Peacebuilding in Afghanistan

Alisher Bazarov

May, 2010


It would probably be proper to describe the current situation in Afghanistan as the "conflict of all conflicts" due to the complex nature, dimensions and a myriad of issues involved in many levels of the conflict. The ongoing violence and the counter-insurgency operations in Afghanistan has now lasted for nine years, the exact time period that the Soviet Union remained as an occupying power before it was forced to leave due to persistent resistance of the Mujahedin and also increasingly weakening Soviet economy. The similar time frames have led many to compare the two occupations and wonder if the current US-led mission will end in a failure just as the Soviet mission did. In addition, certain scholars and politicians, including the president of Tajikistan, claim that any peacebuilding initiative in Afghanistan should take possible lessons from what is arguably a successful peacebuilding operation in neighboring Tajikistan. While searching for lessons from the Soviets and Tajik peacebuilding experience might be prudent, those experiences are not entirely parallel, given the multi-dimensional and protracted nature, methods and the context of the conflict in Afghanistan.

The Obama administration and the international community have been re-evaluating the war in Afghanistan in terms of increasing the number of troops and also increasing the level of foreign aid coming into the country. However, many scholars believe that if the US is serious about reaching a lasting peace in Afghanistan, then it "needs to de-militarize the mission and prioritize political reconciliation efforts."[1] Hence, this essay will attempt to make a claim that in order to increase the chances of the transformation of the conflict in Afghanistan, two significant factors with regard to addressing the conflict need to be re-evaluated concurrently: time and strategy. While a great variety of peacebuilding alternatives and initiatives are feasible, this essay focuses mainly on a holistic picture by concentrating on the re-evaluation of these two factors. These, in turn suggest more specific peacebuilding initiatives.

It took decades for underlying factors of today's conflict in Afghanistan to "build up" the current patterns of instability in Afghan society. A similar time period, if not longer, is also needed to "un-build" these patterns, transcend the cycle of violence and create peace-generating processes in Afghanistan.[2] Hence, any short-term or immediate peacebuilding initiatives should be a part of a long-term peacebuilding framework. The main focus should be given to using non-military strategies, such as political reconciliation, to transform the conflict and that the military fighting only cannot break the cycle of this protracted violence. To understand the importance of the time dimension of peacebuilding, it is important to take a quick glimpse into the major factors from the history of Afghanistan.

On the nature of the conflict and the TIME dimension

The underlying patterns of instability and conflict in today's Afghanistan take their roots to the 19th century "Great Game" - the struggle between the British Empire and the Imperial Russia over influence in Central Asia.[3] Afghanistan's territory became a common 'battleground' in this period, a time when the country also gained the title of a 'graveyard of empires'. During this period, "the British [also] imposed an artificial border on Afghanistan's southern and eastern frontiers" that became known as the Durand Line - which later turned into a source of contention between Pakistan and Afghanistan.[4] Due to the artificial imposition of this border and break-up of ethnicities along the line, ethnic groups such as the Pashtuns, and Tajiks, as well as occupational groups such as farmers and opium dealers largely ignored this border. Nevertheless, the contentious border issue still constitutes a part of the wider conflict today as Afghanistan did not officially recognize the border line.

The imperial rivalry later continued between the Soviet Union and the US during the Cold War. The Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan and later the US and Pakistan's support of the Mujahedin against the Soviets contributed to further development of violence and the so-called a 'culture of conflict' in Afghan communities. During the Cold War, the Soviets and Americans provided nearly $11 billion in weapons to the warring parties in Afghanistan.[5] Needless to say, the ongoing violent struggle has highly affected the daily lives of many Afghans. These continuing impacts, memories of loss, and the narratives of war and conflict will now require a generational change, at least, in order to find peace at the individual level.

