What Comes after the After? Notes on a "Post-conflict" Afghanistan

The past twelve years for Afghanistan have been labeled “post-conflict,” 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 (Crawford, Costs of War Project, 2013). If the occupation of Afghanistan, and the ongoing U.S.-led war against an active insurgent force are labeled post-conflict, what should we name the period after the military occupation formally ends (as the departure of NATO troops is scheduled for the end of 2014)? How could the longest war in U.S. history have occurred in a post-conflict 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) 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 anti-state 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 post-conflict, 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, enabled by the post-conflict 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 the ways Afghans relate to self and other. My ethnographic work with women widowed in the course of decades of war and cared for by humanitarian regimes aims to account for the durational aspects of both 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 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 post-conflict) fold into the 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) and the “humanitarian space” (Fassin 2011) are the same—spatially, yet also experientially and thus affectively.

Labeling post-NATO-invasion Afghanistan a post-conflict 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 post-conflict enables a distinction between the 2001 intervention and prior wars in contemporary Afghanistan (the Soviet occupation from 1979 to1989 and the Kabul Wars from 1992 to1996), as opposed to seeing the intervention in 2001 as yet another leg of the war that the U.S., the U.K., 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 just 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 neo-liberal 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 U.S., Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia. The period from 1992 to 1996 is deceptively referred to by various observers and experts as a “civil war”—despite the international involvement in arming, training, and funding the former mujahideen—and culpability thus solely resides with Afghans. The term “civil war” is now once again bandied about with increasing frequency by policy makers and scholars alike to describe what they anticipate will occur in the post-NATO occupation 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. The resistance of the Taliban might continue, the older thugs from the pre-2001 period and newly minted ones may aim to maintain the privileges they obtained in the contemporary “democratic” Afghan state. The label used by political observers, experts and a public largely informed by these experts, again, will be “civil war,” fundamentally dismissing any accountability to 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 "post-conflict"—from earlier (and possibly future) periods of violence—labeled “civil war”—is not the absence of bloodshed and destruction, but the sheer fact that the qualifier "post” is used to refer to elements of “conflict” in which international actors are directly involved while the same actors are perfectly willing to recognize a protracted “civil war”—but not to recognize themselves in it.

References Cited

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

Crawford, Neta. 2013. “Civilian Death and Injury in Afghanistan: 2001–2011.” Costs of War Project. Accessed December 20, 2013.

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