from Strength Through Peace and Center for Preventive Action

Overcoming the Prisoner’s Dilemma to Reach Peace in Afghanistan

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad at United Nations headquarters in New York on August 11, 2008. Keith Bedford/Reuters File Photo

Furthering the peace process in Afghanistan will require overcoming a quintessential prisoner’s dilemma between the core parties to the conflict. 

September 14, 2018

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Zalmay Khalilzad at United Nations headquarters in New York on August 11, 2008. Keith Bedford/Reuters File Photo
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Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad’s appointment as special advisor on Afghanistan with the stated objective of “developing the opportunities to get the Afghans and the Taliban to come to a reconciliation.” This appointment, the strongest sign that the Donald J. Trump administration is taking the prospect of peace seriously, follows several noteworthy developments this year that underscored a desire for peace among the parties to the conflict and international actors. There is an opportunity to further the peace process, but, to do so, Khalilzad will have to overcome a quintessential prisoner’s dilemma between the core parties to the conflict. 

The prisoner’s dilemma is a fundamental example in game theory where rational actors (in this case, the United States, the Afghan government and polity, the Taliban, Pakistan, and regional actors) fail to cooperate even if they would benefit from doing so. In this example, each actor would benefit from a peaceful outcome in Afghanistan but may perceive unacceptable short-term costs associated with that outcome.

Each actor would benefit from a peaceful outcome in Afghanistan but may perceive unacceptable short-term costs.

Peace in Afghanistan would allow the United States to end its longest war—now in its seventeenth year—on which it spends approximately $45 billion annually and has lost more than 2,300 U.S. service members. The Afghan government could better invest the billions of dollars of international security assistance it receives in infrastructure; commerce; and the Afghan people, who are among the poorest in the world. Taliban members could contest for and hold power as a legitimate part of the Afghan polity without combatting international military efforts and sanctions. Pakistan, which receives widespread blame for providing sanctuary to Taliban senior leaders, could see an improvement in bilateral ties with the United States and greater stability on its western border.

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Despite these long-term benefits, these actors might focus instead on the immediate risks of cooperation.

The United States, for one, is rightly skeptical of the Taliban as a negotiating partner, given divisions between the group’s political and military wings, and likely internal divisions on pivotal issues such as the constitution and the structure of the Afghan government. Working with the Taliban directly may also risk undermining Kabul if the Taliban refuses to move beyond talks with Washington.

For the Afghan government—aside from overcoming the deep history of animosity from the unpopular Taliban rule and subsequent violent insurgent campaign—politically legitimizing the Taliban would threaten the influence of current power brokers. Kabul would also likely be sensitive to a sharp reduction in development and security assistance that could accompany a conclusion of the international military effort.

The Taliban may perceive little incentive to talk to the current Afghan government, which could be replaced in presidential elections scheduled for April 2019. Moreover, the 2019 presidential election could be contested, further reducing the cohesion and legitimacy of the Afghan government, which would put the Taliban in a stronger negotiating position. The Taliban may also assess that Kabul does not have the power to reach the group’s core goal of reducing foreign troop presence. Formally joining negotiations could also undermine internal Taliban narratives that drive its recruiting and military campaigns.

It is possible to overcome the prisoner’s dilemma in Afghanistan and arrive at a mutually beneficial outcome.

Lastly, according to many observers, it is a matter of Pakistani strategic doctrine to maintain the Taliban as a powerful actor in Afghanistan in order to protect Pakistan’s interests—a concept that strategists refer to as “strategic depth”—and prevent India from establishing a stronghold of influence on its Western flank. Islamabad therefore probably has little incentive to militarily target senior Taliban leaders living on Pakistani soil, minimizing the urgency behind leaders’ involvement in negotiations.

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Despite these immediate obstacles, it is possible to overcome the prisoner’s dilemma in Afghanistan and arrive at a mutually beneficial outcome but, at a minimum, it will require incremental and sustained confidence-building among all parties and bold, catalytic diplomacy. A steady stream of confidence-building measures allows each actor to consider the benefits of peace while reducing the gulf of mistrust between all sides. A renewed diplomatic effort, perhaps represented by Khalilzad’s recent appointment, to relentlessly engage skeptical parties and align seemingly divergent immediate interests will help to achieve the consensus goal. Ultimately, an end state in which all parties to the Afghanistan conflict see themselves as better off than they are today does exist. With the right approach, the parties need not take undue risks to achieve it.

Courtney Cooper is an International Affairs Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a position being sponsored by the U.S. government. Samir Kumar is a research associate at the Council on Foreign Relations. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely the views of the authors.  

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