In addition to the territorial dispute and the impact of the regional actors, Afghan communities and the former tribal warlords are internally divided as well. During its short-lived rule of the Taliban, the Pashtun dominated the social, economic, and political structure, alienating and oppressing the other Afghan ethnicities, especially those who resisted or resented the Taliban's 'Islamization' process. In this context, the Afghani Taliban distanced itself from the neighboring Pakistani Taliban faction as well. Due to these differences, "conflicts between the groups exploded into shoot-outs on numerous occasions," a pattern which still continues at this time.[6]

The war and the fall of the Taliban in 2001 and the arrival of the international coalition forces opened up a new chapter in the history of the conflict, intertwining local, national, and international parties and interests.[7] The fall of the Taliban's rule also caused internal clashes between the rival warlords and further escalation of many earlier internal conflicts. In other words, the history of today's Afghanistan reflects and sheds a light onto the deep causes and underlying patterns of today's relentless cycle of violence.

Making an assessment of the current conflict in Afghanistan, the American Friends Service Committee, a Nongovernmental Organization (NGO) that works for peace, social justice, and reconciliation, produced a report in 2009 claiming that today's instability in Afghanistan constitutes a kaleidoscope of factors: political (e.g. bad governance, corruption), social (e.g. high illiteracy rate, lack of vocational training), economic and environmental (e.g. scarcity of water, arable land and drug economy), and security-related (e.g. proliferation of small arms, insurgency).[8] Thus, the central point in understanding the nature of the conflict in Afghanistan today is that it is multi-faceted and constitutes a web of issues that have developed over decades. Addressing every single one of these issues concurrently is not an easy task. The international community, including the Obama administration, needs to accept the fact that there is no quick fix for building peace in Afghanistan. Therefore, it is vital to have a peacebuilding framework based on a long-term vision in order to avoid a total failure of the Afghan state and a recurrence of a civil war. Envisioning such a long-term peacebuilding framework demands the re-evaluation of the current militarized perception of peacebuilding, looking especially for the needed, but missing elements - in other words, peacebuilding strategy.

On Strategy

The Obama administration's new strategy to fight the war against the Taliban through 30,000 additional troops and plans to withdraw by the end of 2011 is strategic for US domestic context, but ultimately shortsighted in the context of building sustainable peace in Afghanistan. The strategy to withdraw may make sense in terms of domestic U.S. political strategy, but the war cannot be won militarily in that time frame-if ever. Clearly, the Obama administration is facing a tremendous pressure from the American public to end the war in Afghanistan and bring the troops home. On top of the task of recovering the US economy, the next presidential elections in November 2012 help to explain why President Obama is pushing on a swift military victory over the insurgency in Afghanistan. While militarily eliminating the Taliban insurgents and withdrawing might be a sound strategy under the considerations above, military withdrawal should be a part of a long-term peacebuilding time framework. Unfortunately, this long-term oriented time framework based a common, clear consensus for building peace is largely missing.

One of the weakest points in Obama's counterinsurgency strategy, however, is a lack of recognition of the fact that the presence or increase of the foreign troops is going to be counterproductive to reaching a lasting peace in Afghanistan. The Taliban's sole stated objective today is "to rid their region of foreign forces."[9] If those foreign forces are withdrawn, the Taliban will have much less cause to attack the U.S. (There still is the threat that the Taliban will ally with or harbor Al Queda which does still threaten the US, but the Taliban's own interests appear to be more regionally focused.) A report released by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace noted that "the more military pressure is put on a fragmented society like Afghanistan, the more a coalition against the invader becomes the likely outcome."[10] The report further stated that "since the presence of foreign troops is the most important factor in mobilizing support for the Taliban … withdrawal would not be a consequence of "stabilization," but rather an essential part of the process."[11] In this case, aiming at 2011 as the pull-out date for the troops without having any political reconciliation with the fighting factions on the ground, including the Taliban, further weakens the Karzai administration's fragile government and puts the future of peacebuilding process at stake.

