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HomeIn-Depth AnalysisThe Unraveling of a Myth: “Nation-Building” and Calamity in Afghanistan

The Unraveling of a Myth: “Nation-Building” and Calamity in Afghanistan

Image: Sgt. Kylee Gardner

By Christopher Mott

Key Takeaways 

  • The rapidity of collapse for the Afghan government this month has come despite decades of financial and military effort.
  • While dramatic and headline grabbing, the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan was the culmination of the group’s gradual ascent rather than an isolated incident.
  • The much-cited historical examples of successful nation-building operations are often selective and parochial and do not account for the present realities and different milieu of the targeted countries.
  • The onus for development and security of a foreign nation rests squarely with the populace and political leadership of the country itself; their security and political legitimacy can neither depend nor be outsourced to an international coalition force.


U.S. led NATO operations in Afghanistan began with a clear mission and strategic objective– to annihalate Al-Qaeda and dismantle its global networks of Islamist terror that it ran from Afghanistan. The international coalition’s military presence was never meant to be permanent. The location of the country and its distance from any vital security interest of the North Atlantic alliance precluded an enduring military involvement for the Coalition. The sheer difficulty of maintaining logistical supply lines into the nation was compounded by an increasing reliance on Pakistan, a nation whose intelligence services often colluded with Islamist groups and provided a safe haven to the Taliban fighters for decades. 

That limited scope was soon expanded to a nation-building project and bringing democracy to the much-ravaged Afghanistan. As a result, the new Afghan state received a truly astonishing amount of support from the world’s most powerful alliance to help propel the new central government, with the belief that in time those nations could leave to allow the Afghan state and its Western-trained security forces to fend for themselves. Over two trillion dollars and almost two decades of military operations later, the Afghan military collapsed and the country’s president, Ashraf Ghani, fled his homeland. In a few short weeks, the entire country fell to the significantly outnumbered and under-resourced Taliban.

Such complete state failure was, of course, a long time coming. The Afghanistan Papers, released back in 2019, made clear what some observers had long suspected: that many high ranking people in the U.S. military had already determined there was no reasonable path for a victory over the Taliban or even any guarantee of the durability of the Afghan government and army. This failure was decades in the making and the culmination of a progressively untenable situation that stemmed from transforming a clear-eyed counter-terrorism mission into an idealistic project of nation-building and democracy promotion. What is more, the tragic events of this month are not a simple outlier. The invasion and subsequent destabilization of Iraq similarly created the chaotic conditions that both gave rise to ISIS as well as proliferated other militia groups, non-state actors, and proxies tied to Iraq’s neighbors such as Iran. 

Going Forward:

“Nation-building” is often defended by citing the successful restructuring and rebuilding of the former Axis Powers after World War II. What such selective harvesting of examples ignores is that Germany, Japan, and Italy were former great powers and were already industrialized nations with high degrees of public education and literacy. They also had been fully conquered and occupied by the fully-mobilized military might of the Allies who could, therefore, deploy tremendous levels of forces to these countries as well as collaborate with numerous indigenous domestic partners within the occupied territories. Additionally, all of these countries enjoyed access to international waters with deep-water ports that facilitated a high degree of economic and trade relations with the occupying powers.

Such circumstances are relatively rare in history and are not generally replicable. Countries which are mostly rural and have few, if any, domestic industries cannot be developed and modernized by external force. The conditions are even more challenging for landlocked, mountainous countries such as Afghanistan that are not only hard to effectively control but mostly organized along tribal and ethnic lines. The level of investment in terms of military and civil assistance to really effect such miraculous nation-building would approximate that of mobilizing for total war, something few in the general public would support, especially for countries seen as peripheral to the core national security interests of the U.S. and its allies. 

