Liberal Peace is dead? Not so fast

Eight years, billions of dollars and thousands of Afghan lives require accountability. The international community swings from one extreme of trying to modernize every institution to uncritically embracing all that is "traditional." What should they do? A reply to Oliver Richmond.
Shahrbanou Tadjbakhsh
27 November 2009

Beneath the burden of inefficiencies, insurgencies and corruption, and unable to hold its ground when liberal institutions collide with the local context, liberal peace as statebuilding seems to be seeking the exit door in Afghanistan.

Long term peacebuilding is scaling back at the expense of short term manageable goals. Military operations are now focusing on the limited goal of counter-insurgency and     ‘democratization’ is now archived, relegated to the ancient regime of Georges W. Bush. The grand statebuilding project announced in the Bonn process is increasingly being questioned, less because it was jump started on an inexistent peace agreement, and more because it concentrated too much on building a centralized state with Kabul-based institutions.

Before revisionist history deletes this, let’s not forget that the kind of liberal peace that Oliver Richmond talks about existed at one point in Afghanistan. Fast rewind to 2001, when the liberation of Afghan men and women from the yoke of the Taliban and their “illiberal” regime became conflated with the statebuilding-through-liberalization agenda.  The shock of 9/11 was indeed used, as Oliver Richmond writes to “liberalise, modernize, marketise, develop, democratize”.  Liberal peace seeped through the institutions of the Bonn process:  Presidential elections, a new constitution, a parliament, reorganization of local governance were all based on a western model of democracy. It became a conditionality of aid by the international community, the subtext in documents such as Securing Afghanistan’s Future, the ANDS, the London Compact, and the IMF conditionality for debt relief and HIPC status in Afghanistan.  Under international tutelage, a liberal political economy was introduced, underpinned by a Constitution, Article 10 of which stated that “the State encourages and protects private capital investments and enterprises based on the market economy”.

The liberation/liberalization agenda was meant to show the benefits of so called universal and cosmopolitan values and rights while improving the everyday life of people.  It tried to do so by building formal institutions against rushed timetables with a set of formidable props as background:  a military intervention, partly aimed at regime change and partly at an international war against terror; substantial and often uncoordinated international presence and aid, massive poverty and illiteracy, and a deeply traditional and religious society.  Not surprisingly, it failed. 

The vast bulk of the population started losing faith in the benefits of participation in political processes, such as elections that ignored their traditional methods of consultation and their modern political parities, and instead became jockeying ground for legitimizing candidates in external capitals.  And while much focus was put on the democratization agenda, marketization robbed ordinary Afghans of economic security. The sudden opening up of markets had the inevitable immediate negative impacts. Inflation went up, imports flooded local markets, inequality rose, as did food costs when the global crisis hit agricultural prices. Instead of becoming more organized and formalized, the private sector, billed as the ‘main engine of growth’, slipped into the informality of a shadow economy captured by mafias and corruption. Economic liberalization, introduced in the middle of Afghanistan’s sustained conflict, failed to address unemployment, a priority of the population, especially of the youth and the millions of returnees from Pakistan and Iran. As Richmond mentions, in Afghanistan too the peace dividend only emerged for political and economic elites and international contractors.

In 2007-2008, a joint research team led by this author (Sciences Po, Paris) and Nassrollah Stanekzi (Kabul University) engaged selected Afghans in a dialogue about their perception of the liberal peace model.  We set out to enquire how much, with their ethos of collectiveness, with their experiences of socialist models that had controlled the state and the market, and their sacrifices of war, did Afghans understand and covet its values. Two main messages emerged through in-depth interviews with 100 Afghans in five regions: One was the obvious one that this liberal peace had failed to improve people’s lives. The other was that liberalism, with its moral precepts based on human rights and individualism, seemed to contradict the collectivist principles of duty, authority and justice embodied in tradition and Islam for Afghans. The two however could easily coexist, but only as long as there was respect, traditions were not offended, and lives were improved.  Afghans seemed to be withholding judgment on the liberal peace. They were much more interested in everyday outcomes in their lives than in a potential clash of value systems.   

Democracy was a western word, but its tenets were neither new nor alien to them.   ‘Mardom salar’ (rule by people), rule of law, participation and freedoms were coveted. Within Islam, elections, respect for people and personal freedom, including that of expression, were already embodied - but within a framework of morality, responsibility and social justice.  Yet, when they saw democracy and freedoms misunderstood and misused by both local elites and international actors, this had led to bihayayi (lack of shame) and ‘unlimited freedoms’ that hampered the well-being of society, social cohesion and harmony.

