With the recent assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the head of the Afghan government Peace Council, tasked with high level negotiations with the Taliban, and a man with no shortage of personal enemies, it seems like an important time to reconsider the role of local politics in both peace and conflict in Afghanistan.
While it is necessary for the United States to address the role of Pakistan in fueling the insurgency in Afghanistan, the current approach relies on high level negotiations and attempts to bring in Taliban leaders, many of whom have been living in Pakistan for the past decade.
This ignores many of the local drivers of conflict and opportunities for encouraging peace in Afghanistan from the ground up. The growing animosity of many parts of the country towards both the Karzai regime and the international presence, which is often perceived as unquestioning supporting the government, is not due to deep ideological links with the Taliban, but to the failure of the Afghan government and its sponsors to provide enough stability for communities to function economically and politically at the most basic level.
Local capacity for peace
Communities in Afghanistan have a long history of resolving disputes on their own. In the small town where I spent much of the past five years conducting research in, the only signs of the Afghan state or the international military was a district governor, who negotiated with local leaders before making any decisions and a small contingent of French soldiers who rolled through town once a week, usually without stopping. Despite this, the town was largely peaceful and conflict-free during my time there even while there was an active insurgency in neighboring districts.
Yes, there were serious tensions over land and water rights, as well as tensions over returning refugees and the role of former warlords in town politics. Yet most of the major groups in the town realized it was in their best interest to work to resolve these tensions without the intervention of a government that they viewed as largely corrupt. The people in the town had the political space to negotiate major issues and resolve them the way the community saw fit.
Counterproductive international strategies
Most worryingly, however, is the ways in which the current US strategy has undermined many of these local governance and dispute resolution mechanisms. In some cases the counterinsurgency strategy that prioritizes immediate stability over long term peacebuilding, means that the international military is partnering with local commanders and strongmen who have come to power in the past decades of instability and, in many cases, do not represent the concerns of the community. This is the case with Abdul Raziq in Spin Boldak, as it was with Hamid Karzai’s brother in Kandahar, but is also true of countless other, lower level figures who have a direct impact on how rural Afghans live their lives.
In other, more benign-seeming instances, western conceptions of state building and dispute resolution are seriously undermining peacebuilding in local communities. One of the problems is some of our assumptions about how governance works, which do not take into account many of the local cultural and political realities in Afghanistan.
For example, early during the intervention international diplomats made it clear that holding immediate elections would be a benchmark for success and pressured the government to hold them as soon as possible, despite some reluctance on the Afghan side. By rushing to elections, those who were strongest during this time of instability generally benefited the most and were most able to manipulate the election process through corruption and fraud.
As a result, a large number of former warlords or their proxies were able to win seats on provincial councils and in parliament. Instead of increasing representative governance, many Afghan communities now view the past four elections as having solidified power structures that they have no access to and which are not accountable to communities more generally. Those living in the town I conducted research in feel more distant from the government today than they did before the four recent elections.
Instead of improving governance and dispute resolution, this confusing mess of overlapping bodies generally enables those strongest in the area to manipulate ambiguities in power, while leaving the less powerful disenfranchised, less invested in peace and more likely to join anti-government and anti-US movements.
Empowing local communities
This is not a question of meddling in local politics, something that the US has proven remarkably unskilled at, but involves creating a space for local communities to rule themselves. Giving Afghans the ability to select their own leaders on a local level, to make decisions free from the tyranny of strongmen and corrupt officials, and to give Afghans the hope that their child can go to school and grow up in a more peaceful Afghanistan, sound like fairly American ideals.
And yet, due to the pressure of a corrupt political elite in Kabul, booming development and military industries based abroad and a desire by American politicians to produce instantaneous results to satisfy American voters has moved the American mission away from a security-based focus that would allow communities to pursue these ideals that we hold so dear. Perhaps it’s time we return to them.