Conflict, Post-conflict, Pre-conflict: Afghan Fears about 2014

On a hot, dusty afternoon in the summer of 2013, I watched from the steps of a mosque as a group of U.S. soldiers emerged from an alley made of concrete barriers and fanned out, nervously scrutinizing the group of men standing with me. At the center of the formation, the ranking officer and his Afghan translator approached a local elder with whom they were supposed to be discussing development and security projects in the area. The young soldiers and the men on the steps of the mosque regarded each other with a practiced wariness.

Over the past twelve years, this small village, adjacent to one of the largest international bases in the country, has become accustomed to the near-constant drone of helicopters and the haphazard development and governance projects that seem to accompany them. The nearby villagers, young men in particular, have conducted a high-wire act, competing for resources from the international troops through small projects or lucrative positions as drivers or translators, while simultaneously remaining fearful of Taliban retribution for their disloyalty. This can come in the form of midnight kidnappings or the occasional rocket lobbed down from the nearby mountains. Despite the state of near constant tension that has developed since the U.S. occupation, there is still greater fear about what will happen in 2014, the year that U.S. troops are scheduled to complete their withdrawal and elections are slated to choose the country’s first president after Hamid Karzai.1 The Department of State calls this period “the transition.” However, what Afghanistan is transitioning from, and to, is rarely articulated.

Figure 1. Market outside airbase. Photo by Gregory Thielker.

Most media reports and public statements from officers inside the base suggest that the international military are acting as if the conflict is over. Officials primarily seem concerned with the logistics of moving one-hundred-thousand troops and their equipment out of the country. Many journalists are packing for Syria, where they say the real conflict is. But other members of the international community are not leaving. Several international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) have made public calls to recommit to Afghanistan, and the United Nations is positioning itself to take the diplomatic lead back from the U.S. government. The problem with all this talk about “post-conflict reconstruction” is that few people are sure whether the conflict is actually over.

A shopkeeper in the village’s bazaar described how he was planning on ordering a shipment of jeans from Turkey, but now has put the order on hold until it becomes clearer what 2014 will bring. No sense in having a large stock if war returns. Another educated and politically active youth told me that he might run for parliament in 2015. Or perhaps, he continued, he will leave and look for work abroad. Others fearing an increase in the cost of materials were building houses, while young women, concerned about what a more conservative regime might do for women’s rights in the country, were pressing ahead with higher education as quickly as they could. The area seemed to be simultaneously post-conflict and pre-conflict.

Many are feeling the war clouds gathering anew as former local commanders reassert themselves, and merchants who have made money supplying the international military look for other less licit and more destabilizing goods to trade, like opium and arms. Other young people, however, say that there are still business opportunities, profits to be made, and development funds to secure before the majority of the international presence leaves the country. Urban youth, particularly from the historically oppressed Hazara minority group, are actively setting up political parties and other civic groups.2 Perhaps the upcoming elections will provide a peaceful transition. Or perhaps with little international presence to play referee, no single leader will emerge and civil war will return. No one is certain, and it is difficult to prepare for both eventualities simultaneously.

Whether international and Afghan key actors decide that the country is “post-conflict” or Afghanistan is left to become a “failed state” has a direct effect on the lived experiences of the villagers. If the international military considers the insurgency ongoing, then counterinsurgency logic suggests that the international community will support the local warlord (who has committed war crimes) because he can provide stability (a central aspect of winning hearts and minds). However, if instead the focus is going to be on post-conflict state building, best practice suggests marginalizing such figures and building a transparent governance system. In this case, funds are likely to flow towards the district government’s office, which, although weak and corrupt, is the only local manifestation of the national government. For the young shop owner in the bazaar, this creates a real dilemma. If the local government is going to continue be supported by the international community, they should expand their networks and continue building their businesses. If the international military, however, is going to support tribal elders and other militia leaders, then their support for the government could put them in danger and families should start planning their exit strategies in case war does return.

Figure 2. Soldiers, elders, and interpreter discuss local issues. Photo by Gregory Thielker.

Describing a place as post-conflict is expedient for those overseeing the intervention, but the term implies a process that is far more predictable than experienced by actors on the ground. In the current literature on state building, security is supplied by foreign actors, encouraging local populations to invest both economically and politically in the country.3 Stability, it is assumed, leads to growth and prosperity, making everyone more invested in maintaining stability, leading to more growth. In Afghanistan, neither state building nor development, however, has led to stability. In fact, in some areas, a corrupt, parasitical government, strengthened by international funds, has actually contributed to renewed conflict in areas that had stabilized after the initial U.S. invasion.

Unsurprisingly, local understandings of both conflict and history are more complex than the state-building formula suggests. In this community (as in Kabul), the Soviet period is remembered as one of some stability and growth. The Taliban period was devastating; the civil war period less so (in Kabul this pattern was reversed). Near the base, the hope is that the gains of the past decade will not be lost. Most of the area now has electricity and new businesses have sprung up. But despite these gains, the number of civilian casualties increased in 2013, and a cholera outbreak hit the north.4 The young men in the bazaar remain undecided about where they should place their loyalties.

Terms like post-conflict whisper seductively simple narratives that ignore the contradictions, conflicts, and complications of international intervention. The young men of the village realize, rather, that conflict in Afghanistan had no simple beginning and is unlikely to have a simple end. Having finished their discussion with the local elder, the troops moved back towards their compound. The men on the mosque steps turned away, towards an uncertain future.


[1] The research referred to in this article was conducted with a grant from Bennington College and follows up research conducted from 2006 to 2008 in a community twenty miles to the west, published in Coburn, Noah. 2011. Bazaar Politics: Power and Pottery in an Afghan Market Town. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press. Some of the themes explored here are also explored in a joint ethnographic and art exhibition entitled (Un)Governed Spaces with Gregory Thielker, the Republic Gallery, Paris (2013) and Bennington College, Vt. (2014).

[2] See Anna Larson and Noah Coburn. January 2014. “Youth Mobilization and Political Constraints in Afghanistan: The Y Factor” Special Report 341. Washington: The United States Institute of Peace.

[3] Somewhat ironically, one of the key candidates for Afghanistan’s presidency next year has written a book on how to do exactly this type of “post-conflict state building.” See Ashraf Ghani and Claire Lockhart. 2009. Fixing Failed States. New York: Oxford University Press.

[4] Azam Ahmed. July 31, 2013. “As Afghan Pullout Nears, Causalities Rise.” New York Times; Associated Press. August 13, 2013. “Cholera Outbreak in Northeast Afghanistan.”