Reflections on 13 years peacebuilding in Afghanistan

Hindu Kush mountain range.

Hindu Kush mountain range in Afghanistan. This photo is edited from the original licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

As the sun rose in the sky and glittered off the snow-capped mountains below us, Abdullah spoke with controlled passion of the travails his country had experienced. (…) Abdullah then went further than I had expected, stating that Afghanistan’s next leader should be a Pashtun and should come from outside the Northern Alliance. (…) “Did you have anyone in mind? I inquired. “Hamid Karzai would be an acceptable choice,” Abdullah suggested.

Dobbins, J. (2008). After the Taliban: Nation-building in Afghanistan. Dullers: Potomac Books. Pages 3-4

By the moment they had landed in Afghanistan in late November 2001, James Dobbins, (Bush administration’s representative to the Afghan opposition in the wake of September 11, 2001) and Abdullah Abdullah (Foreign Minister of the Northern Alliance’s government in Exile) had decided the political future of Afghanistan. Meanwhile US forces and the Northern Alliance were still fighting the Taliban on the ground. Actual peace talks between the different Afghan factions about the future of the Afghan state and people were still outstanding.

Today, almost 13 years after the invasion of Afghanistan by US forces and its international allies, most foreign troops have left Afghanistan. Afghans are left to govern themselves – at least as long as they agree to the U.S.-Afghanistan Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA). On 14 June 2014 its citizens were called to cast their votes in the search of a successor to Hamid Karzai. Having paved the way for Karzai in 2001, this time Abdullah Abdullah was running himself to become Afghan president. Thanks to James Dobbins, who was assigned back to Afghanistan in 2013, both candidates, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai agreed to the provisions of the BSA. The elections that were hoped to consolidate the Afghan state and place the future of Afghanistan in the hands of its citizens have yet to produce a winner and are contested by the candidates themselves.

Meanwhile the Taliban are overrunning Kunduz! In short: peacebuilding in Afghanistan has failed!

The question is not if, but why peacebuilding in Afghanistan failed. And, what we can learn from this to change the way in which peacebuilding operates. I am neither the first one to claim that peacebuilding in Afghanistan has failed, nor do I count my self to those that foresaw the failure of this endeavour even before it had started in 2001. In this post I share my reflections about the peacebuilding process in Afghanistan and highlight what I believe are the key factors responsible for this invidious situation today. These reflections are based on my article The Liberal Trap – Peacemaking and Peacebuilding in Afghanistan after 9/11 in which I analyse the peace process in Afghanistan from 2001 till 2010.

Governing the life of Afghans

Today, Western international actors are expecting Afghans to govern themselves. Yet, in all those years of US-led peacebuilding in Afghanistan the international community did exactly the opposite. They governed the life of Afghans – of ordinary citizens and the elites! As Dobbin’s and Abdullah’s agreement above the Hindu Kush shows this process had already begun before the different Afghan factions were summoned to negotiate the future of Afghanistan in Bonn.

At the meeting in Bonn from 27 November 2001, eventually four Afghan factions negotiated under UN leadership the Bonn Agreement, the political framework for the coming years of Afghanistan. Yet, what was publicly presented as the place for Afghans to decide their future, was a carefully orchestrated event in which the different Afghan parties were controlled and regulated by the external actors, led by US diplomats around James Dobbins. The regulation and control of the agenda was at all times framed by the need to assist the Afghan parties to reach an agreement. Yet, instead of allowing Afghan factions to decide the future of their country, Dobbin’s thought narrow. He favoured stability before a comprehensive agreement that would be more just and legitimate in the eyes of the Afghan population. Dobbin’s peacebuilding agenda required Karzai’s government to be supported and accepted by the Afghan warlords, not the people. As argued by Dobbin’s, without that support, Karzai’s administration ‘wouldn’t have had much capacity to govern’ (interview James Dobbins 18 June 2010). ‘Every population centre in the country was under the control of one commander or another. There were only a few hundred American troops in the country. Karzai and his Government would be unable to exercise authority anywhere, not even in Kabul, without the cooperation and support of these commanders’ (interview James Dobbins 19 November 2010). Thus, statebuilding was given preference over other provisions in the process. As Dobbins explains: ‘the outcome of the meeting focused on governance, not accountability, but this was inherent in its purpose, not the result of external manipulation or advice’ (interview James Dobbins 19 November 2010).