Afghanistan’s present unraveling does indeed mirror that of South Vietnam’s. Not because of the superficial similarities of helicopters on the roof of a U.S. embassy, but because a government mired in corruption and lacking in popular support and internal institutional development could not outlast the departure of its patrons when competing for legitimacy against an indigenous foe that–despite having its own foreign backers in the Pakistani military–projects itself as morally righteous and relatively independent. The influx of foreign private contractors whose presence facilitated much of the corruption only helped Taliban’s case and revealed Kabul to be an incompetent pawn of a foreign power. Moreover, material largesse from a patron could not offset having genuine local loyalties on the ground.

In almost all cases, “nation-building” has proved an imprudent policy with little strategic rationale that has trouble defining its end goals or its standards for success. In order to avoid future tragedies like the one that unfolded in Afghanistan this month, all nations would do better to abandon policies of military occupation and projects of empire period and clearly define the scope and national security necessity of their military operations to prevent entanglement in longwided forever wars that will drain them of blood and treasure. The second lesson is that all foreign aid (military and economic) to a struggling country would be wasted or actually help foment future conflict absent the presence of local forces capable of wielding power independently of the foreign power. The people of a country can easily distinguish between a permanent party that makes claims on their loyalty and a temporary one that attempts to buy that support. They will not swear allegiance to a government they suspect cannot outlast the departure of its distant patrons and allies.

Had the NATO military action after 9/11 remained focused on punishing the Taliban and working with local Afghan stakeholders on the ground (regardless of their ideological affinities) to hunt down and drive out the Al Qaeda network, the mission could have been successful and allied forces could have withdrawn once the actual threat of Islamist terror was neutralized. The price of abandoning that limited focus on counter-terrorism for utopian ends was utter defeat and humilation of the Coalition, chief among them the United States. As U.S. President Joe Biden correctly noted in his national address defending his decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, no international force should be fighting and dying in a foreign war that the locals are either too unwilling or too scared to fight themselves: “We gave them [Afghans] every chance to determine their own future. What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future.” 

Dr. Christopher Mott is a non-resident research fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy. 

Panel 4: Pathways to Manage Non-Proliferation in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:45 PM ET)

The Western powers have failed to effectively manage the increasing threat of proliferation in the Middle East. While the international community is concerned with Iran’s nuclear program, Saudi Arabia has moved forward with developing its own nuclear program, and independent studies show that Israel has longed possessed dozens of nuclear warheads. The former is a member of the treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), while the latter has refused to sign the international agreement. 

On Middle East policy, the Biden campaign had staunchly criticized the Trump administration’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the Iran Nuclear Deal and it has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier since assuming office in January 2021. However, serious obstacles remain for responsible actors in expanding non-proliferation efforts toward a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. 

This panel will discuss how Western powers and multilateral institutions, such as the IAEA, can play a more effective role in managing non-proliferation efforts in the Middle East.  


Peggy Mason: Canada’s former Ambassador to the UN for Disarmament

Mark Fitzpatrick: Associate Fellow & Former Executive Director, International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)

Ali Vaez: Iran Project Director, International Crisis Group

Negar Mortazavi: Journalist and Political Analyst, Host of Iran Podcast

David Albright: Founder and President of the Institute for Science and International Security


Closing (5:45 PM – 6:00 PM ET)

Panel 3: Trade and Business Diplomacy in the Middle East (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

What is the current economic landscape in the Middle East? While global foreign direct investment is expected to fall drastically in the post-COVID era, the World Bank reported a 5% contraction in the economic output of the Middle East and North African (MENA) countries in 2020 due to the pandemic. While oil prices are expected to rebound with normalization in demand, political instability, regional and geopolitical tensions, domestic corruption, and a volatile regulatory and legal environment all threaten economic recovery in the Middle East. What is the prospect for economic growth and development in the region post-pandemic, and how could MENA nations promote sustainable growth and regional trade moving forward?

At the same time, Middle Eastern diaspora communities have become financially successful and can help promote trade between North America and the region. In this respect, the diaspora can become vital intermediaries for advancing U.S. and Canada’s business interests abroad. Promoting business diplomacy can both benefit the MENA region and be an effective and positive way to advance engagement and achieve foreign policy goals of the North Atlantic.

