Framing the Issues: The Politics of “Post-conflict”

The last decade has marked the purported end of several conflicts in South Asia: the 2003 ceasefire along the Indo–Pak border in Jammu and Kashmir, the 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement ending the civil war between Maoist insurgents and state forces in Nepal, the 2009 Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam (LTTE) defeat in Sri Lanka, and the imminent withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. Both national and international actors have used the term “post-conflict” to describe these countries’ current state of affairs. While diplomatic and donor communities, as well as local state agents they support, find the term useful to describe a commonly imagined teleology of political transition across the world, anthropologists working in these South Asian contexts have begun to question its wholesale application.

This Hot Spots Forum is envisioned as a site for open discussion about the assumptions that undergird post-conflict as an analytical and political category, and the consequences that it engenders. We seek to initiate a conversation among anthropologists working across the globe, and between anthropologists and policy-makers and scholars in other policy-engaged disciplines.  We invite you to consider with us the following questions: How does the post-conflict concept structure temporality, affect, and other dimensions of consciousness in today’s world? How does this explicitly periodizing notion intersect with analyses of processual change? What kind of political work does the label post-conflict perform and to what extent does it foreclose possibilities for substantive peace in local terms? How does the post-conflict label bring localized political transformations into articulation with national, regional and global trajectories? How are ethnicity, class, religion, gender, age, and other identities refigured in relation to the post-conflict concept, and how are these transformations experienced and expressed? Who benefits from the label, who suffers, and why? How can we interrogate ideologies of the post-conflict in a productive manner that exposes the notion’s limitations while encouraging positive social transformation?

The contributors to this collection address these questions through explorations of life in so-called post-conflict zones in South Asia. These pieces join existing anthropological considerations of the related themes of transitional justice and reconciliation elsewhere, especially in South America (Pérez 2008; Theidon 2013) and Africa (Arieff and McGovern 2013; Clarke 2010). However, the contributions to this Hot Spots Forum focus on the temporal and affective content of the post-conflict concept itself—rather than the specific legal mechanisms that follow in its wake—creating a productive new platform for analysis that engages both the globally-circulating dimensions of the post-conflict concept and its locally experienced instantiations. We go beyond the evaluative assessments of peace-building and human-rights reports to reveal the complexities of life and politics in the gray areas between war and peace.

Post-conflict Genealogies and Categories 

The United Nations’ peace-building commission was created in 2005 to channel a growing interest in standardizing international intervention strategies in countries after violent upheaval. The peace-building commission’s report details the normative assumptions invoked by domestic and foreign actors through the post-conflict category. The commission’s resolutions codify the intervention process into six stages. The first is a negotiated settlement to end conflict; the second is some degree of peacekeeping presence on the ground; the third is “pump-priming democracy” by encouraging a constitution that promotes democratizing governing institutions; the fourth is a call to maintain international intervention that leaves a “light foot print” to shepherd the state through post-conflict fragility toward the fifth and final stage; this phase is post-conflict elections that are meant to give legitimacy to the peace process and the newly elected government, otherwise known as “prime pumping durable peace” (Collier et al. 2008, 463). Elections are the milestone leading to the final phase of international withdrawal (ibid.). This model ultimately envisions that the transition to peace is always effected irreversibly through the establishment of liberal democratic state institutions that protect the rights of individuals and minorities, and promote rule of law and free and fair elections.

This evolutionary formula provides an internationally agreed-upon model for post-conflict intervention. Post-conflict is bracketed as a discreet period, marking a break from the history of conflict—which is often periodized according to when the international community starts marking a nation’s conflict in failed-state terms rather than in local narratives of transformation. The indicators of post-conflict success are the absence of violent conflict, multiparty elections, and gross domestic product (GDP) growth. Failure is conflict recidivism, sliding back into the violent past rather than progressing into a prosperous future.

The post-conflict category frames political history as episodic, rather than as a stream of events that flow into one another in a multidirectional manner, as the pieces in this collection demonstrate. Such periodization hardly captures the complex temporalities and experiential layers of conflict for those who’ve lived through conflict. As Judith Pettigrew (2013, 163) writes of everyday life during Nepal’s “People’s War,” villagers do not—perhaps cannot—provide, “a differentiated account of . . . ‘before’, ‘during’ and ‘after’ the war.” Nonetheless, from a policy perspective, conflict is conceptualized as a decisive break, and the aim of the post-conflict period is to seek closure from that disruption.

This collection demonstrates that people’s lived experiences rarely fit within the technocratic categories deployed to define social and political complexity in the constrained terms of post-conflict intervention. Sarah Shepherd-Manandhar demonstrates that the United Nation’s classifications for female and child combatants from Nepal’s People’s Liberation Army are not flexible enough to accommodate the very individuals for whom post-conflict interventions are intended. Noah Coburn similarly shows that the question of whether Afghanistan remains in the internationally recognized post-conflict category worthy of aid or is left to become an unsalvageably “failed state” affects the day-to-day material lives of Afghans. Cabeiri Robinson asserts that the international humanitarian presence in Azad Kashmir after the 2005 earthquake in Northeast Pakistan glosses over Kashmir’s ongoing conflict. These pieces highlight how interventions aimed to circumvent conflict can unwittingly cause more harm.

