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HomeIn-Depth AnalysisWhy Did the American State-Building Enterprise in Afghanistan Fail?

Why Did the American State-Building Enterprise in Afghanistan Fail?

Image credit: The U.S. Army

By A. Farid Tookhy

The rapid disintegration of the Afghan government in August marked the utter failure of the state-building1 enterprise undertaken in the country by the U.S.-led coalition of Western powers. A government set up and maintained over two decades at the exorbitant cost of $143 billion2 fell apart in less than two weeks, replaced by the Taliban. The failure of that enterprise can be attributed to three interrelated and mutually reinforcing factors: first, the traditional condition of the Afghan polity and society; second, the failure of the U.S.-led coalition in creating an uncontested domain of authority; and third, the problem of legitimating an inherently secular order in a deeply religious society. 

State-building aims at constructing a modern national state. The nation-state embodies the doctrine of raison d’état, an invention of European political thought in late sixteenth century which regards the state’s “perfection and perpetuation” as the chief goal of political action. Guided by this political rationality, rulers of major European states engaged in efforts to strengthen the state by moving beyond the traditional tasks of justice, army, and finance. They pursued centralization and administrative modernization. The strengthening of the state also necessitated the construction of new subjects through education and professionalization programs. Using regulatory and disciplinary devices such as modern codes, schools, and the army, European rulers engaged in ‘rational’ and ‘calculated’ intervention in the lives of their subjects3

The final product of this complex process of political transformation was the modern nation-state, which first emerged during the French Revolution. The consolidation of the national state amounted to a transition from indirect to direct rule4—or from a “mediated society” to a “direct-access society.”5 In pre-modern polities, religious leaders, tribal chiefs, and local and regional powerholders served as intermediaries between the ruler and his subjects. With the formation of the modern nation-state, these traditional sources of authority were either suppressed or absorbed into the emerging bureaucracy of the state. 

A major challenge for the American state-building project in Afghanistan was that the country had never previously experienced a transition to modern statehood. The first significant attempt at building a modern national state, which occurred in the 1920s under King Amanullah Khan, met with failure. Subsequent Afghan rulers abandoned his state-building agenda, reverting to a system of indirect rule which delegated important state functions to religious and tribal leaders. By 1970s, Afghanistan remained a mediated society, marked by the limited reach of the political center and segmental organization—major features of what sociologist Anthony Giddens has called the traditional state6. Afghan rulers had failed to pursue administrative modernization or to implement society-wide programs of education and professionalization.  

The Afghan communists, who came to power through a coup in 1978, were hoping to steer Afghanistan to modern statehood using a socialist template. However, they met with a popular revolt that not even the Soviet invasion could suppress, in no small part because of the support the resistance received from Western powers and some Muslim countries in the region. The wars of 1980s and 1990s destroyed Afghanistan’s rural economy and handful urban centers as well as its modicum of state structures. 

Building a modern national state in such a context was always to be a truly enormous undertaking. An American diplomat, who had arrived in Kabul in late 2001, realized that Hamid Karzai, leader of the interim authority, had “nothing to work with, no military, no police, no civil service, no functioning society.”7 Later, a U.S. commander noted that in many locations in the country, people “didn’t really understand or see a benefit to having a centralized government”; people did not have a concept of a government exercising power across the country, so “you had to prove to a lot of people why government mattered to them at all.”8

American military personnel were astonished to discover that the modern concept of law enforcement by uniformed police officers enforcing state laws was foreign to many Afghans. Dispute resolution through recourse to tribal and religious leaders was the norm. An American major said, “They have a hard time picturing what we’re trying to do with the police forces. They don’t understand how it fits into their culture.” The high rates of illiteracy caused major problems. For instance, about 80 to 90 percent of army recruits could not read or write. So, training the security forces proved a major challenge, especially since the U.S. had decided to design the Afghan army “as a facsimile of the U.S. military, forcing it to adopt similar rules, customs and structures.”9

What made that enterprise even more difficult was the fact that the American-led coalition forces never succeeded in creating an uncontested domain of authority in the country. State-building proceeded in conjunction with the war against the Taliban and other insurgent groups. In the early years, the Americans missed a couple opportunities for diplomatic engagement with the Taliban leadership. Later, defeating the insurgent group militarily proved impossible, in large part due to the support it enjoyed in neighboring Pakistan. Thus, monopoly over the use of force, a central element of modern statehood, never materialized. Constant insecurity hampered the training of security forces, the implementation of development projects, the expansion of education, and the conduct of elections. Moreover, the exercising of semi-autonomy by some local and regional power-holders in their respective localities and regions further eroded the authority of the central government. 

War undermined the state-building project also by creating a situation ripe for massive corruption, especially given the U.S. military’s overreliance on contractors. The chief cause of corruption was the coalition’s reliance on international and Afghan contractors10 to transport food, fuel, and other supplies to American bases in Afghanistan. In return for safe passage, transport companies paid huge sums to local strongmen, police chiefs, and Taliban commanders. An assessment of 3,000 Pentagon contracts worth $106 billion found that 18 percent of the money ended up going to the Taliban and other insurgents, while another 15 percent was pocketed by Afghan officials and criminal groups11.  