From the very onset of the peacebuilding process the Western international actors, particularly the USA, were shaping and influencing the political transition process after their will. We have seen this in many peace processes before, from Bosnia and Kosovo, over Liberia to Sudan. Yet, in the wake of the neoliberal moulding of the new Afghan political elites, the peacebuilding process experienced something additional – increased intervention by international civil society. This involvement of civil society became stronger and eventually also influenced the state led peacebuilding. Indicative of a new trend in peacebuilding starting in the early 2000s, this new bottom-up approach of international NGOs and think tanks had significant influence, as for instance the role of International Crisis Group in Bosnia in 2001 shows. In Afghanistan the transitional justice community as self-appointed advocate of Afghan citizens objected to and criticised attempts by the Afghan government to develop autonomous policies to deal with transitional justice issues. The Afghan government attempted to promulgate a law on amnesty that would bring the peace process between the different Afghan faction forward, including the Taliban. Yet under pressure from international civil society actors Karzai did not sign the law until 2009, although it was passed by parliament in 2007.

These international civil society actors act on behalf of the Afghan people, in the believe that their policy solutions hold the answers to the problems faced by the Afghan people. They criticise external statebuilders, who clearly control the implementation priorities, for having narrowed their approach to security and statebuilding and to open the political agenda.

On the first sight this tension appears to be between top-down statebuilding by political elites versus bottom-up peacebuilding of the local people, and as such constitute a “hybrid” or post-liberal peace – terms Roger Mac Ginty and Oliver Richmond use to describe the outcomes of external, top-down interventions and local, critical agency. Yet, by closer examination international civil society actors are neglecting the fact that their influence on the process still represents an external intervention and consolidate the external regulation and governing of Afghan society – even though under the umbrella of good governance, peacebuilding and dealing with the past.

Also international civil society actors have been governing the life of Afghans the last decade!

Overcoming liberal ideology

The primary obstacle to building peace in Afghanistan, as well as other cases, has too often been seen in the tension between top-down and bottom-up approaches to building peace. However, concluding from studying the peacebuilding efforts in Afghanistan, we have to realise that the focus on these tensions diverts attention from the fact that all external actors to the peacebuilding process in Afghanistan have been imposing their agendas on the Afghan people. So why didn’t Western state and civil society actors give Afghanistan’s politicians and society the opportunity to govern themselves?

Since Dobbins and Abdullah decided the future of Afghanistan above the snow-capped mountains of the Hindu Kush, all western elites, comprising diplomats, policymakers and the human rights community in Afghanistan engaged in regulatory practices, treating the Afghan people and politicians as immature objects. We need to start to understand that peacebuilding, particular liberal peacebuilding, strives towards universal applicability of its cosmopolitan ideology and attempts to implement it through control and regulation of muted subjects. In todays peace-processes, first of all in Afghanistan, external political and civil society actors are to the same extend oppressing local agendas, disregard the sovereign rights of citizens and govern away their autonomy and sovereignty. Learning form the failure in Afghanistan, policymakers and scholars must recognise that peacebuilding as promoted today by the USA, is an ideology that is justifying intervention and social transformation and involves striving towards the total and universal applicability of its values.

It is high time that we reflect on the inconvenient consequences and inevitable conclusion that are intrinsic to these types of policies.


Dobbins, J. (2008). After the Taliban: Nation-building in Afghanistan. Dullers: Potomac Books. Pages 3-4

Eriksson, M., & Kostić, R. (2013). Mediation and Liberal Peacebuilding. Routledge.

Harooni, M. (2014). Afghan forces battle for control of symbolic Kunduz province. Reuters. Kabul 27 August 2014

Kostić, R. (2014). Transnational think-tanks: foot soldiers in the battlefield of ideas? Examining the role of the ICG in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 2000–01. Third World Quarterly, 35(4), 634–651. doi:10.1080/01436597.2014.924065

Krampe, F. (2013). The liberal trap – Peacemaking and peacebuilding in Afghanistan after 9/11. In M. Eriksson & R. Kostić, Mediation and Liberal Peacebuilding (pp. 57–75). Routledge.

MacGinty, R. (2010). Hybrid Peace: The Interaction Between Top-Down and Bottom-Up Peace. Security Dialogue, 41(4), 391–412. doi:10.1177/0967010610374312

Richmond, O. P. (2011). A Post-Liberal Peace. London and New York: Routledge.

For an extensive analysis and critique of the Afghan peacebuilding process see Krampe, F. (2013). The liberal trap – Peacemaking and peacebuilding in Afghanistan after 9/11. In M. Eriksson & R. Kostić, Mediation and Liberal Peacebuilding (pp. 57–75). Routledge.

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