“Negotiating Survival” Book Symposium – Living together in the “forever war”: Negotiations among civilians and insurgents?

About the author(s):

Carla Suarez is an independent researcher interested in peace and conflict studies, the politics of non-state armed groups, gender dynamics during and after war, and the ethics of field research in conflict-affected settings. She holds a PhD in Political Science from Dalhousie University, and has been supported by Pierre Elliot Trudeau Foundation, Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the Killam Memorial Fund. Her research has been featured in International Peacekeeping, the Journal of Peacebuilding and Development, Resilience, and Stability. She currently serves as a board member to Women In International Security-Canada (WIIS-C) and the Siinqee Institute. Carla resides in Vancouver and can be found exploring the mountains and beaches when she is not working.

Ashley Jackson’s Negotiating Survival: Civilian-Insurgent Relations in Afghanistan provides a brilliant account into the daily struggles that people encounter amid prolonged violence and precarity. Drawing on multi-sited field research in Afghanistan (2017 – 2019), involving interviews with over 400 informants, the book examines negotiations made among insurgents and civilians to survive. Jackson introduces a novel theory of insurgent-civilian bargaining that delves into the interests, leverage, and strategies of these actors. Through trial and error, the book captures how civilians and insurgents become experts at brokering arrangements that provide a semblance of tranquility.

Jackson’s argument is underpinned by a simple assumption – civilians and insurgents are locked in an interdependent relationship. Unlike other negotiation contexts, they are not able to walk away from each other. While some civilians may flee, typically those that have access to the right networks and resources, this was not feasible for many in Afghanistan. For those caught in the ‘forever war,’ deal-making with the Taliban became unavoidable. Jackson finds that this even applies to informants that were adamant about staying on the sidelines. Thus, the book diverts from the standard literature on civilian agency where there is a tendency to focus on neutrality as a key strategy for surviving war, see herehere and here. Although the book offers a comparative account of Afghanistan, the types of negotiations and bargains discussed can easily be found in other conflict settings, especially those where violence spans across generations, like Colombia, Somalia, and the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. 

Jackson’s contribution does not align neatly with the common debates found in either the conflict literature, focusing on the use of violence, or those in the peacebuilding literature, focusing on conflict resolution. Instead, she turns to messy terrain of how people live with and among armed actors. Let me explain. Literature on peacebuilding identifies key factors that enhance the durability of peace agreements, including the timing and sequencing of peace processes, important stipulations to include in agreements and the inclusivity of these arrangements, with respect to civil society and armed actors. Jackson broadens these debates by documenting negotiation processes that are not necessarily intended to bring about peace. Rather, these arrangements make daily life more tenable. Examples include pleading with the Taliban to release a relative from their custody, bringing electricity or water to a village, or re-opening the school for children. 

With respect to use of violence, the literature on armed conflict outlines factors that influence the use of violence, including the group’s objectives and resources, the organizational and command structure, and the consolidation of territorial control. Growing attention to the fusion of violence and restraint among armed groups, such as this and this, have largely overlooked civilian-insurgent bargaining as an influential source. As Jackson argues that the repugnant reputation that some insurgent groups develop can have a blinding effect on its observers. Accordingly, the Taliban’s well-established culture of negotiation, predating the ‘war on terror,’ has been widely overlooked due to its reputation. But, as Jackson points out “The Taliban can be fierce and ruthless negotiators, but they also have a strong capacity to compromise (when, of course, they feel it is in their best interest to do so).” In sum, Jackson finds that the Taliban’s bargaining, which involved some concessions, was not only essential for their survival, but absolutely necessary to maintain and expand territorial control.

The few studies that examine bargaining arrangements in conflict settings tend to limit their analysis to the relations between insurgent and government armed forces, see here and here. Attention to the myriad of ways civilians shape these arrangements is an important correction offered by the book. Jackson is prudent in her analysis; careful not to overstate or diminish the ways her informants influenced the Taliban. She does so by presenting the main parameters of insurgent-civilian negotiations, including: timing and maturity of the group (e.g., the insurgent must aspire for political legitimacy) and involve a reasonable request (e.g., nothing that would impede their ability to wage war, especially if they were under military pressure). 

The book also challenges some of the common approaches to the study of civilian agency in conflict-affected areas. It moves away from the ‘compliance-resistance’ binary that dominates much of the literature (see here and here). Instead, it introduces a spectrum of options, ranging from joining the opposition, fleeing, negotiating, complying, and joining the insurgency. Jackson also tries to move away from the sweeping categorization of ‘civilians,’ found in some accounts, like this. She offers a nuanced account of three actors: customary figures, civilian organizations, and individuals. 

From a comparative lens, there are some key insights found among these groups, with respect to their interest, leverage and strategies. First, perseverance and tenacity cannot be overlooked. Some informants negotiating with the Taliban did so even they knew that they would not be successful. Despite this, they continued with their efforts because they wanted to initiate or deepen trust with the Taliban. Some authority figures would use this to their advantage, as it would put additional pressure on the Taliban in future negotiations. Although these ‘failed’ negotiations or deals did not generate the desired outcome, they were successful in other ways. Raising questions about the ways in which ‘success’ is defined and evaluated in these contexts. 

View of Kabul from TV Hill, February 2019.

Second, to be influential, informants were informed by past while imagining the future. In conflict landscapes, time is both a curse and luxury. Time allowed civilian groups to collect more information about what tactics and strategies had been previous successful. When comparable incidents arose, they were often better informed and prepared, and could draw on previous experiences to inform the strategies they employed. The sophisticated information gathering and assessment tools that civilians develop in their daily interactions with insurgents were critical to their survival. 

Third, deepening and expanding personal networks was essential to all groups. The unexpected situations that informants were caught in, meant that they needed as many people as possible to turn to when needed. Jackson also distinguishes between having ‘a contact’ and the ‘right contact’ within the Taliban. As can be expected, access to the ‘right contact’ takes time, resources, and connections. 

One of the main goals of the book is to tell a different story about the interactions that unfold between insurgents and civilians in Afghanistan. Jackson accomplishes this by “looking at the Taliban through the eyes of civilians.” For her, “this was fastest way to shake loose faulty but persistent assumptions.” Although she was persuasive at challenging some of these assumptions, I was left wondering how civilian-insurgent relations were influenced by government armed forces, an actor that is not sufficiently featured. Jackson’s point about civilian-insurgent locked in an interdependent relation is persuasive. But as discussed in other conflict settings, see here and here, government armed forces can also significantly shape the insurgent-civilian relation. How did government or pro-government forces factor into some of the negotiations that took place?

Overall, Negotiating Survival was a stimulating and compelling book. Drawing on her extensive and immersive field research, Jackson offers a granular account into how insurgents and civilians live together in a ‘forever war.’ Her vivid writing transports you into the various dilemmas faced by her informants. One is instantly drawn to the inherent contradictions of Afghanistan, its beauty and turmoil. For some of us, this is as much ‘traveling’ as we have been able to do in the past two years due to pandemic. For peace and conflict scholars, interested in expanding the parameters of this field, this book will be a promising read. 

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