Transforming Political Authority: UN Democratic Peacebuilding in Afghanistan

By Ponzio, Richard J. | Global Governance, April-June 2007 | Go to article overview
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Transforming Political Authority: UN Democratic Peacebuilding in Afghanistan


Ponzio, Richard J., Global Governance


This study examines the leadership role of the United Nations, from 2001 to 2005, in helping the government and people of Afghanistan to build democratic institutions and practices at national and local levels. The UN, seeking a better form of governance that could also politically unite non-Taliban factions, pursued with Afghan elites a risky strategy of democratization with a "light footprint" during a low-intensity insurgency. From interim to transitional to elected authorities, UN-facilitated political development activities have, in effect, initiated a transformation in the notion and sources of authority among Afghans--from rule by religious scholars, tribal elders, and warlords to a hybrid model of governance involving democratically elected leaders. By helping Afghans reconcile the inherent tensions between these competing forms of authority, international peacebuilders contributed to improved conditions of governance and a reduction in intrastate political violence. The case of Afghanistan affirms the benefits of democratization after war that seeks to bridge the gap in conceptions between old and new authority types. Drawing on these findings, policy recommendations are advanced to further strengthen the UN system's democratic peacebuilding work in facilitating the political (re)construction of war-shattered societies. KEYWORDS: peacebuilding, democratization, conflict management, governance, Afghanistan, authority.

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In a growing number of instances after the Cold War, the United Nations and other international actors have sought to rebuild or establish new political institutions in states or territories recovering from violent conflict. From Afghanistan, Iraq, and the western Balkans to less prominent wars in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean, Central America, and the South Pacific, the international community's response involves extensive intrusions into the domestic affairs of sovereign states. Extending beyond the narrow mandates of traditional peacekeeping and humanitarian relief operations, these interventions aspire to restructure local political authority within a democratic framework.

In support of the Bonn Agreement (1) of 5 December 2001, UN Security Council Resolutions 1383 and 1401 established an integrated, international peacebuilding operation in Afghanistan, under the leadership of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). From the creation of a Transitional Authority in June 2002, through a loya jirga (grand assembly of elders) consultative process, to the passage of a new constitution (January 2004), to national presidential elections (October 2004), and to National Assembly and Provincial Council elections (September and November 2005), Afghanistan manifests both the strengths and limitations of the UN system when seeking to build a durable peace through democratic political transformation.

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As part of my examination of UN peacebuilding efforts in Afghanistan during the period 2001-2005, I present in this article a twofold argument: first, contrary to the views of some scholars and practitioners, democratic authority institutionalization should remain at the center of peacebuilding strategy, because it facilitates the conditions necessary to mediate competing domestic interests and to address the root causes of a conflict peacefully; and, second, one often overlooked problem of international peacebuilding stems from the divergent conceptions, between internationals and the local population, of authority and its sources of legitimacy. I further consider the practice of democratic peacebuilding vis-a-vis the innumerable challenges the UN system faced during the Bonn Agreement implementation period. To maintain its relevance in responding to state failure, the UN will need to adapt better to postwar environments and to articulate new approaches for democratic peacebuilding. (2)

The Justification for Democratic Peacebuilding in Afghanistan

Introduced in Human Development Report 2002: Deepening Democracy in a Fragmented World, (3) the notion of democratic peacebuilding (4) is premised on a fundamental belief, rooted in empirical research, that building stable and democratic governing institutions is essential to assuage competing domestic interests and to consolidate peace by tackling the root causes of a conflict.

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