolve of the adversary and enhancing their organizational resilience. The advent of the F3EAD targeting model—find, fix, finish, exploit, analyze, and disseminate—has ensured special operations forces can sustain a ruthless tempo. However, it has also led to circumstances where leadership targets were prosecuted simply because a fix was achieved, not because the effect required, particularly the political impact, had been understood.
The constant review of targeting methodology is critical in light of political progress. For example, there may be a point in the conflict when you want to preserve enemy leadership in order to enhance the stability of the opposition as conflict termination appears more plausible. Or you may seek to dramatically increase the violence level through a surge in precision targeting with the express purpose of incentivizing a ceasefire at a macro or micro level. These approaches recognize that an armistice may have a better chance of holding when experienced leaders are in a position to control the impulses of their impetuous rank and file. Indeed, inexperienced leadership has the potential to exacerbate volatility when control is most important: in the lead-up to and aftermath of a peace agreement.
Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration
The paradox of conflict termination is that the de-escalation of violence can create more complicated military problems to solve. Disarmament, Demobilization, and Reintegration (DDR) are a series of wicked problems stemming from the reduction of violence. In many cases DDR may not be a military problem to solve. However, in the next twelve months the United States and NATO will likely have little choice but to help prepare Afghanistan for its implementation.
Among myriad other challenges, the Afghan peace process requires detailed consideration of how to establish, monitor, and deconflict ceasefires, while simultaneously preparing to continue the fight against those Taliban who may choose not to come to terms. This illustrates just how complex a post–peace agreement environment is likely to become. The complexity is further compounded by the likely challenge Afghanistan will face in having to demobilize elements of its existing Army while concurrently attempting to (re)integrate Taliban fighters as part of any power-sharing deal. Planners need to understand how messy this transition is likely to be as early as possible. Otherwise, a lack of military preparations in the lead-up to conflict termination can undermine the viability of any anticipated political settlement that follows. In many ways, for military planners the advent of peace will make fighting look easy.
The higher level of strategy [is] that of conducting war with a far-sighted regard to the state of the peace that will follow.
— B. H. Liddell Hart, Strategy
Afghanistan has proven that Western forces need to better understand peace as a process and in particular the military’s role in conflict termination. To Liddell Hart’s point, we must consider how the use of violence can affect a better peace. This is inherently fuzzy and violence will not be the right answer in all circumstances. However, before we can even consider peacekeeping there must actually be a peace to keep. This requires vision and political acumen from commanders and planners. “Soldier-diplomat” can be a pejorative term, but when it comes to conflict termination it is probably exactly what is required.
Planners must have insight into the negotiating strategy, particularly the conditions sought to enable it. This ensures violence can be used incisively to change political, rather than military calculations. De-escalations of force that result from the application of extreme violence still create space for political discourse. These might start as temporary measures, but by reinforcing them with confidence-building measures belligerents can start to fill the void between war and peace and enable the first tentative steps toward creating the mutual trust required for a lasting political settlement.
Conflict termination is a dirty business that requires compromise on all sides. To succeed, military officers need political cunning as much as tactical acumen. It is, therefore, critical to develop these traits through revising doctrine and embedding institutional knowledge through focused study during formal military education. These changes can help bridge the cognitive gap between conflict and a negotiated settlement by ensuring the use of violence achieves maximum political effect. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they are the true masters of war.
Mark Gilchrist is an Australian Army officer whose most recent deployment to Afghanistan was as a planner on Headquarters Resolute Support in 2018/19. Follow him on Twitter: @Gilchrist_MA.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense, or of the Australian Army, Department of Defence, or Australian government.
Image credit: Lt. j. g. Joe Painter, US Navy