In principle, a hybrid model of liberalism within a collectivist context, devoid of selfish individualism, and modified to include social justice, seemed to be embraced by Afghans, in theory. In practice however, liberal peace came through an intervention which had exacerbated insecurities and had not resulted in tangible results in everyday lives. Afghans had only seen the negative effects: rising inequality, mafiazation of the economy, disrespect for laws, capture of the state and the market.

The search for hybridity

Yet, instead of dealing with the dysfunctionality of liberal peace imposed as conditionality under the adverse conditions of war, the international community is now bent on finding new approaches to statebuilding.

The search is on for so-called ‘hybridity’, strategies that combine « state institutions, customary institutions and new elements of citizenship and civil society in networks of governance which are not introduced from the outside, but embedded in the societal structures on the ground.”

At the Carnegie, the rule of governors Atta Mohammed Noor (of the northern province of Balkh) and Gul Agha Sherzai (eastern province of Nangarhar) is flagged up as an example of how « successful warlords  have proven effective at combating narcotics and terrorism through the use of informal tribal and patronage networks. » At Rand, Seth Jones argues that the strategy of building a centralized state is doomed to fail in a land of tribes. Rural Afghans, especially in Pashtun-dominated southern and eastern Afghanistan, are said to reject a strong central government actively meddling in their affairs, as a foreign entity.

After a few years of centralizing state building in the capital, the rural areas, the domain of local culture, traditional governance structures, tribal police and sub-national governance, so far ignored or feared, is now rediscovered. If the state has “never commanded the full loyalty of its own citizens”, long term capacity building of the central government should make way for short term goals, and informal methods of governance should be recognized.  In other words, to give warlords a vested interest, international aid should be channeled directly to Afghan regions - a proposal made back in January 2002 by Marina Ottaway and Anatol Lieven of Carnegie 

The goal may be realistic; the subtext however is worrying.

There is a danger of romanticizing a past which no longer exists. As Susanne Shmeidl has argued, tribal structures have been damaged and fragmented through the years of wars. Leadership has certainly changed. Jang salar (warlords) with their power derived from their guns have far more might than community-legitimized tribal actors linked to traditional institutions. Nevertheless, romanticizing the past in this way serves  a functional purpose for the military at least. Inspired by the Sunni Awakening program in Iraq, the US military has launched the Community Defense Initiative (CDI) to funnel millions of dollars to villages that organize "community watch"-type programmes. It is assumed that through decentralized support to tribal, religious and other local leaders, ‘pockets of tribal resistance’ against spoilers such as the Taliban can be strengthened.

The problem of course is that despite large sums of money, the initiative may not work, but will lead to the further ‘warlordization’ of society. There is little evidence to support the  underlying assumption that aid projects, such as building schools, clinics, and roads, will win the hearts and minds of Afghans, give them more faith in their government, and turn  them away from the Taliban. Instead of winning hearts and minds, what Andrew Wilder discovered in the course of 400 interviews was that Afghan perceptions of aid and aid actors are overwhelmingly negative. Instead of contributing to stability, in many cases aid is contributing to conflict, instability and massive corruption, which has further eroded the legitimacy of the government.

Modernisation denied

But the main problem with the functional search for hybridity and exoticizing `indigenous' and `traditional' practices is that it relies on  essentializing the Afghan culture.  The international community swings from one extreme of trying to redo every institution to uncritically embracing all that is  ‘traditional’.

Back in 2006, an Asia Society poll claimed that 80 percent of Afghans preferred the traditional justice system over formal institutions. Instead of asking if formal institutions had properly delivered, the cultural flag was raised in international debates analyzing the findings. When the Hazaras decided to introduce the particularly ‘illiberal’ Shia marriage law through Afghanistan’s national assembly, it just came to prove to voters back home what difficulties NATO had in winning a war in “defense of universal values.”

The abandonment of liberal peace seems to be an exit strategy for the international community. But this is making a grand exit while blaming Afghans as a convenience: the government for corruption, Afghan culture for being fundamentally illiberal, or Afghans’ vision of order and loyalty, for being fragmented. By implication, the modern state which expects to command the full loyalty of its own citizens, becomes too distant from what the Afghans deserve, and culture is essentialised as anti-modern and static.  This is to place blame in the wrong place and to ignore any kind of internal dialogue and dynamic that is taking place in Afghanistan.

