Framing the Issues: The Politics of “Postconflict”

From the Series: The Politics of “Postconflict”: On the Ground in South Asia

Photo by Sara Shneiderman.

The last decade has marked the purported end of several conflicts in South Asia: the 2003 ceasefire along the India–Pakistan border in Jammu and Kashmir, the 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement ending the civil war between Maoist insurgents and state forces in Nepal, the 2009 defeat of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Elam in Sri Lanka, and the imminent withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. Both national and international actors have used the term postconflict 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 series is envisioned as a site for open discussion about the assumptions that undergird postconflict as an analytical and political category, and the consequences that it engenders. We seek to initiate a conversation among anthropologists working across the globe, as well as between anthropologists and policymakers and scholars in other policy-engaged disciplines. We invite you to consider with us the following questions: How does the postconflict 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 perform, and to what extent does it foreclose possibilities for substantive peace in local terms? How does it 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 postconflict 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 postconflict in a productive manner that exposes the notion’s limitations, while encouraging positive social transformation?

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

Postconflict Genealogies and Categories

The United Nations’s peacebuilding commission was created in 2005 to channel a growing interest in standardizing international intervention strategies in countries after violent upheaval. The peacebuilding commission’s report details the normative assumptions invoked by domestic and foreign actors through the postconflict 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 footprint” to shepherd the state through pos-conflict fragility toward the fifth and final stage. This phase is postconflict elections, which are meant to give legitimacy to the peace process and the newly elected government, otherwise known as “pump-priming durable peace” (Collier, Hoeffler, and Söderbom 2008, 463). Elections are the milestone leading to the final phase of international withdrawal. 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 that promote the rule of law and free and fair elections.

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

The postconflict 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 series demonstrate. Such periodization hardly captures the complex temporalities and experiential layers of conflict for those who have 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 postconflict period is to seek closure from that disruption.

This series demonstrates that people’s lived experiences rarely fit into the technocratic categories deployed to define social and political complexity in the constrained terms of postconflict intervention. Sarah Shepherd-Manandhar demonstrates that the United Nations’s classifications for female and child combatants in the Nepal’s People’s Liberation Army are not flexible enough to accommodate the very individuals for whom postconflict interventions are intended. Noah Coburn similarly shows that the question of whether Afghanistan remains in the internationally recognized postconflict category and is thus deemed of 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 after the 2005 earthquake in Northeast Pakistan glosses over the ongoing conflict in Kashmir. These pieces highlight how interventions aimed at circumventing conflict can unwittingly cause more harm.

Interrogating the “Post” of “Postconflict”

By ignoring tensions that fall outside the purview of (neo)liberal political reform, issues simmering below the surface of the postconflict 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 and ongoing surveillance of or aggression toward targeted populations, amounting to tinder that could reignite violence or, as Vivian Choi puts it, initiate “war by other means.” Glossing over these tensions may ultimately fail to stem further conflict. Indeed, the postconflict label can serve as a set of blinders for the international community, which, Anila Daulatzai argues, looks the other way when what it sees 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, whereby 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 postconflict; rather, they focus on conflict as context to interrogate the “post” of postconflict critically (see also 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 postconflict. 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 postconflict 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 postpolitical position, which is ultimately a reaction to the conflict’s impact on their economic livelihoods. These youths’ rejection of mainstream politics, she suggests, is a mix of anarchism and neoliberalism. Furthermore, a state’s postconflict 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 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 postconflict 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 postconflict 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 postconflict nations. Only through such microstudies can we understand what kinds of outcomes local actors themselves desire.


This Hot Spots series emerged from a panel at the 2013 American Ethnological Society/Association for Political and Legal Anthropology meeting in Chicago. We are grateful for the insights of all of the 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 editors of Cultural Anthropology for supporting this project.


Arieff, Alexis, and Mike McGovern. 2013. “‘History Is Stubborn’: Talk about Truth, Justice, and National Reconciliation in the Republic of Guinea.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 55, no. 1: 198–225.

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

Pettigrew, Judith. 2013. Maoists at the Hearth: Everyday Life in Nepal’s Civil War. 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 73, no. 1: 5–21.