What Comes after the After? Notes on a “Postconflict” Afghanistan

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

Photo by Sara Shneiderman.

The past twelve years for Afghanistan have been labeled postconflict, beginning with the removal of the Taliban regime from Kabul immediately after the international invasion of 2001. However, according to conservative estimates, 16,725 civilian deaths occurred during this period. If the occupation of Afghanistan and the ongoing U.S.-led war against an active insurgent force are labeled postconflict, then what should we name the period after the military occupation formally ends (with the departure of NATO troops scheduled for the end of 2014)? How could the longest war in U.S. history have occurred in a postconflict zone? Representations of Afghanistan as having entered a time after conflict discursively mask the violence of war and occupation.

The invasion of Afghanistan exemplified what Talal Asad (2007, 3) identifies as a capacity of the modern liberal state to enact “a combination of cruelty and compassion” with what it considers legitimate forms of violence. The cruelty inherent to the NATO bombings of Afghanistan is largely accepted by the international community because these acts are articulated as a project of compassion, and because such acts are the price of modernity and democracy. The same irreverence for civilian lives is described as terrorism when authored by antistate actors such as the Taliban, and as collateral damage when authored by transnational military forces including private contractors. Violence is thus understood as barbarism in the former case, and as a form of care in the latter. The fact that violence is evaluated entirely differently depending on who authors it is not unique to Afghanistan. Yet by labeling the post-2001 phase of the thirty-five years of conflict in Afghanistan as postconflict, the violence of the current military occupation can be rendered as acts of care rather than as acts of war.

Both war and humanitarian intervention, equally enabled by the postconflict appellation, reveal not only the obvious fact that violence impacts lives, but also that interventions in the form of care have the potential to fundamentally alter relations between self and other. My ethnographic work with women widowed over the course of decades of war and cared for by humanitarian regimes aims to account for the durational aspects of war and humanitarianism in the lives of Afghans. Durational refers to the extent of time for which the lives of Afghans have been marked by both war and humanitarianism—thirty-five years, as I write in 2014. By focusing on duration, I also aim to take seriously how, over time, these forms of governance cumulatively shape subjectivities. My research shows that the forms of governance executed by transnational actors (enabled by and enabling strategic labels such as postconflict) fold into more subtle ethical practices of everyday life. I am not implying that there are distinct boundaries between the larger-scale processes of war, occupation, and humanitarianism on one side, and the more subtle movements that animate everyday life on the other. Instead, I argue that for Afghans, the “space of violence” (Asad 2007, 29) and the space of humanitarianism (see Fassin 2011) are the same—spatially, yet also experientially and thus affectively.

Labeling postinvasion Afghanistan as a postconflict context allows three major falsehoods to persist. First, it masks the fact that the international occupation could be understood as a form of conflict, and that the violence enacted by the modern liberal state in Afghanistan could be seen as equally illegitimate—and therefore not morally superior—to the violence of the Taliban.

Second, the label postconflict enables a distinction between the 2001 intervention and prior wars in contemporary Afghanistan (the Soviet occupation from 1979 to 1989 and the Kabul Wars from 1992 to 1996), as opposed to seeing the intervention in 2001 as yet another phase of the war that the United States, the United Kingdom, Israel, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia instigated by authoring and financing the demise of their Cold War enemy.

Third is the possibility that once most of the present NATO-led troops and the humanitarian regime depart Afghanistan (an event currently planned for the end of 2014), history may repeat itself. Afghans who have profited from the war economy over the past twelve years and those who have been nourished—financially and militarily—by the U.S.-led imperial and neoliberal projects of the past thirty-five years may do whatever it takes to maintain power they currently hold. Twenty-two years ago, in 1992, Afghans began to kill each other to wrestle power away from those made powerful by the United States, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. The period from 1992 to 1996 is deceptively referred to by observers and experts as a civil war—despite international involvement in arming, training, and funding the former mujahideen—a usage that assigns culpability solely to Afghans. The term civil war is now once again bandied about by policymakers and scholars alike to describe what they fear will occur in the postoccupation period. Afghans have been preparing for this inevitability. One example of this preparation is the increase in applications by Afghan asylum-seekers over the past year—a practice that Afghans have come to know all too well over the past thirty-five years of serial wars and uncertainty. Thugs from the pre-2001 period and newly minted ones may aim to maintain the privileges they obtained in today’s “democratic” Afghan state. The label used by experts and a public largely informed by them will again be civil war, dismissing accountability for anyone except Afghans. Furthermore, those who came to violently invade and occupy Afghanistan—and then left—will be portrayed as morally superior conveyors of modernity, democracy, and care.

What distinguishes the current period—labeled postconflict—from earlier (and possibly future) periods of violence—labeled civil war—is not the absence of bloodshed and destruction, but the fact that the qualifier post- is used to refer to elements of conflict in which international actors are directly involved. The same actors are perfectly willing to recognize a protracted civil war—but not to recognize themselves in it.


Asad, Talal. 2007. On Suicide Bombing. New York: Columbia University Press.

Fassin, Didier. 2011. Humanitarian Reason: A Moral History of the Present. Berkeley: University of California Press.