Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

From War Economy to Peace Economy? Reconstruction and State Building in Afghanistan

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

From War Economy to Peace Economy? Reconstruction and State Building in Afghanistan

Article excerpt

Winning the peace in Afghanistan depends in no small part on international and domestic efforts to transform the war economy into a peace economy. Based on international experience, this is unlikely to happen quickly. In other contexts, economic activity generated in conflict has persisted into "peacetime" conditions. (1) This article puts forward a tentative framework for understanding the war economy and explores some of the implications for current efforts to build peace. (2) While it focuses on how the Afghan economy has been "adjusted" by war, this process can only be understood with reference to the politics of state formation and state crisis in Afghanistan and the wider region. Four interrelated themes are highlighted. First, the war economy has been both a cause and a consequence of state crisis. Second, the war economy has empowered borderlands, transforming the politics of core-periphery relations in Afghanistan. Third, the war economy is part of a regional conflict system, with Afghanistan reverting to its pre-buffer state status of a territory with open borders, crossed by trade routes. Fourth, international actors helped create the war economy by supporting armed groups in the 1980s and adopting a policy of containment in the 1990s.

These themes will be explored through an analytical framework that subdivides the war economy into the combat, shadow and coping economies. Though they are interconnected, each involves different types of actors, incentives, commodities and relationships. It is argued that these economies are not only concerned with profit and predation but also with coping and survival. The war economy has contributed to processes of actually existing development, leading to the transformation of social and economic relations in Afghanistan. This suggests that the policy focus should change from its current emphasis on eradication and control to one that seeks to harness the energies of war in order to build long term peace and security.


The historical development of the war economy in Afghanistan has been dealt with elsewhere (3). The lack of serious research inside the country during the war years held back understanding, and reliable data is still difficult to come by. (4) However, the following themes can be drawn from the literature and provide a useful starting point for analyzing the Afghan war economy.

First, to understand the economy one has to look at the Afghan polity. Many of the features of the current political economy have strong continuities with the past. The state in Afghanistan was built upon shaky foundations. Internal processes of colonization were never completed because rulers lacked the military force to subdue the tribes or withstand external aggression. Territorial sovereignty was an ideal to which Afghan rulers aspired but rarely if ever achieved in practice. In fact, for most of Afghan history there was no state in any robust sense of the term. There were instead multiple sovereigns including small-scale local chiefs, tribal confederations, bandits or warlords.

Second, one has to look "below" the state, to appreciate the relationship between the Afghan war economy and "non-state spaces." (5) Throughout Afghan history there has been an ongoing struggle between center and periphery, between a modernizing state and borderland communities attempting to remain beyond the reach of the state-building project. In this "conversation" between state and borderlands, violent conflicts have been defining moments of change, shifting the balance of power back and forth between core and periphery. Arguably, the borderlands were empowered by the Afghan wars and there is a need to rethink the nature of their relationship with the reemerging state.

Third, the analytical gaze needs to be directed beyond the state to appreciate the regional dimensions of the war economy. Afghanistan is part of a regional conflict complex, or a "bad neighborhood" which connects other latent and open conflicts within the region, including Kashmir, Tajikistan and the Ferghana Valley. …

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