The US probably should withdraw, but not with an expectation of winning the war against the insurgency through military means alone. Rather, a political reconciliation with the moderate Taliban warlords is necessary, along with the military withdrawal process. As the Soviet experience in Afghanistan shows, a complete extermination of the insurgents is less likely until some type of reconciliation with the so-called 'reconcilable' factions is sought.

A temporary military victory is not a guarantee of stability and peace in Afghanistan. As the Soviet Union's Afghan experience shows, the Taliban can temporarily give up the resistance and simply hide and wait in mountain caves, until foreign troops withdraw. If a Taliban insurgency is to be stopped, it might be done through employing mainly a demilitarized peacebuilding process, through which political reconciliation should be sought with the Taliban. This is not to say that the peacebuilding ought to be completely de-militarized since the military would have to provide physical security for major non-violent peacebuilding initiatives to take place. A recent opinion poll among a national sample of 1,534 Afghan adults conducted in all of 34 provinces in Afghanistan by the Afghan Centre for Socio-Economic and Opinion Research in Kabul indicates that 65% of respondents are in favor of reconciliation and reintegration with the Taliban.[12] The dilemma though is that the top level Taliban warlords are more and more reluctant to come to a negotiated settlement, due to a lack of trust toward the Afghan government as well as the international community. Because of the presence of foreign troops on Afghan soil, certain 'irreconcilable' Taliban warlords made it clear that they won't negotiate until the forces leave Afghanistan.

True, there is no guarantee that the Taliban warlords will negotiate when the international forces withdraw either, given their strong ideological convictions. Therefore, a few strategic steps need to be made in this regard. First, viable Afghan police and army forces need to be created and supported by a small contingency of either international forces or forces comprised of mainly neighboring Muslim countries that can constantly train them. Second, a clear approach to distinguish the so-called hard-core "irreconcilables" and those reconcilable moderates among the Taliban, Haqqani insurgency network and tribal warlords needs to be adopted. More specifically, reconcilable Taliban warlords could be a strategic link to confront and prevent the ideologically-driven warlords and insurgents' possible influence. It comes down to being able to understanding their motives and then effectively communicating to them. Doing so will help to make sure that the re-integrated Taliban and insurgency fighters do not attempt to gain an overwhelming control over the country and impose a strict Sharia law again. Along with this process, a viable Afghan state based on equal power-sharing with all divergent factions needs to constitute another major part of the long-term peacebuilding vision in Afghanistan.

The Taliban warlords are partly declining to start negotiations due to earlier experiences of being rejected and crushed by the Afghan government and the coalition forces together. David Cortright reports that under the support of Saudi Arabia, unofficial talks have been held with the Taliban in recent months and the Taliban offered numerous deals, including stopping fighting in return for withdrawal of foreign forces; initiating a security agreement, setting up a specific timeline for withdrawal and also replacement of the US/NATO forces with forces predominantly from Muslim nations.[13] However, the coalition of forces headed by the US leadership chose to reject the proposed deals and responded with a force instead. This has caused further violence again. Therefore, those willing to negotiate and ready to propose their own initiatives need to be incorporated into the current wider peacebuilding framework.

Considering these dilemmas, changing the militarized perception of peacebuilding and seeking a political reconciliation by allowing as many moderate or the so-called 'reconcilable' Taliban as possible to share power at the government level is more conducive for building a sustainable peace in the long-term. More incentives such as high level positions, jobs and homes should be guaranteed in order to fully re-integrate the Taliban into the Afghan society under the new and pluralistic government. The idea of creating a Peace and Re-integration Trust Fund at the London Conference on Afghanistan and using the financial incentives to re-integrate the moderate Taliban fighters (who support nationalist rhetoric versus Islamist ideology) into the Afghan army is a crucial step in further de-escalation of the violence and fight against the insurgency.

