peacebuilding afghanistan

by Sarah Edgcumbe

Afghanistan, a country that has been in and out of the news since the 9/11 terror attack and subsequent U.S.-led coalition invasion, is once again at the forefront of media attention this month, as a result of Trump’s decision to cancel peace talks with the Taliban on 9th September. The relentless violence and bombings conducted by Afghan state forces, U.S.-backed Afghan militias, Taliban, religious extremist groups, career criminals and other groups are no longer considered to be remarkable events; they happen so frequently that the international audience has become desensitized to them.

2018 was the deadliest year for civilians in Afghanistan: the conflict has not been waning, on the contrary, the violence is continuing unabated. Amid the carnage, a new trend has emerged – Afghan state forces (and their international backers) were responsible for more civilian deaths throughout 2019 than the Taliban or other armed groups. This scenario begs the question: why have peacebuilding initiatives failed? The short answer: liberal peacebuilding always does.

Earlier this year I had the privilege of researching rural Afghan women in the Balkh and Herat provinces of Afghanistan. What really struck me was how their experiences and narratives could prove to be so useful for informing peacebuilding policies, if only policy-makers would ask them questions and listen, unreservedly, to their answers. The potential of rural communities is largely neglected by liberal peacebuilding processes, reflecting the problematic nature of the liberal peacebuilding: such an agenda is uniformly applied, in a top-down approach which incorporates the elites and ostracizes everybody else.

peacebuilding afghanistan herat

Rather than adopting a case-by-case contextualized approach to peacebuilding based upon comprehensive research and inclusive, community-based consultations, the liberal peace agenda revolves around core pillars which are applied in a formulaic manner regardless of socio-political context and diversity on the ground. These core pillars are: state-building characterized by the establishment of liberal institutions and centralized governance; the implementation of neoliberal policies which seek to establish a free market economy through privatization of services and resources; the prioritization of security over development; and an emphasis on the importance of individualistic civil and political rights over socio-economic and collective, community-based rights. In short, liberal peacebuilding can be viewed as a project of cultural imperialism in which dominant states seek to mould non-liberal and fragile states in their own image. Capitalism and individual freedoms are advocated as a magic remedy to conflict, regardless of conflict drivers and despite the fact that the very best such an approach can achieve is a negative peace, in which there may be no manifest armed conflict, but structural violence and exploitation abound.

Denial of local agency and knowledge is an intrinsic aspect of the process, which can best be summed up as a “peacebuilding” methodology that inextricably employs neoliberalism to the benefit of the wealthy few and the cost of the majority. Powerful, Western states incorporate local, contextual knowledge and perspectives on conflict and peace selectively. Local knowledge which conforms to the liberal peacebuilding paradigm is incorporated, whereas knowledge that contradicts this paradigm is either manipulated or discarded as invalid. Local perspectives which don’t conform to the global ideals of liberalism are portrayed as backwards, barbaric, or uncivilised, in contrast to the “civilised” Western world. Exploitation and marginalization is apparently not a problem, provided it contributes to a country’s GDP, regardless of increasing wealth gap, unequal access to services, or basic necessities such as food and water. But the “American Dream” and capitalist version of “success” cannot be successfully pursued by “normal” people in states such as Afghanistan – how could it be? It cannot be pursued by “normal” people in industrialized capitalist countries whose economies and narrowly defined “growth” are founded upon neoliberalism either: it’s a myth purveyed by the wealthy to detract attention from the structural violence inherent within neoliberalism, achieved by painting the impoverished as lazy.

Afghanistan provides a particularly lucid demonstration of this failure, despite attempts by the international community to employ a “light footprint”. The reason is largely due to the imposition and implementation of policies and strategies, which marginalise local knowledge and priorities, and instead reflect external rather than internal concerns. For example, the peacebuilding machinery in Afghanistan has sought to frame Afghan women solely as victims of Afghan men, portraying the 2001 invasion as a project in women’s liberation and conveniently neglecting the effects of conflict, occupation, imperialism, corruption, drought, and poverty on women’s lives. The effect of this elite-centric approach to peacebuilding is a discourse which emphasizes individualistic civil and political rights as the most effective vehicle through which to deliver women’s liberation. Such discourse is a red herring, detracting attention from the structural violence inherent within neoliberalism and exclusionary, centralized state-building, which by its very nature results in the erosion of collective, socio-economic rights – the rights that rural Afghans view as the most important, at least in the immediate term.

Rural women, as primary carers for their families, are very much aware of the challenges, problems and priorities they and their communities experience and identify at a localized level. Importantly, they are keenly aware of those values and norms which the community views as non-negotiable and those which can be quietly, and subtly transformed, provided this action takes place in a non-confrontational manner. Thus, these women are extremely valuable sources of knowledge and agency in terms of peacebuilding. Despite their experiences and perspectives however, they are rarely, if ever, provided with the opportunity to voice their concerns or suggestions regarding peacebuilding. To ignore them because their knowledge and perspectives do not always conform to liberal norms is to condemn rural Afghan communities to continued marginalization, poverty, and conflict.

woman afghanistan

Time and effort is required to adequately research the experiences, perspectives, values, and priorities of rural communities, but these insights are crucial for building a contextually specific framework which could replace the prevailing liberal peacebuilding methodology and result in sustainable peace. The Everyday Peace Indicators framework is an inclusive, bottom-up approach to conflict and peace research which could be utilized in order to inform the creation of truly effective peacebuilding policies. Such a framework could underpin what David Roberts calls “popular peace”, which ‘derives from local priorities serviced through able institutions, sustained, where they are lacking, through external cooperation.’ Such an approach however would require a fundamental reconditioning of the psyche of powerful states such as the U.S. and the U.K.: they would need to put peace and respect for sovereignty before greed, resources, geo-political or other strategic gains, and this will likely be a more elusive goal than peace in a region such as Afghanistan.

All images by the author

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