The case of Afghanistan offers many lessons for international engagement in furthering sustainable peace and development in (post)conflict situations. When the international community invaded Afghanistan after the September 11, 2001, World Trade Centre and Pentagon terrorist attacks, it was expected the international community would help Afghanistan transition into a democratic and peaceful country and to adopt modern values such as democracy, human rights, and gender equality.
Afghanistan, which had been severely affected by wars and conflict including the Soviet Union's invasion and the wars of the Mujahideen and Taliban, needed support to transform into a progressive country.
My research explores the case study of Afghanistan to find the reasons why this transformation did not happen after two decades of work and support from powerful Western countries, Afghan NGOs, and international NGOs. Based on my research, which included an extensive literature review of peacebuilding as well as a critical examination of the performances of major peacebuilding actors in post-2001 Afghanistan peacebuilding suffered from a series of mistakes that negatively affected its transformative capacity. The first mistake was that the U.S. and its allies were primarily focused on countering terrorism based on their short-term interests. To prevent terrorism, they allied themselves with warlords and other perpetrators of massive human rights violations in Afghanistan. This approach not only led to their impunity for serious crimes but also to those warlords occupying key positions in government at all levels, benefitting financially from lucrative foreign contracts. They continued to exploit the government to gain wealth and power illegally, which included widespread human rights abuses and corruption.
Due to a lack of effective oversight and accountability, this corruption became widespread and common in government, in the marketplace, and even among international actors and civil society. The widespread corruption undermined the effectiveness and legitimacy of the post-2001 political order and its normative systems which included democratic values. For example, corruption and interference in the electoral processes undermined the legitimacy of the government and further divided the country along ethnic lines.
The second mistake was the international community tried to promote democratic values such as human rights and gender equality by supporting the modern civil society in more short-term projects and programs. However, such a modern concept of civil society is not rooted in the local culture and is not in harmony with the traditional notion of civil society, including religious-based and local-based councils. Additionally, the mentioned environment of corruption further limited the effectiveness of civil society in furthering social and cultural development.
Widespread dissatisfaction with government corruption and incompetence fueled the resurgence of the Taliban in Afghanistan, who used the language of religion to justify their violence. Civil society and the free media failed to promote modern democratic values in a society that had been polarized by war and radicalized by the ideology of Jihad. The combination of this corruption-ridden governance environment and ineffective social and cultural development policies helped the Taliban recruit from the disgruntled ultraconservative segment of Afghan society in its bloody war against the government and the international community and their democratic values.
The case of Afghanistan offers many lessons for international engagement to further sustainable peace and development in (post)conflict situations.
My research shows any peacebuilding mission should prioritize the interests and values of local populations by promoting state legitimacy, accountability of all domestic and international actors, and supporting the locally rooted civil society.
International peacebuilders must consider that peacebuilding inherently changes all aspects of social life, including culture and social institutions, especially when the conflict is ideologically motivated. This requires sustained efforts to reinforce the legitimacy and credibility of government and non-government actors engaged in post-conflict transformation and development. Similarly, civil society groups are crucial in supporting society on its path to sustainable peace and development and in adapting international norms to specific local circumstances. However, a narrow definition of civil society that only recognizes a specific Western form of society, undermines its local legitimacy and undermines the transformative goals of civil society. This change in attitude toward peacebuilding and social development requires a deep look at the underlying political dimension of post-conflict transformation.
Seyed Ali Hosseini is a peace and development researcher who is pursuing his PhD in Global Governance at the Balsillie School of International Affairs, a joint program run by Wilfrid Laurier University, the University of Waterloo, and the Center for International Governance Innovation. A specialist in peace, human rights, and development, with a focus on the greater Middle East and North Africa, Ali has seven years of experience in human rights advocacy and monitoring, including six years of working as human rights officer for the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan. His work included monitoring of and advocacy around the rights of vulnerable people, including women and children, and preparation and drafting of regular reports on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan.
He was a member of the Faculty of Law at Kateb University, Afghanistan, for about six years where he taught Constitutional Law, Administrative Law, International Law, and Human Rights courses. He has been teaching “Culture of Peace in Conflict Situations” in Political Science Department of Wilfrid Laurier University.
Ali has four scholarly books published in Persian (published in Afghanistan) and many research papers in Persian and English on human rights, development, and peace. He has a Master of Arts in International Law from Allame Tabatabaei University and a Bachelor of Arts in Law from Mofid University, Iran. His education also includes advanced studies in Islamic Jurisprudence and Culture at Qom seminary (Hawza).