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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

2006, Vol, 6 No. 1 .

Afghanistan: The Mirage of Peace
Chris Johnson and Jolyon Leslie

London: Zed Books, 2004, 253pp, PB 14.95, ISBN 1-84277-377-1

The end of the Cold War and the subsequent withdrawal of Soviet troops unleashed a devastating power struggle between factional groups in Afghanistan. Into this picture stepped the Taliban, young Pashtuns from the South who vowed to return Afghanistan to Islam and law and order. Their reassertion of Afghan identity appealed to the traditionalists within Afghanistan. Their policies received international condemnation but it was September 11 that sealed their fate. Operation Enduring Freedom was portrayed as a humanitarian effort, an opportunity to liberate the people. The fact that America and its allies believed that they ?could bomb [their] way to victory? (22) only served to prolong the conflict and solidify the divisions. With the recent US-led war in Iraq serving to push Afghanistan from the headlines, this book serves as a testimony to the current state of affairs in Afghanistan.

This book offers an enlightening account of post 9/11 Afghanistan from first-hand, on the ground experience. Its clever blend of scholarly research and potent real life stories manages to give the reader a real sense of daily life in Afghanistan. The book irons out the complexities and realities of Afghan society that seem to get distorted and/or lost in the wider academic and media analysis that often depicts Afghanistan in terms of crude stereotypes, especially since 9/11. Reflecting on the authors? experiences turns this limited picture of Afghanistan on its head.

The problem with the so-called ?Western? view is that it tries to instil a notion of individualism in a country that operates on a strong sense of community-based identity. It tries to promote a liberal, market economy as the route to economic prosperity in a country that lacks a regulatory framework to permit this. Failure to recognise this gap and the attempt to impose alien values on the people with no consideration of social, political and economic history is a key reason why the international community has failed to make progress in Afghanistan. Furthermore, it has contributed to a sense of despair among the people who see no real change or prosperity as a result of intervention. In this context, it is easy to see why many turn to terrorism.

In developing their arguments, the authors critique the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) for failing to take into account lessons learned from previous work with indigenous structures as in East Timor. And although the Mission was successful in so far as keeping the transition process to the deadlines set out in the Bonn Agreement, its main objective to secure peace and security in Afghanistan was not achieved. For example, despite inadequate numbers of registered voters and poor security, the elections went ahead in order to meet political deadlines. It seemed very much a case of quantity, not quality.

Overall, the international community has tried to rebuild in two and a half years what it took more than two decades to destroy. They failed to acknowledge traditional systems of governance and consider how they might form the basis of a state-building strategy. The fact that the international community seemed intent on building a representative, gender-sensitive state - something Afghanistan never was ? was totally unrealistic.

The book is a stark lesson for post-conflict peace operations that fail, despite good intentions. Afghanistan has encountered the same old problems ? broken promises, inept organisations, unclear mandates and local factions struggling for power. And while it is easy in hindsight to see what could have been done better, the international community seem to be making the same mistakes in Iraq. The authors clearly illustrate how international government politics can have local ramifications; that is, how the ?war on terror? has had an impact on the ordinary people of Afghanistan. They offer an informed account of the reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and the lack of will among the international community in efforts to bring real peace to Afghanistan. Anyone looking to get a real sense of what is happening in Afghanistan should read this book but be prepared for a pessimistic account. According to the authors, the future of Afghanistan and its people is not bright.

Lisa Brown, INCORE Intern, 2005, University of Ulster

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