This panel will investigate the trade and investment opportunities in the Middle East, discuss how facilitating economic engagement with the region can benefit Canadian and American national interests, and explore relevant policy prescriptions.


Hon. Sergio Marchi: Canada’s Former Minister of International Trade

Scott Jolliffe: Chairperson, Canada Arab Business Council

Esfandyar Batmanghelidj: Founder and Publisher of Bourse & Bazaar

Nizar Ghanem: Director of Research and Co-founder at Triangle

Nicki Siamaki: Researcher at Control Risks

Panel 2: Arms Race and Terrorism in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

The Middle East continues to grapple with violence and instability, particularly in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Fueled by government incompetence and foreign interventions, terrorist insurgencies have imposed severe humanitarian and economic costs on the region. Meanwhile, regional actors have engaged in an unprecedented pursuit of arms accumulation. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have imported billions of both Western and Russian-made weapons and funded militant groups across the region, intending to contain their regional adversaries, particularly Iran. Tehran has also provided sophisticated weaponry to various militia groups across the region to strengthen its geopolitical position against Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Israel. 

On the other hand, with international terrorist networks and intense regional rivalry in the Middle East, it is impractical to discuss peace and security without addressing terrorism and the arms race in the region. This panel will primarily discuss the implications of the ongoing arms race in the region and the role of Western powers and multilateral organizations in facilitating trust-building security arrangements among regional stakeholders to limit the proliferation of arms across the Middle East.



Luciano Zaccara: Assistant Professor, Qatar University

Dania Thafer: Executive Director, Gulf International Forum

Kayhan Barzegar: Professor and Chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Science and Research Branch of Azad University

Barbara Slavin: Director of Iran Initiative, Atlantic Council

Sanam Shantyaei: Senior Journalist at France24 & host of Middle East Matters

Panel 1: Future of Diplomacy and Engagement in the Middle East (10:30 AM-11:45 AM ET)

The emerging regional order in West Asia will have wide-ranging implications for global security. The Biden administration has begun re-engaging Iran on the nuclear dossier, an initiative staunchly opposed by Israel, while also taking a harder line on Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen. Meanwhile, key regional actors, including Qatar, Iraq, and Oman, have engaged in backchannel efforts to bring Iran and Saudi Arabia to the negotiating table. From a broader geopolitical perspective, with the need to secure its energy imports, China is also expected to increase its footprint in the region and influence the mentioned challenges. 

In this evolving landscape, Western powers will be compelled to redefine their strategic priorities and adjust their policies with the new realities in the region. In this panel, we will discuss how the West, including the United States and its allies, can utilize multilateral diplomacy with its adversaries to prevent military escalation in the region. Most importantly, the panel will discuss if a multilateral security dialogue in the Persian Gulf region, proposed by some regional actors, can help reduce tensions among regional foes and produce sustainable peace and development for the region. 


Abdullah Baabood: Academic Researcher and Former Director of the Centre for Gulf Studies, Qatar University

Trita Parsi: Executive Vice-President, Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft

Ebtesam Al-Ketbi: President, Emirates Policy Centre​

Jon Allen: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Israel

Elizabeth Hagedorn: Washington correspondent for Al-Monitor

Panel 4: Humanitarian Diplomacy: An Underused Foreign Policy Tool in the Middle East (4:30 PM - 5:30 PM ET)

Military interventions, political and economic instabilities, and civil unrest in the Middle East have led to a global refugee crisis with an increasing wave of refugees and asylum seekers to Europe and Canada. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has, in myriad ways, exacerbated and contributed to the ongoing security threats and destabilization of the region.