Sadly, this echoes what Franz Fanon wrote in Wretched of the Earth back in 1959: colonial domination, because it is total and tends to over-simplify, very soon manages to disrupt the cultural life of a conquered people. New legal relations are introduced by the occupying powers and the natives and their customs are banished to outlying districts by colonial society.  The mass of the people maintain their traditions intact, although the artisan style solidifies into a formalism which is more and more stereotyped.  Ultimately, the victim is the thinking  middle class – the class which is supposed to create the modern state and nation. The nation is robbed of its potential for renewal, while the short-term functional goals of external ‘peace builders’ are achieved.

Hybrid survival

The international community does not have to return to tribal and customary behavior to find hybridity. There are already a number of attempts to contest, pluralize and appropriate the post-conflict space.  Instead of them leading, as Richmond wishes, to alternative “new, contextual, and hybrid form of peace”, they are however tactics for survival, the result of  collision between the external (not always liberal) and the everyday.   Such negative hybridity as reaction, or mode of survival, abound in every day acts of resistance in Afghanistan.  A few examples:

  • The insurgency itself can be viewed through the hybridity lens not as a form of terrorism which needs to be isolated and dealt with through military force, but as an organization of resistance in reaction to the presence of foreign troops and to the indignity of occupation 
  • The neo-Taliban seem to have established parallel governments and courts in many of the districts of Afghanistan.  They are said to use their hierarchy and command structure and effective use of resources to provide some types of public goods where the state and international NGOs have failed to deliver
  • Much is being said about the corruption of Afghan officials and how local populations are suffering as a result. But corruption as a way to exchange services for money is endemic in streets and bazaars while the formal economy continues to be disorganized. And beyond the street and the every day man, systemic corruption is the language, the very currency of negotiation of agency between international contractors, foreign donors and local political elites over reconstruction projects, logistics and security. As Martine van Bijlert sums it up : “… In the last eight years international contractors, policy makers and military have become part of an intricate patronage and racketeering network, sometimes as hostage, sometimes as unwitting contributors, but often as an active party seeking to further their perceived economic, political or security interests.”
  • Warlordism in government and a weak state is defacto hybridity that the international intervention has already created. From 2001, when the US army utilized the Northern Alliance as a ground-force to oust the Taliban and the CIA handed over cash to General Fahim, the pattern was set to co-opt the armed militia and contribute to the present culture of impunity.

Yet, these types of hybridity - reactions, responses, resistance, and cooption -  all strategies of the powerless  and precisely formed as a language of negotiation between local and external actors, are decried as abnormal.

"You broke it, you fix it"

Rescuing the liberal peace in Afghanistan is not necessarily right because it is based on so-called cosmopolitan values  but because it needs to deliver first before exiting through the back door. Eight years, thousands of Afghan lives and billions of dollars and require accountability.  They should not be shortchanged by our going ‘local and then out’.  So what are the options ahead?

The most honest one is where international actors reflect on their own position of power and the assumptions made in the driver’s seat.  From that vantage point, ‘hybridity’ can only be recognized as a reaction and a method of negotiation for survival and not, as Richmond wants to see, a new alternative. 

Certainly, a post-liberal peace in Afghanistan needs to be renegotiated based on understanding the root causes of resistance, and listening more closely to the demands of ordinary Afghans. But this would mean a few uncomfortable things for the international community:

  • Being prepared to allow for more justice, equity and welfare in the economy,
  • Instead of deciding with whom to negotiate over a local peace, investing the time and effort needed to launch a genuine political process for national unity and wide-scale reconciliation,
  • Involving more traditional mechanisms like the Loya Jirga that could bring legitimacy  through inclusion and consultation, or even involving political parties when there are bottlenecks in political processes,  as for example there was during the presidential election crisis of last month.

If international peace builders were keen on going further, there is one much-neglected area that Afghans can point them towards. Instead of a communitarian peace where tribal rule is essentialized and deployed, an Islamic peace can be scrutinized more closely as a guiding principle of society, based on virtue and justice. Most respondents in our Sciences Po research argued that genuine Islam, where rights and freedoms were limited automatically through   akhlag (morality) and iman (faith), was far superior both to the liberal peace model, based on individualism, and to the notion of a traditional peace, based on hierarchy and authority.  Yet, it seems that understanding religion as a source for principles of social organization is a step too far for the secularized, rational west which automatically associates the adjective “Islamic” with extremism and fundamentalism.  This is sadly a missed opportunity.

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