It is equally important to note though that the main task of negotiating with the Taliban warlords and initiating any type of a ceasefire should be left mainly to the Afghan government and the widely respected elders from all tribes of all Afghan provinces. A special role in communicating to the Taliban ought to be given to the Loya Jirga, a grand council or assembly for overseeing the major national policies and dispute resolution, that has connections with and access to the Taliban warlords and insurgent fighters. Peace cannot be imported from abroad and neither can it be built by foreigners or outsiders. The peacebuilding initiative or design will sustain itself and become legitimate in the face of the Afghan ethnic factions only when it is derived from the government and key players of Afghan society versus the international community.

Within the framework of the political reconciliation with the Taliban warlords, there has to be a major emphasis on utilizing the local values and peacebuilding initiatives in Afghan communities. On the basis of numerous field interviews and studies among many Afghan activists, former warlords, and (non)state officials, the International Crisis Group made recommendations that the reconciliation process should take place at three inter-dependent levels: (1) sustained international engagement; (2) security sector reform, confidence building, rule of law at a national level; (3) creation of conditions for local level measures of solving many problems.[14] The report further places emphasis on reconciliation based on the process based mainly on the local dispute resolution practices and initiatives in order to reach a lasting peace in Afghanistan.[15]

The local peacebuilding structures that involve mullahs, elders, or community tribal councils have more authoritative, influential as well as respectful mediator/arbitrator roles that the whole community respects despite the differences in views among the factions.[16] Reporting from her fieldtrip to Afghanistan, Lisa Schirch, director of the 3D Security Initiative, also cites the local Afghan peacebuilding experts' concerns over imposing western-style of conflict resolution versus local initiatives: "They need to do a better job of acknowledging and learning ways Afghans traditionally manage conflict, through tribal methods and Islamic ways of fostering good and cordial relations"[17] as opposed to instantaneous military raids and unmanned and often misdirected drone attacks.

Political incorporation of the Taliban into the government and the military structure is yet a minuscule step if the goal is to transform the conflict and build a sustainable peace in the long-run. Such a visionary approach to move from the current crisis to a desired peaceful future with a viable Afghan state also requires what John Paul Lederach called a living though "multiple time and space spheres" by transforming and building constructive relationships at different levels of conflict.[18] At the center of this approach lies "a capacity to understand the patterns of the present, imagine a desired future, and design change processes"[19] that will enable the peace process to sustain itself through a longer time period.

A re-evaluation of the peacebuilding strategy in Afghanistan also needs to re-consider the significance of the issue of enhancing trust and confidence-building measures starting from the grassroots to the leadership levels. The dilemma in this context is that there is a shortage of trust at all levels. First and foremost, neither the Afghan population nor the Taliban has a sufficient trust in the current Karzai government, due to many factors including the appearance of fraud during the last election, and continuing the corruption charges. The fact that the Parliament of Afghanistan rejected 17 out of 24 of the president Karzai's nominees is one indication of the parliament's low faith in Karzai administration. Second, the local population, particularly those closer to Pakistan border areas, do not have enough trust in international community's ability to militarily eradicate the Taliban and provide security for the lives of the local people.

Interrogating the representatives of Afghan civil society leaders and government officials involved in peacebuilding and development in Afghanistan, Lisa Schirch, claims that the Afghan people's lack of trust toward the international peacebuilding efforts still remains as a major concern in civil-military peacebuilding relations in the country. However, there is also a lack of trust in the Afghan police and military forces' capacity to be able to maintain peace and stability in especially most volatile regions of Afghanistan once the major bulk of the international forces leave the country in 2011. Therefore, a small contingent of regional forces made up of perhaps Muslim nations needs to be deployed in Afghanistan to be able to prevent a possible intrusion of the irreconcilable Taliban warlords and also provide training support for the Afghan police and military. But negotiating this approach with neighboring Muslim countries is another challenge that the international community will have to address. At the same time, this still might not guarantee a stability and peace unless the basic security and safety needs of the re-integrated Taliban insurgents as well as the local populations are addressed in some ways.

