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Conflict and crisis

Vali Nasr on how to end wars

What can we learn from the war in Afghanistan about how to end the war in Syria?

Chief Innovation Officer, International Rescue Committee
Director of Innovation Strategy, International Rescue Committee

Wars are getting longer. On average, wars now last over 10 years. One reason is that there are more parties to the conflict: In 2016, external states contributed troops to at least one side in 38% of conflicts around the world, an upward trend that the Norwegian research institute PRIO called “worrisome as such conflicts, on average, last longer, are more violent, and are more difficult to solve.”

To find out whether it’s possible to buck this trend, today Displaced is speaking with Vali Nasr, dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. In 2009, Nasr joined the office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan in the Department of State. The bureau was tasked with mediating an end to American involvement in Afghanistan, which at that point was stretching into its eighth year.

Almost a decade later, Nasr believes that failures to negotiate an end to the conflict in Afghanistan bear potently on how to stop the fighting in Syria — and on how to reduce the length of wars globally.

According to Nasr, we need to think in terms of compromise and not total victory. In Afghanistan, “the goal was never that we seriously really were thinking about a peace process and whether it’s doable or not. I don’t think we really tried it out,” he tells Displaced hosts Grant and Ravi. “If you’re going to say, ‘I’m going to finish this politically,’ the end result in Afghanistan is not total surrender. It’s some kind of peace deal.”

Vali Nasr

Building on generations of military thinkers, Nasr urges American politicians to demand that military action be employed as a tool to engender negotiated settlements, and not as an end of itself. One consequence of that approach is that in the run-up to diplomatic talks, violence can increase as parties jockey to improve their relative positions in order to be able to demand more concessions at the negotiating table, so the sequencing of the military action and the negotiations needs to be carefully considered.

Nasr’s focus on diplomacy and negotiation isn’t misplaced: Since 1945, negotiated endings to war have jumped from 10% to almost 40%, and even starting the process of negotiation usually leads to shorter, less violent conflicts. However, as the Syrian conflict drags on, most analysts put the chances of a negotiated end to the war in Syria at “close to zero.” Nasr is more optimistic. But without carefully applying the lessons of our failures in Afghanistan, he warns, we will fail.

War and peace is really about a balance of power. It’s not about whether your adversary … [is] good or evil.

Lastly, a note to our listeners. Grant and Ravi are wonks. Vali is a wonk. Wonks + wonk means there’s a lot of inside baseball in this episode, so if you’re left wondering who the ISI is, or why we care about the Bonn Agreement, check out the related reading for some catch-up.

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Interested in learning more about what went behind this episode? Check out Airbel’s Medium.

Opinions and views expressed by guests are their own and do not reflect those of the International Rescue Committee.