Confusing war-making with peace-building

By John Heathershaw
March 22, 2010

Since the end of the Cold War it has become axiomatic amongst national and international policy-makers that peace-building and war-making go hand in hand. This is common sense in modern societies barraged by images of the soldier-aid worker and attuned to thinking of war as having a bold humanitarian purpose – to expand the limits of civilization to the underdeveloped societies and failed states of this world. The parliamentary Defence Select Committee’s recent report The Comprehensive Approach: the point of war is not just to win but to make a better peace is the latest step in this blurring of the boundary between war and peace.

The report’s "comprehensive approach" is a blending of strategic and development tasks so that war-fighters become peace-builders and vice-versa. Crafted from evidence given by the usual suspects of academic experts and government departments – from Defence to International Development – the report comes down heavily in favour of the validity and practicality of the comprehensive approach. In military parlance this is framed as ‘stabilisation operations’ involving civilian and military components and is charted back to the winning of ‘hearts and minds’ in counter-insurgency operations since Malaya. The coupling of development workers with British soldiers in the Provisional Reconstructions Teams of Afghanistan is seen as a promising example of this model.

However, whilst civilian and military actors may have a long history in counter-insurgency, the merging of humanitarian aid agencies and the military is of much shorter vintage. Until recently it was beyond question that humanitarian and military responsibilities were distinct with aid agencies making often problematic statements about their neutrality in the face of armed conflict.

But it was not just aid which was separate from military action. Peacekeeping itself was a part of international conflict resolution which was framed as the very opposite of war-fighting. UN peacekeeping, as it developed under the supervision of former Second World War British military intelligence officer Brian Urquhart, was wedded to principles of independence (of peacekeeping troops from all conflicting parties), impartiality (with regard to the issues of the conflict) and non-use of force (except limited self-defence).

Peace-building, meanwhile, was an idea being practiced by radicals and humanitarians who sought to tackle violence in a truly comprehensive manner in its physical, structural and cultural manifestations.

Things changed politically after 1989 with a new found enthusiasm and opportunity for wider and deeper intervention amongst governments and international organisations calling themselves ‘the international community'. In the 1992 Agenda for Peace the UN linked post-conflict peace-building with what it called ‘peace enforcement’ where military action might seek to end war in order to make peace.

Governments, armies and experts followed suit with, for example, the British Army crafting a notion of ‘wider peacekeeping’ based on its experiences in Bosnia and academic experts extolling the virtues of so-called ‘peace support operations’ of the military. Whilst serious qualms were raised through the 1990s about the practicality of these concepts, by the middle of the last decade, with the UN’s latest report on this issue A More Secure World, it had become accepted that building peace must also involve the readiness to make war and explicitly counter insurgency.

The students, policy-makers and soldiers with whom I discuss these things as a lecturer and external speaker, invariably lack the historical knowledge and political ideas to question this assumption. Peace-building, from this perspective, is no longer based on a radical critique of unjust relationships, but a strategy for order.

Yet the political idea at the heart of this "comprehensive approach" is problematic both in its reading of the facts and its call to action. The approach reflects a logic that one critic has labeled the "merger of security and development" where underdevelopment is identified as a security threat, where ‘failed states’ (e.g. Afghanistan) produce havens for insurgents (e.g. the Taliban) and terrorists (e.g. al-Qaeda).

Ultimately, according to this view, armed conflict is a result of a lack of modernisation. Thus, underdevelopment must be tackled to bring security, and insecurity must be addressed to spur development. The factual problem here is that whilst many states of the world might lack both the capacity and the interest to squash anti-Western terrorists and their own insurgents, the reasons why armed challenges are launched against political masters cannot be reduced to a matter of underdevelopment or the envy caused by their relative deprivation.

Many of the world’s most notorious terrorists and insurgents are thoroughly modern creatures in many respects. The causes of terrorist violence, like any armed conflict, are ultimately political and complex. They are related to the policies and foreign policies of the targets and the political ideas of the combatants. They are not the products of disorder, but of order itself.

However, the call to action under this "comprehensive approach" is predictably normalising. It is about reasserting this order, not challenging it. War is to be fought without addressing the deeper political issues of the conflict. Peace is to be built without questioning the iniquitous bases of economic and political order which have generated enormous wealth for some and poverty – by every possible index – for others.

In Afghanistan, for example, the problems of governance relate to the traumas of the post-colonial state formation under conditions of globalisation and cannot simply be reduced to matters of stabilisation and state-building. However effective the "comprehensive approach" is at an operational level in Afghanistan, it is simply reproducing the colonial-type relationship where a local fief is established – in this case President Karzai – and made dependent on external economic and military support.

Karzai, the latest in a long line of such figures, has become cynical and self-serving in the face of short-term demands for counter-terrorism (involving massive external military intervention) which contradict the stated aims of a strong and truly independent state. It is therefore not surprising that both war-fighting and peace-building in Afghanistan have no clear end in sight.

So what is the alternative to this contradictory mix of war and peace which failed so abysmally in Somalia, Rwanda and Bosnia (until 1995), and has left us with uncertain results in Bosnia (since 1995), Kosovo and now Afghanistan? The policy community, including the Defence Select Committee, is convinced that there is none. We must simply redouble our efforts.

However, there is an alternative between peace-building-as-war-making and inaction in the face of human suffering in wartime. Independent aid agencies and missionaries have continued to work bravely without military assistance in many of the worst conflicts for decades. They were even in Afghanistan under Taliban and will remain there long after the coalition troops have left. They are independent, impartial and they do not use force. When they have been around for long enough, they garner far more local respect than any civilian-military provincial reconstruction team. They are unable to stop genocide but they are able to lessen the suffering generated by our ‘ordered’ world whilst questioning the bases of this order.

Today, few of these agencies remain genuinely independent of the global business of war-making/peace-building. Most are financed by the donor agencies, support bases and new philanthropists who have bought wholesale into the agenda for war/peace since it was declared almost 20 years ago.

Concerned and discerning Christians who support peacebuilding must be careful to identify the exceptions. These include the International Confederation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Organisations, a dwindling number of secular aid agencies and an increasing number of Christian peace groups and mission agencies which understand the context of post-Christendom. These movements take seriously the requirement that those who seek to change the prevailing order must maintain a healthy distance from its centres of power. They find increasingly little room for manoeuvre amongst the massively expanded business of intervention in the name of security and development. Yet their approach to peace is far larger than that offered by any "comprehensive approach". They are swimming against the tide of war-making/peace-building and they deserve our support.


© John Heathershaw is Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Exeter. His recent book is Post-conflict Tajikistan: the politics of peacebuilding and the emergence of legitimate order (London: Routledge, 2009). It will be released in paperback later in 2010.

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