Peace is at Hand in Afghanistan -- Or Not

"Peace is at hand." Americans of a certain age will remember the phrase. It was spoken by U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1972, in reference to the war in Vietnam. Today, I can with the same degree of confidence say that peace is at hand in Afghanistan.

Kissinger's was famously wrong in '72. That war lasted another three years. So when I say "with the same degree of confidence" that peace is at hand in Afghanistan, I do not mean that peace is definitely coming - only that we can see a way to reach it. All it requires is a cooperative effort between the United States and Pakistan.

Before looking at the how that could happen, let's look at why it should happen.

The true U.S. cost of the war in Afghanistan will be in excess of $4 trillion, according to Harvard economist Linda Bilmes, as reported in Time Magazine. "Trillion" is a hard number for most to comprehend, so here's another way to look at it: The U.S. now spends $4 million every hour in Afghanistan, according to the National Priorities Project, a non-profit, non-partisan federal budget research group.

So peace would offer a very nice cost savings.

More important is the human cost. Approximately 92,000 Afghans have been killed in the war since 2001, and more than 26,000 of those were civilians, according to the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Almost 100,000 more have been injured.

As for U.S. servicemen and women, nearly 22,000 have been killed or wounded in Afghanistan.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sounded a little more cautious than his predecessor Kissinger on a recent surprise visit to Afghanistan, during which he met with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul.

"We discussed our shared goal of launching peace talks with the Taliban," Kerry told reporters. "We call on the Taliban to enter into a peace process, a legitimate process that brings an end to violence. Of course there is hope for peace."

The peace process in Afghanistan relies on an unholy trinity consisting of the Taliban, Pakistan and the United States. Sadly, Afghanistan doesn't wield sufficient strength or influence to extricate itself from this war.

Not that Afghan President Ghani hasn't tried. In the aftermath of another deadly suicide attack on security personnel in Kabul on April 19, Ghani ordered security forces to strike "fear in the hearts of insurgents" and drain their financial lifelines. His target is the Taliban, widely believed to be supported and protected by Pakistan.

But President Ghani has made similar threats in the past. He has no means to pull it off. After almost two years in office, his country is breaking into pieces, and he doesn't have the financial heft to support a military effort like that.

So the reality is that he must look to the U.S. and Pakistan in hopes they will de-fang the Taliban insurgency that plagues Afghanistan.

Kerry and U.S. President Obama are on record as hailing Afghanistan as a "key piece" in their fight against terrorism, but Afghanistan can only serve that role from a stable and peaceful environment.

Tricky tensions exist between Pakistan and the U.S., but they do have a record of working together. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 brought the military and the intelligence agencies of the U.S. and Pakistan into a partnership. Along with Saudi Arabia, they worked covertly to support the Afghan resistance, the mujahedeen, against the Soviets throughout the 1980s. After the Soviet Union withdrew in 1988, the alliance cooled. But they have worked together many times since the events of 9/11.

Despite denials from both sides, the U.S. does have some influence over Pakistan's security apparatus, which holds sway over the Taliban. U.S. and Pakistani military forces are in constant contact. Top officials in Pakistan's government have for years secretly endorsed the CIA drone program and routinely received classified briefings on strikes and casualty counts, according to top-secret CIA documents and Pakistani diplomatic memos obtained by The Washington Post.

For the U.S. to deny this obvious tacit agreement with the Pakistan army that supports the Taliban is little different from Pakistan denying knowledge that Osama Bin Laden was hiding in the backyard of their military training facility.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. unleashed military forces against the Taliban in Afghanistan, yet after 15 years, the Pakistan-backed Taliban is stronger than ever.

Last month, Pakistan foreign affairs adviser Sartaj Aziz surprisingly admitted what his country has always denied: that the Taliban enjoys safe haven on its soil and Pakistan can sway its leaders.

"We have some influence over them because their leadership is in Pakistan and they get some medical facilities. Their families are here," Aziz said, as reported by Abubakar Siddique with Gandhara News. "We can use those levers to pressurize them."

The U.S. faces two simple choices - (1) cut its losses in Afghanistan, give up and go home, or (2) finish the job by attacking the problem at its root: Pakistan's support for the Taliban.

I believe it would be a tragic waste for the U.S. and a disaster for Afghanistan if the U.S. and coalition forces were to give up now.