“Once the Afghan conflict could no longer be understood in terms of global imperatives, it became part of what the language of international relations refers to as an example of disorder. Thus the war in Afghanistan was described as a Hobbesian situation…” -Gilles Dorronsoro, Revolution Unending

Dorronsoro’s quote about Afghanistan after 1992 reminds us of the way in which the gaze of International Relations as a discipline turns away from conflicts which do not fit into the grid of geopolitical determinism. Conflicts which do not play into a larger narrative about the rise and fall of great powers are either neglected or assumed to simply demonstrate the depravity of human nature and ascriptive categories. In essence, the effort at political analysis is abandoned. Ethnicity, tribe, and religion are used to mechanically explain conflict — as if mobilizing a particular identity were not a political act generally presupposing or foreshadowing the development of political institutions.

My fear is that when America and Europe retreat from Afghanistan, the analysis of the conflict will suffer the same fate that it did when the Soviets disengaged.

The issue for me is how do we educate the next generation of scholars to avoid this trap? I think the only way to do so is to rethink the discipline and encourage students to engage in more complex studies of clashes and flows between and within different societies. What this means in practice is that students must be taught the issues, institution, and values that are important to the local actors prior to broader discussions of the interest of the state and regional or global actors. Understanding how a society is constituted must precede any hypothesis about the causes of a conflict.

[Cross-posted from Afghan Notebook]