This is demonstrated by the fact that while the coalition forces are carrying out a major anti-Taliban operation "Moshtarak" in Helmand province of Afghanistan and plan on moving to Kandahar in summer, the insurgents are blowing up the hotels and other public places where mostly westerners stay in the heart of the "heavily-guarded" Kabul.[20] Besides, the trust of the local people in international and local forces' ability to provide security needs to be gained. As the latest experience of the US forces indicate on the battlefield in Afghanistan, establishing a closer relationship with the locals helps to elicit strategic information about the Taliban insurgents and their scouting of the villages at a particular time and date. Besides, re-claiming the land from the Taliban through a military victory won't guarantee any long-term peace in Afghanistan unless the security of the local people is met in some ways.


The analysis given above highlights the importance of a few concrete issues that the peacebuilders in Afghanistan need to consider. First and foremost is that the conflict in Afghanistan has been present for decades and there is no quick fix or 'one solution' that will solve everything and bring peace. The long history of proxy interests of many actors on Afghan soil means that the current situation is very deep rooted and complex. Second, any peacebuilding process in Afghnaistan must be as John Paul Lederach says, both "immediate crisis-responsive and long-term strategic," meaning any short term peacebuilding approach must be a part of a long term vision. Third, the peacebuilding process in Afghanistan should be localized and not externally imposed. Fourth, Afghan peacebuilding must be transformed to become non-coercive , less militarized and cooperative/negotiative if it is to be successful. The current coercive, primary military approaches to peacebuilding are likely to be counterproductive.

[1] David Cortright, "Alternatives to War in Afghanistan," National Catholic Reporter, <, October 13, 2009> accessed 26 February 2010.

[2] On the idea of a cycle of violence and peace-generating processes see John Paul Lederach, Building Peace: sustainable reconciliation in divided societies (Washington D.C.: US Institute of Peace, 1997), 84. The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

[3] For thorough history of the Great Game, see Peter Hopkirk, The Great Game: the Struggle for Empire in Central Asia (New York: Kondansha International, 1992) and Karl Meyer and Shareen Brysac, Tournament of Shadows: the Great Game and the Race for Empire in Central Asia (Washington D.C.: Counterpoint, 1999)

[4] Robert Crews and Amin Tarzi ed., The Taliban and the Crisis of Afghanistan (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), 15-17.

[5] Ibid., 39.

[6] Ibid., 29.

[7] American Friends Service Committee, "Conflict Assessment Afghanistan," accessed 25 February 2010.

[8] American Friends Service Committee, "Conflict Assessment Afghanistan," accessed 25 February 2010.

[9] David Cortright, "Alternatives to War in Afghanistan," National Catholic Reporter, <, October 13, 2009> accessed 26 February 2010.

[10] Gilles Dorronsoro, "Focus and Exit: an Alternative Strategy for the Afghan War," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, <, January 2009> accessed 26 February 2010.

[11] Ibid..

[12] "Afghanistan: National Opinion Poll for BBC, ABC News and ARD," <, January, 2009> accessed February 26, 2010.

[13] David Cortright, "Alternatives to War in Afghanistan," National Catholic Reporter, <, October 13, 2009> accessed 26 February 2010.

[14] Gilles Dorronsoro, "Focus and Exit: an Alternative Strategy for the Afghan War," Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, <, January 2009> accessed 26 February 2010.

[15] Ibid..

[16] "Afghanistan: National Opinion Poll for BBC, ABC News and ARD," <, January, 2009> accessed February 26, 2010.

[17] Lisa Schirch, "A Diplomatic Surge for Afghanistan," <, 26 January 2010> accessed February 26, 2010.

[18] John Paul Lederach, The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 138-149.

[19] Ibid., 138.

[20] For the last explosion that killed 16 people or more, see Alissa Rubin, "Guesthouses Used by Foreigners in Kabul Hit in Deadly Attacks," The New York Times, accessed 27 February 2010.