Stop the Afghanistan war for the holidays

President Obama should announce an offensive ceasefire in Afghanistan during winter holidays, and urge others to join.

A ceasefire would be a special gift to the Afghan people, one or two days in which they wouldn’t have to worry about being bombed, harrassed or arrested by Western troops [GALLO/GETTY]

The United States should observe an offensive ceasefire in Afghanistan over the winter holidays, and urge others to join as a goodwill gesture to promote peace talks.

Far from being utopian, I claim that this is a pragmatic political proposal, with little cost and significant potential benefits; indeed, according to recent press reports, a US-initiated truce would complement peace efforts that the Obama Administration is already pursuing. The political cost would be negligible.

Would Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and John McCain denounce President Obama for announcing that US forces in Afghanistan would stand down to mark the birth of the Prince of Peace? If they did, would anyone take them seriously? This is a decision that President Obama can make unilaterally as Commander-in-Chief. He does not need the permission of Lindsay Graham, the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute or the Washington Post editorial board.

If President Obama decided that US forces in Afghanistan will not take offensive military actions during the holidays, so shall it be. Already, Reuters reports, the Obama Administration is contemplating confidence-building measures to promote peace talks with the Afghan Taliban, including transferring Afghan prisoners at Guantanamo to Afghan government custody and supporting the establishment by the Afghan Taliban of a political office in Qatar for the purpose of participating in peace talks. Therefore, a holiday truce would have been totally consistent with measures that the Administration is already pursuing.

However, it would have the advantage that a ceasefire wouldn’t just be an olive branch to the Afghan Taliban; it would also be an olive branch to the Afghan people. In particular, an offensive ceasefire would mean a pause in US Special Forces night raids into Afghan homes, night raids that kill civilians and violate the most basic tenets of human decency – night raids which are the object of universal loathing in Afghanistan.

Unachievable objectives

Consider what we just learned from the US military withdrawal in Iraq. According to the reporting of the New York Times and the Washington Post, the key reason that the Pentagon could not win permission to stay in Iraq was 1) the Pentagon killed too many Iraqi civilians and 2) no-one was held accountable for the killings. Liz Sly reported in the Washington Post:

In the accounting of what was won and lost in America’s Iraq war, [Haditha] will rank as a place where almost everything was lost… in dueling [Iraqi and American] perceptions, over the killings in Haditha and others nationwide, lay the undoing of the US military’s hopes of maintaining a long-term presence here.

When it came to deciding the future of American troops in Iraq, the irreconcilable difference that stood in the way of an agreement was a demand by Iraqi politicians for an end to the grant of immunity that has protected on-duty US soldiers from Iraqi courts. “The image of the American soldier is as a killer, not a defender. And how can you give a killer immunity?” said Sami al-Askari, a lawmaker who is also a close aide to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Michael Schmidt reported in the New York Times:

Charges were dropped against six of the accused Marines in the Haditha episode, one was acquitted and the last remaining case against one Marine is scheduled to go to trial next year. That sense of American impunity ultimately poisoned any chance for American forces to remain in Iraq, because the Iraqis would not let them stay without being subject to Iraqi laws and courts, a condition the White House could not accept.

The significance of these reports for the war in Afghanistan cannot be over-emphasised. A key objective of the Pentagon in the invasion of Iraq was to establish a permanent military garrison in Iraq. But the Pentagon failed in this objective, because of the Pentagon’s own failure to not kill Iraqi civilians, and the Pentagon’s failure to take responsibility for killing Iraqi civilians.

Historical precedents

Now the Pentagon is pursuing in Afghanistan the same objective that it was pursuing in Iraq: trying to establish a permanent military garrison. In the long run, the Pentagon is likely to face the same paradox in Afghanistan that it faced in Iraq. The Pentagon is intervening in a civil war, and it’s the intervention in the civil war that creates the opportunity for the Pentagon to be in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, it is US policy to try to end the civil war, but as soon as the civil war ends, and the current government is replaced by a government that includes representation for all the people now fighting, it is extremely likely that that government will kick the Pentagon out – just as it happened in Iraq.

While Western children celebrate the holidays, what will children in Afghanistan have to celebrate? [GALLO/GETTY]

Meanwhile, the more civilians the Pentagon kills, injures and abuses as long as the war continues, the more certain it is that an Afghan government that ends the war will kick the Pentagon out. Since this is the likely future, why dally? The sooner we can get the Pentagon kicked out of Afghanistan, the more American and Afghan lives will be saved. In addition to that, the US will waste fewer tax dollars on a doomed enterprise that isn’t supported by the majority of Americans and isn’t in the interests of the majority of Americans.

A ceasefire would be the camel’s nose under the tent. It would introduce the concept of “ceasefire” into the centre of discourse on Afghanistan, where it belongs. After 10 years of Rube Goldberg efforts to bring peace to Afghanistan by the acquisition of some other objective have failed, it is time to work towards peace directly – by silencing the guns.

There are precedents in Afghanistan for a ceasefire. The UN has successfully negotiated ceasefires to conduct vaccinations. There were ceasefires in the past for elections. We have to start somewhere, and the principal political obstacle to a cease-fire is the Pentagon. The best way to intimidate the Pentagon from resisting a ceasefire is to announce one during the holidays. If we had a ceasefire around Christmas time, then a ceasefire on a Muslim holiday would surely be next.

The Christmas truce has a rich history, one that we should seek to revive. In December 1914, as war raged in Europe, Pope Benedict XV called for a Christmas ceasefire. The Pope’s initiative was rebuffed by political leaders, but in one of the most compelling acts of mass civil disobedience in the 20th century, rank-and-file troops carried out the action that the Pope had called for, negotiating local ceasefires on the Western Front.

Christmas 2014 will mark the hundred year anniversary of the Christmas truce of 1914. Maybe, if we get busy, by winter 2014 the guns in Afghanistan will be silenced for good.

Robert Naiman is Policy Director at Just Foreign Policy.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.