This proposal is far from utopian. I claim that it is a pragmatic political proposal, with little cost and significant potential benefits; indeed, according to recent press reports, a US-initiated Christmas 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 will stand down to mark the birth of the Prince of Peace? If they did, would anyone take them seriously?
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 Christmas truce would be totally consistent with measures that the administration is already pursuing. However, it would have the advantage that a cease-fire 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 cease-fire 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.
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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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 overemphasized. 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 characterized by the killing of Iraqi civilians, as well as its failure to take responsibility for those killings.
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 happened in Iraq. 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 and the fewer tax dollars we'll have to waste 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 Christmas cease-fire will be the camel's nose under the tent. It will introduce the concept of "cease-fire" into the center of discourse on Afghanistan, where it belongs. After ten 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 cease-fire. The United Nations (UN) has successfully negotiated cease-fires to conduct vaccinations. There were cease-fires in the past for elections.
Some will object that Christmas is a Christian holiday and Afghanistan is a Muslim country, and what do the Afghan Taliban know from Christmas?
But we have to start somewhere, and the principal political obstacle to a cease-fire is the Pentagon, and the best way to intimidate the Pentagon from resisting a cease-fire is to announce one on Christmas. If we can get a cease-fire on Christmas, then a cease-fire on a Muslim holiday will 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 cease-fire. 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 Christmas cease-fires on the Western Front. Christmas 2014 will mark the hundred-year anniversary of the Christmas truce of 1914. Maybe, if we get busy, by Christmas 2014, the guns in Afghanistan will be silenced for good.