by Catharine Helmers
Local ownership as a tenet of external intervention and peacebuilding has been a key point of debate for many years now, although its meaning and implications have long been contested. While many within the international community use the term as though it was universally understood, ‘local ownership remains remarkably understudied and, to date, understandings of ownership have been based primarily on assumptions and normative beliefs held broadly in both the policy and academic communities,’ as von Billerbeck notes.
The term must be conceptually flexible, adaptable to the situational and cultural context in which it is being applied, but can be understood broadly as mechanisms and systems by which some level of decision-making power and influence over ‘both the design and implementation’ of the peacebuilding process resides with domestic actors. In order for local legitimacy to exist, the primary audience and judgement-maker for legitimacy must be the local/target population. This article will establish and problematize the prevailing approach to local ownership in peacebuilding, examining the failures and ramifications of the peacebuilding process in Afghanistan in order to point to an alternative approach.
The prevailing approach to constructing local ownership in peacebuilding has been a normative one, noted by Zaum and von Billerbeck, often excluding local actors who may be representative of communities on the ground or have local authority but do not fit the Western image of a legitimate peacebuilder. By excluding illiberal actors from having a seat at the table, the international community severely limits who can take part in peacebuilding in post-conflict contexts. Although this normative approach is morally understandable, it undermines an intervention’s practical ability to build peace by denying local ownership in the process to key actors, thus reducing local legitimacy. As lessons from Afghanistan show, it is dangerous to exclude ‘bad actors’ from the peacebuilding process.
Case Study: Afghanistan
In 2001, after removing the Taliban from power in Kabul, the US-led coalition faced a new challenge: to rebuild the Afghan state. When it was decided what actors would be involved in these peacebuilding efforts as part of the Bonn Agreement, the Taliban was excluded, as it was not viewed by the international community (the UN and US in particular) as a legitimate actor deserving of ownership in the peace process in wake of its decisive military defeat.
Because of this, as Jonathan Goodhand and Mark Sedra discuss, the Bonn agreement ‘was a not a peace accord between belligerents, but an externally driven division of the spoils among a handpicked group of stakeholders who were on the right side of the War on Terror.’ As illustrated by a study conducted by The Inclusive Peace & Transition Initiative, not only was the Taliban excluded from the peacebuilding process, but the very actors selected were chosen because of their opposition to the Taliban.
The reality, for better or worse, is that the Taliban, although fractured after the collapse of its regime, was still a crucial actor in the power dynamics of Afghanistan at the time of Bonn and thus should not have been ignored due to its apparent incompatibility with liberal values. Timor Sharan summarizes the failure of Bonn, which ‘did not necessarily reflect the general Afghan demographic balance, or even the political power of the factions, but the internationally sponsored military successes of the [Northern Alliance]’.
By excluding the Taliban, the interveners not only reduced the effectiveness of their reconstruction efforts, but also the legitimacy of the new governing system. To many Afghans, the normative justification given for excluding the Taliban must have seemed hypocritical, as other illiberal actors were included in the process, such as ‘Mujahedeen factions…many of whom were suspected to be guilty of human rights abuses and war crimes.’ Normative determinations of the legitimacy of local actors were not based on the values they were claimed to be, and were therefore not just ineffective and unrealistic, but contradictory.
What were the impacts of this approach to local ownership in peacebuilding? During the next nineteen years of war after Bonn, external interveners continued to lose legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghan population as they focused on self-legitimizing their peacebuilding efforts instead of seeking local legitimacy, a problem extending to the UN as well. A 2009 poll showed that Afghan support for and confidence in the US-led intervention continued to decline as the intervention went on, and the Taliban continued to vie for territorial control year after year, threatening peace and security. The failure to understand the local context and to recognize the power dynamics on the ground lead to the overall failure of the peacebuilding intervention.
Today, the Taliban has gotten its day at the negotiating table, with arguably more bargaining power than ever. Even as peace talks continue, the Taliban continues to engage in ever-increasing levels of violence. Although the U.S. military stopped measuring the number of districts under insurgent control as of 2019, it has been estimated that the Afghan government now controls less than 50 percent of Afghan districts, with the rest either under Taliban control or contested. The future of Afghan peace remains uncertain, but what is clear that the Taliban will have a major role in shaping the post-war landscape. Perhaps if they had been included in the peacebuilding process from the start, the situation in Afghanistan would be a different one. In excluding the Taliban on normative grounds, the intervention undermined its own chances to create sustainable peace and security.
So how should external interveners decide what actors to bring to the table to construct real local ownership? The answer must lie in analyses of local power structures and systems of representation instead of in the norms and values of the outside intervening forces. External interveners must depart from the prevailing norms-based approach to constructing local ownership, instead of working within the existing ground-level dynamics of power and representation.
In a post-conflict context, this will often, if not always, mean the inclusion of illiberal actors. Although this approach may delay the pace of peacebuilding, a slower and more complicated peacebuilding process that includes tangible forms of local ownership is better than an externally imposed, norms-focused process that is unlikely to be viable in the long run. If future interventions are to have any hope of success, local ownership in peacebuilding must be constructed by prioritizing the inclusion of locally legitimate actors, regardless of the normative determinations of the external interveners.
Catharine Helmers recently completed her master’s thesis for the M.A. in International Conflict Studies programme at King’s College London, where she examined the role of emotional conditioning in facilitating atrocities by sub-Saharan African rebel groups. She currently serves as Coordinating Assistant for the Urban Violence Research Network. You can find Catharine on Twitter @cat_helmers