As the US-led military-aid intervention in Afghanistan failed to strengthen the formal justice sector in Afghanistan, Western actors turned their attention to the country’s informal justice practices.  They turned to academic research to find support and for advice on how to organize the support. However, that customary justice processes, often proceeded over by local elders, should become an integral part of the official justice system was fiercely contested by many women’s rights activists in Kabul.

For CMI researcher Torunn Wimpelmann, the heated negotiations over support to informal justice became an opportunity to reflect upon broader tendencies in post-2001 research in and on Afghanistan. In a new article, she explores how research in Afghanistan has become entangled in geopolitics and how Afghan actors successfully challenged academic ‘truths’ about their country.

In the last decade or so, an enormous amount of research on the country has been produced.

- There has been very little self-criticism and reflection around the role of academics and ‘experts’ as knowledge producers. What is presented as objective ‘truths’ about Afghanistan has often been closely entangled in short term Western policy problems, says Wimpelmann.

Circumventing Afghan state structures
A few years ago a large controversy erupted over the use of so-called Human Terrain Teams- anthropologists embedded with military units to help the war effort in Afghanistan and Iraq. Many scholars were extremely skeptical to what they saw as blatant violations of the core of anthropology as a discipline; its ethical obligations towards informants and its academic independence.

But in Afghanistan it was also noticeable how a large number of small research organisations, headquarted in Kabul engaged in various’mapping’ exercises to cater to the knowledge need of embassies and the international military.

– Many aid programmes, such as those focused on the justice sector, often contain extensive research components, which might focus on describing local power relations in a district, or to what extent people make use of formal courts or informal justice mechanisms. While this is not necessarily problematic in itself, what fascinated me was how such reports very often made the leap from ‘is’ to ‘ought’. In debates about informal justice, Afghan activists were often met with claims –referring to research reports- that informal justice constitutes an undeniable Afghan reality, and that aspirations to strengthen formal courts were not only unrealistic, but somehow contrary to Afghan society and culture. These claims, however, were not fact, but rather one interpretation among competing views on what Afghan society and culture is and should be. And what increasingly became clear was that there were other agendas driving this interest in the informal and traditional, says Wimpelmann.

The way in which NGOs, academic expertise, international diplomats and military actors came together to define what was the ‘real’ Afghanistan not only foreclosed any possibilities of public debate. It also undermined national sovereignty. It became a democratic problem that researchers and experts rather than national institutions were tasked with defining policy and appropriate lines of action, agues Wimpelmann.

- Despite its claim to be more Afghan-led, the international community´s efforts to strengthen the informal justice agenda mainly resulted in an erosion of accountability and disempowerment of local politics, she says.

What’s so special about Afghanistan?
Afghanistan has a long history being of great geopolitical interest.  Research on the country has frequently been entangled in the foreign policy of Western powers.

- Research on Afghanistan has frequently taken the form of a functionalist anthropology used to consolidate a social and political order defined by Western powers, says Wimpelmann.

In this process, the local and traditional has often been romanticized. The academic discourse on Afghanistan has tended to focus on political imageries of the tribal and the non-state, bordering on orientalism according to Wimpelmann. The discussions around the Afghan informal justice practices shared the same traits of orientalism.

- The informal justice assembly saw the local population as nationals, not citizens. The process emphasized local context and customs, not national institutions. Afghanistan and the Afghans have been depicted as different from the West, so different that they are not qualified for modern citizenship and national sovereignty. The discourse that characterized the international community opting for informal justice practices in Afghanistan was that the Afghans were better off being governed through traditional authority, says Wimpelmann.

To break loose from the orientalist path the international community needs to make its own role in Afghanistan part of the discussion.

- Most importantly, we need to stop treating Afghanistan like something out of the ordinary. Research on Afghanistan has to apply the same methods and theoretical frameworks as research in other countries, says Wimpelmann. This includes a critical revision of sources from the colonial era. Then as now, the writings of scholars were often entwined with Western forays into the country and have to be read as such.

Torunn Wimpelmann’s article Nexuses of knowledge and power in Afghanistan: The rise and fall of the informal justice assemblage appears in Central Asian Survey, 2013, Vol 32:3

Read it here