While these challenges pose serious risks to Canadian security, Ottawa will also have the opportunity to limit such risks and prevent a spillover effect vis-à-vis effective humanitarian initiatives in the region. In this panel, we will primarily investigate Canada’s Middle East Strategy’s degree of success in providing humanitarian aid to the region. Secondly, the panel will discuss what programs and initiatives Canada can introduce to further build on the renewed strategy. and more specifically, how Canada can utilize its policy instruments to more effectively deal with the increasing influx of refugees from the Middle East. 



Erica Di Ruggiero: Director of Centre for Global Health, University of Toronto

Reyhana Patel: Head of Communications & Government Relations, Islamic Relief Canada

Amir Barmaki: Former Head of UN OCHA in Iran

Catherine Gribbin: Senior Legal Advisor for International and Humanitarian Law, Canadian Red Cross

Panel 3: A Review of Canada’s Middle East Engagement and Defense Strategy (3:00 PM - 4:15 PM ET)

In 2016, Canada launched an ambitious five-year “Middle East Engagement Strategy” (2016-2021), committing to investing CA$3.5 billion over five years to help establish the necessary conditions for security and stability, alleviate human suffering and enable stabilization programs in the region. In the latest development, during the meeting of the Global Coalition against ISIS, Minister of Foreign Affairs Marc Garneau announced more than $43.6 million in Peace and Stabilization Operations Program funding for 11 projects in Syria and Iraq.

With Canada’s Middle East Engagement Strategy expiring this year, it is time to examine and evaluate this massive investment in the Middle East region in the past five years. More importantly, the panel will discuss a principled and strategic roadmap for the future of Canada’s short-term and long-term engagement in the Middle East.


Ferry de Kerckhove: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Egypt

Dennis Horak: Canada’s Former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

Chris Kilford: Former Canadian Defence Attaché in Turkey, member of the national board of the Canadian International Council (CIC)

David Dewitt: University Professor Emeritus, York University

Panel 2: The Great Power Competition in the Middle East (12:00 PM - 1:15 PM ET)

While the United States continues to pull back from certain regional conflicts, reflected by the Biden administration’s decision to halt American backing for Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Yemen and the expected withdrawal from Afghanistan, US troops continue to be stationed across the region. Meanwhile, Russia and China have significantly maintained and even expanded their regional activities. On one hand, the Kremlin has maintained its military presence in Syria, and on the other hand, China has signed an unprecedented 25-year strategic agreement with Iran.

As the global power structure continues to shift, it is essential to analyze the future of the US regional presence under the Biden administration, explore the emerging global rivalry with Russia and China, and at last, investigate the implications of such competition for peace and security in the Middle East.


Dmitri Trenin: Director of Carnegie Moscow Center

Joost R. Hiltermann: Director of MENA Programme, International Crisis Group

Roxane Farmanfarmaian: Affiliated Lecturer in International Relations of the Middle East and North Africa, University of Cambridge

Andrew A. Michta: Dean of the College of International and Security Studies at Marshall Center

Kelley Vlahos: Senior Advisor, Quincy Institute

Panel 1: A New Middle East Security Architecture in the Making (10:30 AM -11:45 AM ET)

The security architecture of the Middle East has undergone rapid transformations in an exceptionally short period. Notable developments include the United States gradual withdrawal from the region, rapprochement between Israel and some GCC states through the Abraham Accords and the rise of Chinese and Russian regional engagement.

With these new trends in the Middle East, it is timely to investigate the security implications of the Biden administration’s Middle East policy. In this respect, we will discuss the Biden team’s new approach vis-à-vis Iran, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and Israel. The panel will also discuss the role of other major powers, including China and Russia in shaping this new security environment in the region, and how the Biden administration will respond to these powers’ increasing regional presence.



Sanam Vakil: Deputy Director of MENA Programme at Chatham House

Denise Natali: Acting Director, Institute for National Strategic Studies & Director of the Center for Strategic Research, National Defense University

Hassan Ahmadian: Professor of the Middle East and North Africa Studies, University of Tehran

Abdulaziz Sagar: Chairman, Gulf Research Center

Andrew Parasiliti: President, Al-Monitor