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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. 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.


To the Afghan Transitional Administration:

Immediate Action

  1. Ensure that the disarmament/ demobilisation/ reintegration (DR), process, a key prerequisite to reconciliation at all levels, does not remain hostage to factional politics and continued blockage of agreed reforms.

  1. Prioritise security sector reform, with particular emphasis on accelerated training and recruitment of a de-factionalised, national, professionally-trained police force that is responsible for law and order.

  1. Establish and sustain reasonable levels of pay for members of that police force as well as of the national army and justice system, without which serious corruption is unavoidable.

  1. Give political and operational support to local initiatives, and recognising the impossibility of doing everything, initially concentrate on enforcement of national authority in those areas where security is most problematic, including:

(a)    President Hamid Karzai should remove governors, police chiefs and other senior government officials who pursue factional, rather than central government, interests and/or who are corrupt;

(b)    the government, with international help, should arrange for the rapid deployment of contingents of trained police to support of local processes if required; and

(c)    local commanders who do not comply with agreements should be withdrawn to Kabul.

Medium term

  1. As part of judicial reform, introduce reforms of the legal system that take into account the prevalence of conflict, including issues of land rights, family feuds and ethnic violence, and provide the judiciary with appropriate training to address these.

  1. Encourage local processes to resolve conflict, recognising that many issues of communal conflict cannot be successfully dealt with by a winner-loser approach but rather need negotiation and compromise.

  1. Produce guidelines as part of judicial reform for setting up proper investigation and adjudication bodies that include where appropriate membership from government, communities, other interest groups and independent actors such as the UN, and develop systems for formal endorsement of their decisions.

  1. Lay down clear guidelines for local traditional justice mechanisms (shura/jirga) to ensure that their judgements are compatible with the rule of law and human rights standards, establish a few pilot shura/jirga and human rights units alongside courts in several districts to formalise the link between the formal and traditional justice systems and make justice more accessible, cost-effective and efficient, and evaluate and extend these as appropriate.

To the International Community:

  1. Key international actors, particularly the United States, Russia, India, Pakistan and Iran, should ensure that their actions and resources bolster reconciliation processes at both the national and local level and end support for faction leaders which actively undermines such processes.

  1. UNAMA should:
(a)    analyse opportunities for local reconciliation in different areas of the country, as part of a wider political strategy;

(b)    monitor and commission independent evaluations of the effectiveness of local inter-agency initiatives, such as the Security Council of the North, in order to ensure that lessons are learned from this experience and systematically applied in other parts of the country, where required; and

(c)    make more funds available for the evaluation of NGO initiatives.

  1. Donor countries need to recognise long-term funding will continue to be required both for specific reconciliation-oriented programs and for broader programs of social development work with communities, even though it is not easy to measure outcomes in this area.

  1. Further support should be given to NGO training of peace educators and development of peace education materials, and to NGO work in making traditional systems more inclusive and democratic.

  1. The importance of education in any long term process of reconciliation should be recognised through additional support for the development of an effective and realistic national education strategy.

Kabul/Brussels, 29 September 2003

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