Cesran International

How Has the ‘Liberal Peace’ Served Afghanistan?

BY CHRISSIE HIRST** | 17.08.2011


  • Defining the ‘Liberal Peace’ Model

The end of the Cold War brought crucial changes to the global context of conflicts in the developing world. With the lens of superpower rivalry removed, the role of international organisations to intervene was strengthened, in particular the role of the United Nations (UN). The 1992 UN Secretary General’s Agenda for Peace, and the 1995 Supplement to An Agenda for Peace outlined an array of steps or measures (for example, disarmament, demobilisation, security sector reform, election monitoring and regulatory reform), which have become standardised elements of post-conflict peacebuilding intervention, also described as ‘state-building’ or ‘nation-building’.

liberal_peaceThe 1990s saw the consolidation of this ‘standard peacebuilding formula’, involving post-conflict elections and market-oriented reforms, often followed shortly after by a declaration of peacebuilding ‘success’ (Paris 2006: 175). Some analysts have termed the package the UN’s post-settlement peacebuilding ‘standard operating procedure’ (SOP), closely linked to the pursuit of the goals of ‘liberal internationalism’, understood as the pairing of liberal parliamentary democracy and liberal market capitalism. The term ‘liberal peace’ or ‘liberal peacebuilding’ came to be used to describe the intended process and outcome of applying this SOP.

While the SOP has gained ground over the last decade, some writers have highlighted its fragile foundation – the SOP is based on the assumption that ‘liberalisation’ is the optimal recipe for lasting peace in post-conflict countries. As the number of SOP interventions undertaken increased, in some cases it appeared interventions had been counterproductive, and by the end of the decade the ‘liberal peacebuilding’ model was increasingly called into question.

Afghanistan, alongside Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor, is an example of a country where the liberal peacebuilding model has been applied, and where the results are unclear at best. Written in May 2010, as elections in Afghanistan were re-scheduled due to insecurity, this article reviews the record in Afghanistan, and assesses the validity of different critical perspectives on ‘liberal peace’.

  • Critique of the Liberal Peace Model

In the last decade, criticism of liberal peacebuilding has grown. Hoffman groups critics into two main camps. The first are those who argue that while the premise itself is not unsound, the implementation of the model has been overly top-down, formulaic or pushed ahead too quickly with structural reform and electoral processes (e.g. Paris, Sisk, Rotberg). Hoffman’s second camp includes those who see the problem in the liberal peace model itself, perceiving it as merely ‘a cover for the political and economic interests of the West’ (e.g. Chomsky, Ignatieff) (2009: 10).

A number of critics have focused on the conceptual framework for liberal peace, highlighting problems with specific yet fundamental aspects of the model, forming what can be considered a third camp. Duffield positions the emergence of liberal peace in the context of the conceptual convergence of development and security in the 1990s; the ‘new security framework’, where a wave of ‘new wars’, international crime and terrorism arise from underdevelopment, now seen as dangerous. He argues the liberal peace model is ‘a political project in its own right’, and reflects a radical and specific political, developmental and security agenda: ‘…to transform the dysfunctional and war-affected societies that it encounters on its borders into cooperative, representative and, especially, stable entities’ (2001: 11).

Mac Ginty describes the ‘near hegemony’ of the ‘liberal democratic peace model’ applied to post-conflict states, arguing that the dominance of this model has had ‘a profound impact on the management of contemporary violent ethnonational conflict in standardising the core elements of peace initiatives and accords and reducing the space available for alternative (non-western) approaches to peacemaking’ (2006: 33). In his review of the UN as one of the key institutions of liberal peace, Chesterman makes further references to colonialism, describing UN transitional administrations as ‘benevolent autocracy’ and post-conflict transformation projects as ‘modern colonial enterprise’. He argues that greater honesty about the motivation behind the international community’s state-building projects would be beneficial for all parties (2004: 47, 127).

  • The Liberal Peace and Afghanistan

Given increasing sensitivity to overly bureaucratic and ‘top-down, outside-in’ interventions by the international community, at first glance the model applied in Afghanistan appears to break with previous interventions of the 1990s. In many ways this is true, with the approach defined as the ‘light footprint’ reflecting the greatly reduced UN mission role and size, and the commitment to bolstering Afghan capacity – a move away from earlier more colonial and prescriptive interventions such as Kosovo1.

How has this new, much-heralded ‘light footprint’ model of liberal peace served Afghanistan? Mac Ginty identifies three characteristic liberal peace pitfalls which have the capacity to seriously jeopardise the quality of peace achieved: a lack of local ownership, a reflection of external rather than internal concerns, and a premature withdrawal of external support (2006: 162).

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*Published in Journal of Conflict Transformation & Security (JCTS) Vol. 1 | No. 2

** A Cambridge and LSE graduate, Chrissie Hirst is currently undertaking further postgraduate study in peace and reconciliation at Coventry. With work experience primarily in the non-governmental sector since 1997, her focus has been on conflict prevention, peacebuilding and security. She currently manages a joint UN peacebuilding and development programme in southern Serbia; her past experience has included senior management and strategic policy positions in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Georgia.

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