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Lessons after 20 years of (failed) peacebuilding

Over the past two decades, there has been considerable donor investment in conflict resolution and peacebuilding programmes in Afghanistan. But these efforts have been patchy, diverse, and disconnected. Meanwhile, armed conflict and insecurity have intensified. Drawing on forthcoming research, this blog sets out key lessons from the past 20 years of peacebuilding, and reflects on how international partners can design more effective interventions in the future.

Published: 22 July 2021

Authors: Florian Weigand, Ashley Jackson

Photo: A man in Afghanistan pouring hot chai. CC BY 2.0 - Iain Cochrane of Scotland the United Kingdom

Over the past two decades, there has been considerable donor investment in conflict resolution and peacebuilding programmes in Afghanistan. But what has been called 'peacebuilding' in Afghanistan has been patchy, diverse, and disconnected. These projects embodied a range of objectives and approaches, including stabilisation approaches aimed at ‘defeating’ the Taliban, community-based dispute resolution initiatives, various forms of support for civil society activism, and Track II-style meetings before and alongside the talks in Doha. Compounding the patchiness and fragmentation of efforts has been the fact that ‘peacebuilding’ programmes have often been funded by donors aligned to one side of the conflict, meaning these programmes are at times designed to further narratives of donor ‘success’ in Afghanistan.

To be sure, a range of diverse activities can, and often do, contribute to resolving violent conflict and building peace. But in the case of Afghanistan, there has not been any systematic overview of the kinds of initiatives tried to date, and their impact; even tracing what programmes have been funded and implemented is difficult. These disparate efforts, many of them poorly designed and insufficiently monitored, appeared to have little impact over the long term.

To understand the types of interventions that might work in the future, Lessons for Peace is undertaking research to better understand Afghan experiences of peacebuilding. With the withdrawal of international forces looming and an increasingly uncertain future for high-level peace talks, civilian-led, community-based initiatives will become ever more important. And it will be essential not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

1. Contextual understanding is essential

From the outset, efforts to address the conflict were undermined by a lack of contextual understanding. Various counterinsurgency and stabilisation programs and initiatives, for example, were adapted directly from Iraq, with (unsurprisingly) little success; the conflict in Iraq had very different drivers, and Iraqi society itself is deeply dissimilar from Afghanistan.

Part of this was down to the international community’s short-term approach in Afghanistan. This short term view and piecemeal approach meant that there was insufficient investment in understanding the context, including what approaches would work in various parts of Afghanistan or with various parts of the population. Simplistic and reductionist assumptions about the nature of the conflict persisted, which in turn led to inappropriate and ineffective programming. Peacebuilding requires a long term engagement and a holistic approach.

Photo: ISAF Afghanistan Culture Smart Card (2008)

Successful peacebuilding interventions require deep contextual knowledge, and a dynamic understanding of conflict drivers at the micro, meso and macro level. Contextual understanding is not about commissioning context analysis or condensing complex social dynamics into bullet points. What might be needed in one village will likely differ from another. To respond to context and fluid dynamics, programming needs to be flexible, iterative and adaptive. Ensuring that programmes are designed and led by Afghans, and supported as needed by internationals with significant experience working with Afghan communities, will better position interventions to respond to local dynamics. As other ongoing L4P research explores, adaptive approaches to programming can better allow implementers to recognise and seize opportunities as they arise, and better address localised challenges.

2. Peacebuilding must be locally designed, led and owned

A common thread in many of these approaches was that civilians were sidelined, thought of more often as ‘recipients’ or ‘beneficiaries’. Peacebuilding was more often than not externally conceptualized and defined: by donors, the government, NGOs, international forces and others. The key question driving much of these interventions appears to have been, ‘what needs to be done to stabilise Afghanistan/rout the Taliban/reduce violence/please donors?’ instead of, ‘what do Afghans need to feel safe and secure?’

The available literature and various evaluations paint a picture of cookie-cutter approaches among donors, and a failure to incorporate input and encourage ownership from the people that these interventions were designed to help. One Afghan NGO worker described it like this: ‘Donors are coming with an assessment. Most of the time, their assessments are based on assumptions. They do not [work] based on the reality on the ground, [nor based on] proper assessments in Afghanistan [where they know] how much money they want to spend.’

This problem is, of course, not necessarily unique to Afghanistan. A ‘determined-design neo-liberal approach’ has dominated peacebuilding more generally over the past three decades. But to those who have suffered from violence or are struggling with its aftermath, peace and successful peacebuilding might mean different things than external actors presume. It might lead to solutions that donors and implementers find uncomfortable or even undesirable. But a more adaptive approach, led by Afghans and which centres their vision for peace and security, is far more likely to show results. This means designing interventions together with communities, giving them space and resources to decide what needs to be done, and how to do it.

3. Actively engage with failure

In our research into peacebuilding approaches, assessing what worked and what hasn’t has been nearly impossible. Interviews with international peacebuilding experts, donors and NGO workers involved in those interventions revealed that few programmes monitored anything more complex than quantitatively measured outputs (i.e., how many people were trained, how many workshops were held, and so on). One frustrated aid worker surmised that donors ‘want to know how many women got trained, how many women participated in the advocacy training or other short period training. But no one goes back and checks if that training had an impact.’