Interrogating the “Post” of  “Post-conflict”

By ignoring tensions that fall outside the purview of (neo)liberal political reform, issues simmering below the surface of the post-conflict label can be easily missed. Without accounting for such grievances, it becomes difficult to assess if a country is really in the “post,” rather than in a cycle of ongoing conflict. These countries often struggle with challenges like rampant unemployment, ongoing surveillance of targeted populations, and aggression toward particular populations, which are timber that could reignite violence, or as Vivian Choi argues, initiate “war by other means.” Glossing over these tensions may ultimately fail to stem further conflict. Indeed, the post-conflict label can serve as a set of blinders for the international community, who, Anila Daulatzai argues, look the other way when what they see as the categorically different specter of “civil war” looms in Afghanistan.

When the continuities of social tension before, during, and after outright conflict are acknowledged, the ways in which people experience and make sense of upheaval become more apparent. Understanding how sociopolitical tensions inform people’s actions and meaning-making practices in everyday life allows us to better understand how conflict both configures and is configured into the social fabric. Saiba Varma documents how in Kashmir people embody a habitus of military occupation, which exceeds the timeframe of outright conflict itself: “Walk quickly and with your head down. Remain alert at all times; call your mother if you are going to be late in the evenings, no matter your age.” Dhana Hughes explains the notion of “skilling up” in Sri Lanka, through which young people assert control over a precarious future when conflict’s end has not significantly altered the socioeconomic conditions that many had attributed to war. All of these pieces go beyond contextualizing post-conflict; instead they focus on conflict as context to interrogate the post of post-conflict critically (Vigh 2008).

These pieces emphasize that the parameters framing conflict are themselves political. The gap between what international actors designate as politics, and what local actors understand it to be, often undermines episodic narratives of post-conflict. The inability to recognize political configurations beyond democratic norms misrecognizes people’s original motivations for participating in conflict. Dan Hirslund questions the very assumption that post-conflict reconstruction can only be achieved through peaceful means. Not recognizing alternative political interventions for what they are is to misrecognize people’s grievances, motivations, and agendas, perhaps at the peril of peace. Heather Hindman critically examines elite Kathmandu youth’s post-political position, which is ultimately a reaction to the conflict’s impact on their economic livelihoods. These youth’s rejection of mainstream politics, she suggests, is a mix of anarchism and neoliberalism. Furthermore, a state’s post-conflict agendas are often political maneuvers to assert “normalcy” and disregard ongoing tensions, which can then emerge in more insidious political forms. Mona Bhan examines how the Indian government’s promotion of heritage tourism in Kargil has encouraged a surge of right-wing Hindutva groups, whose discourse of Hindu and Aryan indigeneity not only validates India’s claims to Kashmir but also transplants a divisive religious politics from elsewhere in India.

The desire for certainty in the wake of uncertainty manifests in several of our sites. This in part motivates unexpected engagements with newly reified forms of identitarian difference: whether through religious conversion, as Lauren Leve describes in Nepal; through narratives of ethnic nationalism promoted by both the state and (perhaps unwitting) social scientists, a dynamic that Thushara Hewage alerts us to in Sri Lanka; or through gendered vectors of international “rehabilitation,” as Sarah Shepherd-Manandhar describes for female ex-combatants in Nepal. All of these experiences show how, despite the idealized liberal regime of equality and individual rights to which post-conflict countries are supposed to aspire through democratic transition, the process of transformation—at both individual and institutional levels—often depends upon the very group-based categories that it is supposed to transcend. These ethnographic insights demonstrate how identity formations are maintained and even heightened in post-conflict contexts, through a dialectical process involving both individuals seeking spiritual and material certainty, and institutional actors seeking to categorize those it must govern or rehabilitate.

These analytic turns recognize that assessing tentative peace within the frame of Western democratic state values has an extremely limiting effect. Evaluations in such terms would deem all of these countries to have failed in one way or another, without recognizing the progress made on their own terms. These pieces question the usefulness of this normative approach to addressing the suffering people have endured and to identifying solutions for sustainable peace and justice. Instead we turn our view to the local cultural and psychological resources for resilience on which people rely to live through conflict, and propose that such subjectivities could be better engaged in international policy making intended to serve post-conflict nations. Only through such micro-studies can we understand what kinds of outcomes local actors themselves desire.

References Cited

Arieff, Alexis and McGovern, Mike. 2013. “‘History Is Stubborn’: Talk about Truth, Justice, and National Reconciliation in the Republic of Guinea.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 55: 198–225.

Clarke, Kamari Maxine 2009. Fictions of Justice: The International Criminal Court and the Challenge of Legal Pluralism in Sub-Saharan Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Collier, Paul, Anke Hoeffler, and Måns Söderman. 2008. “Post Conflict Risks.” Journal of Peace Studies 45, no. 4: 461–78.

Pérez, Isaias Rojas. 2013. “Writing the Aftermath: Anthropology and ‘Post-Conflict.’” In A Companion to Latin American Anthropology, edited by Deborah Poole, 254–75. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell Publishing, 2008.

Pettigrew, Judith. 2013. Maoists at the Hearth. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Theidon, Kimberly. 2012. Intimate Enemies: Violence and Reconciliation in Peru. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Vigh, Henrik. 2008. “Crisis and Chronicity: Anthropological Perspective on Continuous Conflict and Decline.” Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology 73, no. 1: 5–21.


This Hot Spots Forum emerged from a panel at the April 2013 American Ethnological Society/Association for Political and Legal Anthropology (AES/APLA) conference in Chicago. We are grateful for the insights of all participants in that session, especially Mark Liechty. We thank all of the contributing authors for their input on this piece, Amy Johnson for her careful copyediting, and the Cultural Anthropology editors for supporting this project.