Peacebuilding in Afghanistan
Peacebuilding in Afghanistan
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Report / Asia 3 minutes

Peacebuilding in Afghanistan

Tackling conflict and providing security in Afghanistan requires a greater effort to deal with local disputes that frequently flare into violence and lead to wider problems.

Executive Summary

Tackling conflict and providing security in Afghanistan requires a greater effort to deal with local disputes that frequently flare into violence and lead to wider problems. Although these attract less attention than the threat from the resurgent Taliban, they are important as they produce an environment of insecurity which destroys all quality of life for ordinary civilians and undermines the legitimacy of the Afghan Transitional Administration in Kabul. Local commanders often exploit these disputes to consolidate their positions, further weakening the authority of the central government.

The disputes are of three main kinds: first, over land and water, two of the most important and scarce resources; secondly, ethnic, and often closely linked to land and water but also to the struggle between political parties; and finally family-based, frequently revolving around women.

Contested claims over land often go back generations. The picture has been complicated by decades of poorly considered land reform and development programs, the flight of so many people during the war and the fact that successive waves of political parties and combatants have seized both private and state property to claim as their own. Examples abound across the country where land has changed hands repeatedly. Few people have clear legal title, and the court system is ill equipped to mediate disputes or the police to enforce judgments. 

Conflicts over water – a commodity in even shorter supply than land – have been exacerbated by the breakdown in local structures that mediated disputes or managed irrigation systems. Environmental damage has often reduced supplies or enhanced the flood risk while drought and the use of deep bore wells have drastically lowered the water table in some places.

Ethnic polarisation has increased over the last 25 years, particularly in areas like Hazarajat where successive power shifts have displaced Hazaras and Pashtuns alike. But despite the long history of violent conflict and the wide rifts in the country, Afghans have a strong a sense of national identity, and many dispute that ethnicity is important. However, it clearly is a factor in both national and local divisions that those who oppose peace exploit. Long-standing discrimination and inequalities have prepared the ground for many of these problems but they are also being deliberately fanned by commanders, particularly in the north where conflicting ethnic groups have been relocated over the years on contested land.

Family disputes often spill over beyond the immediate group and can involve large numbers of people. Most centre on the position of women and the issue of marriage, which is still mostly an arranged affair. Punishments for those who elope or refuse marriages can be harsh, and feuds between families often endure for generations. War has worsened the violence involved in these disputes, including sexual attacks on men and women.

All these disputes are entwined with the wider problems of conflict, which make their resolution more difficult. Despite some progress, official structures such as police forces and the judiciary are still frequently factionalised and corrupt and are not trusted by most Afghans. Traditional structures such as councils of elders (known as shuras or jirgas) do still function in some areas. However, they often reflect a very narrow, traditional view of authority that will, for example, trade a woman’s rights to resolve a dispute. Many young people, particularly those who have been refugees abroad, are reluctant to submit to the authority of councils on which they have no voice. Other councils have been essentially creations of aid groups and the UN. While some have legitimacy and are relatively representative, others are simply fronts to channel money to communities.

This is a difficult environment in which to come up with ways to resolve local disputes, and the situation is exacerbated, of course, by the very insecurity that plagues so much of the country beyond Kabul. There are familiar, though unfortunately not yet applied recipes to cope with the latter aspect, most notably expansion to other parts of the country of the international security presence that ISAF and now NATO have provided the capital. Other parts of the solution are no less apparent but will take more time to show results. Thus, enhancing the effectiveness of the police and judiciary is vital but takes a generation, even with sustained assistance. Local dispute resolution mechanisms, therefore, will remain important for many but they need to be developed within a framework that reduces the risk of enhancing the authority of people responsible for much of the conflict or trampling on the rights of citizens.

Specifically, reconciliation initiatives need active promotion at three inter-dependent levels. There must be sustained international engagement – something to which the sponsors of the Bonn Agreement committed themselves – particularly during the run-up to elections. At the same time, the Afghan central government needs to pursue security sector reform and the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of fighters into society (DR), which can improve the overall security situation, restore the rule of law, and build confidence in processes of political and social reconciliation. This in turn should create the conditions in which local level measures that will remain the only means for solving many problems can be effective.

Kabul/Brussels, 29 September 2003

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