Peacebuilding is hardly linear, and quantifying impact – particularly within short term project cycles – is exceedingly difficult. M&E efforts were also in some cases exacerbated by insecurity. But mostly these efforts were compromised by pressure to demonstrate ‘success’ and an obsession with optics over genuine impact. Pressure to produce positive stories trumped the need for an honest assessment of what worked and what didn’t. This political pressure also translated into an aversion to risk-taking. Another of our interviewees said donors insisted that ‘we feed them positive stories about peace breaking out. We couldn’t really justify experimenting or taking a genuinely community-driven approach, because there was just no appetite for failure.’

We need to actively engage with failure in order to understand how to effectively support peacebuilding. That means more creative approaches to M&E, a clear focus on gathering extensive and rigorous data, and seeking out genuine learning when things don’t go according to plan.

4. No justice, no peace

The Afghan government and the international community have steadfastly ignored transitional justice and accountability for crimes of the past in favour of ‘stability.’ In 2001, the then-UN Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi portrayed the inclusion of former mujahideen commanders in the interim government as a trade-off between peace and justice. The post-2001 government incorporated, and indeed relied on, numerous individuals who were responsible for war crimes and other abuses – without any process of accountability or reconciliation. This only fueled impunity and corruption. A 2008 Amnesty Law effectively ended any hope for national transitional justice efforts, and the 2016 reconciliation pact with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar decisively ignored accountability for his past crimes. Unfortunately, this strategy has achieved neither. Impunity and injustice have led to widespread criminality and corruption, both of which have fuelled the insurgency.

Within the current peace process, international and Afghan government elites appear to favour a process of ‘forgive and forget.’ But as recent history has painfully demonstrated, the Afghan people are unlikely to move forward without some process of accountability for the past, and violence is at record levels. The UN has documented 1,783 civilian casualties – roughly nine people killed or wounded each day – in the first six months of 2021 alone. Afghans desperately want peace, but they also want accountability for the recent attack on schoolgirls in Kabul that killed 85 people, the ongoing assassination campaign against journalists, activists and women in public life and years of airstrikes and night raids that have killed innocent civilians.

Creating a shared national narrative of reconciliation is essential to moving forward, and that cannot happen in the absence of some level of accountability. Despite resistance by the US, the ICC has commenced an investigation. But that will not be sufficient. Afghans will have to decide for themselves how to deal with the past four decades of bloodshed. Those who have been most affected and who have had the least influence over the conflict – victims and survivors – must help shape the process of reckoning with the past.

To engage with the past and to contribute to reconciliation, transitional justice offers a range of options and possible combinations, including the documentation of the victims of the conflict, truth commissions to investigate the human rights violations, criminal prosecution of those considered most responsible, reparations, as well as symbolic acts such as memories and apologies.

5. Women are not recipients, but agents of, change

After 20 years of stabilisation and empowerment programs, Afghan women still strive for peace, freedom and their basic human rights. Peacebuilding efforts, even those that were ostensibly aimed to empower and promote the role of women in conflict resolution, often failed to acknowledge the diversity of women’s challenges and needs. Projects were often donor-driven and consequently based on faulty, idealised assumptions rather than women’s realities.

Often the focus was on women in urban areas, or more educated women who are less conservative and have more ease of access, to the neglect of women in the rural and more conservative areas. Lack of government control, insecurity, illiteracy and various socio-cultural barriers made engaging women in rural areas more difficult. In some instances, ulema and customary authorities posed the biggest challenge to engaging women in more conservative rural areas – not something that could be tackled within a single project cycle, or with a purely technical approach. Addressing these challenges was complicated by the fact that implementing NGOs often created ‘a rosy picture of women’s progress’ because they thought this was necessary to retain donor support. This in turn obscured the reality on the ground and negatively impacted donor expectations.

Moving forward, women from cities but also rural conservative areas need to be allowed to develop ideas and to make decisions on how to best overcome these challenges. They cannot be purely recipients but must also play a lead role in identifying solutions, designing programmes and implementing them.


After 20 years of peacebuilding in Afghanistan, armed conflict and insecurity have continuously intensified. Most women still cannot fully exercise their human rights, and justice – even for large-scale human rights violations – remains largely absent. While peacebuilding initiatives in Afghanistan have lacked a common definition and theory of change, a survey of the diverse array of programmes undertaken reveals one strikingly problematic common trait: a reliance on technical approaches that often ignored, or refused to engage with, the political realities.

Meanwhile, peacebuilding is always inherently political even when it is ostensibly framed in technical terms. It often challenges existing power structures and can spark resistance on an array of fronts. Future initiatives need to fully engage with the structures and drivers of conflict to transform them. This is easier said than done, but we hope our research will provide concrete recommendations that draw upon a more locally-grounded evidence base than has been the norm.