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Not all hybrid structures are created equal: Some thoughts on bottom-up peacebuilding

Afghanistan has long experience of complex arrangements with local/traditional forms of governance. It is possible to see what factors work for peace-building and which do not

Susanne Schmeidl
1 December 2009

Afghanistan is an interesting example for the debate of hybrid spaces/structures in peacebuilding as the country has had experiences with several failed top-down statebuilding efforts as well as hybrid structures that emerged out of a context of war and disorder.  In a twist of irony the outcome of the most recent attempt at liberal peace created a hybrid state in Afghanistan in which warlords and regional strongmen yield more power than technocrats. The very fear of working bottom-up coupled with an over-emphasis on anti-terrorism, has given Afghanistan a hybrid order with striking resemblances to the failed mujahideen rule in the early 1990s. For many Afghans it eerily feels as if they already have been at this juncture, when the last external state-building experiment went sour – the socialist experiment backed by the former Soviet Union – and forced the country into a long and bitter war.

The failure in Afghanistan may very well lie with the fact that hybrid models or synergies, as Oliver Richmond argues, were neither sensitively handled nor properly understood. This means that hybrid structures and bottom-up approaches need to be considered with some caution, as not all are created equal. Understanding this is especially pertinent in the current rush to embrace all that is traditional as the ultimate silver bullet for justice and security in order to compensate for the lack in capacity of the modern state. In many ways, as I and Shahrbanou Tadjbakhsh have argued, the pendulum in Afghanistan has swung from the modernization extreme to jumping on the ‘tribal bandwagon’: for example, by emphasizing the establishment of tribal militia to defend communities against the Taliban and support traditional governance structures to fill the gap of a corrupt and weak formal justice sector. While traditional structures may fulfil all of these functions, historically they have done so in some form or relation with the state. This is after all what hybridity is all about – an interplay between the modern and traditional, not favouring one over the other, which seems to be too often the trend. 

The fact that historically the state in Afghanistan was very much limited to urban areas and ruled the country in complex arrangements with local/traditional forms of governance, makes the idea of a hybrid order quite feasible. Yet, the last time it worked well was the peaceful reign of the late King Zahir Shah (1933-1973).  Thus, it may be important to look into how such hybrid order came into being and who did the choosing of what it would ultimately look like. Possibly, this has made the difference in Somaliland which was able to create a successful hybrid structure (as demonstrated by Volker Boege and collaborators) while in Afghanistan it so far has failed: the former having an independent space to evolve, while the latter in contrast has experienced foreign meddling for decades.

First, there is a difference between providing the space for hybrid structures to emerge from within vs. creating them, again top-down. This is probably the big difference between when communities decide they need to develop their own community-based policing structures (as has occurred in several parts of Afghanistan) and when foreign governments decide they will create, train, and equip such Community Defence Initiatives (CDI), and have Special Forces soldiers monitoring them. While Masood Karokhail and myself have demonstrated in a recent publication that the community-based policing of the Arbakai in Afghanistan’s Southeast has performed an adequate policing function in the past, similarly set-up pro-government militia during the Communist regime in Afghanistan ended up as nothing more than marauding bands that later helped to bring down the government. Their loyalty was neither to communities, nor to the state, but to themselves and individual militia commanders.

Another example in favour of supporting structures that have grown organically is the Commission on Conflict Mediation (CCM) in the Khost province of Afghanistan, which was jointly established by a visionary provincial governor and elders. Facilitated by The Liaison Office (TLO), the CCM is currently successfully resolving land-conflicts with high escalation potential. A parallel project, where the US Institute of Peace has funded TLO to actively create informal-formal linkages has been far slower in reaching an outcome.

After all, TLO itself emerged organically when two Pashtun tribes (the Ahmadzai and Mangal) approached the Swiss think-tank swisspeace to help them find a role in the peace and reconstruction process of Afghanistan. Instead of simply imposing ideas from the outside, swisspeace embarked on a six months pilot project (funded by the Heinrich Boell Foundation) during which it spoke to many elders, government officials and members of civil society on how this would be best done. Out of this the idea of The Liaison Office was borne, focusing still on research (understanding the context before acting), and dialogue as the main form of peacebuilding. To this date, TLO facilitates engagement between traditional and modern governance structures, trying to find synergies and ways of interaction – and possible hybrid structures such as the CCM.

Second, who chooses which hybrid structure works best in the end? This is a question not only for ‘meddling outsiders’, but also among Afghans that one can partner with. After all, Afghanistan is diverse and complex with multiple ethnicities, and also within ethnicities, clans and tribes. There always has been a huge difference between rural and urban areas, and the vast displacement over the past years has scattered Afghans across the entire globe exposing them to different experiences in exile. Much of the urban elite settled in western countries, while the vast majority of the rest of the Afghan population, especially rural (but also urban) poor either remained at home or in close exile in neighbouring countries (notably Iran and Pakistan). I always found it striking that some Afghans who have been in western exile tend to think they preserved their “Afghan-ness” better than those who lived in Iran or Pakistan, or even those that remained, weathering different forms of states and periods of statelessness and anarchy.

Here it may be worth revisiting history when political elites, mostly from urban areas, tried to create a state to their liking, and clashed with the rural majority and rural elites that foresaw a loss of power and influence. During one of such clashes (the jihad against a communist regime), tribal notables (e.g. khans and maliks) essentially had three choices: join the mujahideen ranks to continue their influence; remain at home or flee into exile, the latter two leading to a decline in power. These changes influenced who had power within tribes and left its mark on social structures, with a move from traditional rulers to newly achieved ones, with the control over the means of violence as well as fighting ability becoming more important than peaceful governance mechanisms and non-violent conflict resolution.

Religious leaders as such initially only played a marginal role. While many Afghans are deeply religious, I would argue they en gros are not fundamentalist in thinking. Afghans, especially in rural areas, might be conservative, traditionalist, but overall they are pragmatists – otherwise they would not have survived so many years of wars and externally influenced state forms. Even the Taliban should not be considered solely an organic movement, as it has also been strongly influenced by outsiders (e.g., Pakistan, Al Qaeda, some alleging even Saudi Arabia).  Yet another hybrid structure most Afghans would rather live without.

Understanding all these changes Afghanistan and its traditional structures have undergone, and the different motives and goals of local and external actors, point to the difficulty with hybrid structures in Afghanistan, and the need to look very carefully indeed on at what to embrace and who to support. If the focus of external actors remains on security – as currently seems the case – there is a high likelihood that one will end up with strongmen and not those elders interested in a sustainable future and ultimately peace. While a strongmen hybrid model might defeat the insurgency, the question is what follows – and Afghan history does not present a rosy outlook. Hence we need to take another look at what hybrid structures may be able to bring sustainable peace to a war-torn country, or discontinue from thinking that we – as outsiders – hold the key to Afghanistan’s future.

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