A third major issue for the state-building project was how to legitimate an inherently secular order in a deeply conservative Muslim society. The ideas, practices, and institutions encapsulated in the liberal democratic state are products of modern Western history. Under the influence of ideational and material forces that emerged in Western Europe from the late Middle Ages onwards— including the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, the scientific revolution, industrial capitalism, and the Enlightenment—Western European societies underwent a process of secularization, eventually culminating in a condition of modernity or secularity. The modern European state stood in sharp contrast to pre-modern polities, which (like those in European Middle Ages) were religio-political in nature12—wherein religion legitimated the prevailing socio-political order. 

Central to Western modernity is what philosopher Charles Taylor has called “the anthropocentric shift”—the emergence of “exclusive humanism,” a secular notion which envisions political society as resulting from peaceful cooperation for mutual benefit among ‘rational’ and ‘sociable’ human beings. American and French revolutions turned this notion into a “modern social imaginary,” a profound shift which Taylor calls “the great disembedding.” Individuals in modern Western societies no longer see themselves as being embedded within metaphysically sanctioned hierarchical communities; rather, they regard themselves as equal members within an impersonal, egalitarian socio-politico-economic order13

Such anthropocentrism is diametrically opposed to the prevailing religious attitudes and sentiments in the Afghan society. A lecturer at Kabul University—the country’s largest academic institution— argued in his textbook that “Islam is a divine religion with its own rules and regulations for all aspects of life…, which originate from divine revelation and do not admit any kind of revision or combination;” democracy, on the other hand, “is a name for positive law, a social philosophy and a political system produced by human mind and rooted in human ideas and whims, which the Qur’an deems as ‘ignorance.’”14 Similar views were propagated in both lay and religious educational settings across the country. 

The prevalence and propagation of such beliefs caused a major legitimation crisis for the state-building project. In a study conducted in 2014, of fifty randomly selected students from Kabul University, twenty responded affirmatively when asked if armed opposition by the Taliban against the Afghan government was justified according to Islam15. In a 2018 study conducted in Kabul, Herat, and Nangarhar universities, 36 percent of the respondents agreed with the revival of the Islamic caliphate—as against 33 percent who disagreed; 85 percent of the participants believed Islamic teachings must be implemented in all areas of life16. In a 2015 survey of around 1650 members of the Afghan National Police across eleven provinces in the country, 83 percent believed armed resistance was justified against those who criticized Islam; nearly half thought that international conventions on women and human rights contradicted Islamic values17.

Thus, given the state of religious attitudes and sentiments current within the Afghan society, it is no surprise that the project of transforming the Afghan social order using a “made-in-America solution”18 led to the erection of a government whose legitimacy was challenged not only by the Taliban and other insurgent groups, but also by social actors operating under the auspices of that same government and its international backers. In short, the American state-building project in Afghanistan did not have a sufficiently large social basis for it to succeed. Nor did the Americans and their local counterparts succeed in creating an effective legitimating apparatus for their nation-building enterprise. So, it met the same fate as the modernization projects attempted in the country during the twentieth century. 

These three major impediments to nation-building, among other factors, will haunt future attempts at building a national state in Afghanistan, including by the country’s current rulers, the Taliban. Assuming they have an interest in pursuing a state-building agenda, the Taliban may find it hard to create an uncontested domain of authority, partly because of their own internal divisions and partly due to the presence of competing armed actors in the country that will likely continue to challenge Taliban’s authority. The failures of previous projects of societalization, administrative modernization, and society-wide education and professionalization will make it difficult for them to build a viable state—especially, given the Taliban’s own meager knowledge of, and experience in, governance. Finally, their uncompromising ideology and their ethnocentrism will make it hard for them to build a stable basis for legitimating their rule over a religiously, ethnically, and linguistically heterogeneous population. Only time will tell if the Taliban can be successful in their own project of creating a unified Afghan nation-state where others have failed.   

Dr. Ahmad Farid Tookhy is a senior fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy.


  1. State-building and nation-building are normally used interchangeably. The author prefers the former. 
  2. Whitlock, The Afghanistan Papers, 30.
  3. For background, see, for example, Foucault, Security, Territory, Population; and Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics.
  4. See Tilly, Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990-1992, 103–7.
  5. See Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries, 156–61.
  6. For a discussion of the features of the traditional states, see Giddens, The Nation-State and Violence, 3–4; 35–60.
  7. Quoted in Whitlock, The Afghanistan Papers, 30.
  8. Quoted in Whitlock, 38.
  9. See Whitlock, 57, 66.
  10. “Study Says Nearly Half of Defense Spending for 9/11 Wars Went to Private Contractors.”
  11. Whitlock, The Afghanistan Papers, 186–87.
  12. See Smith, Religion and Political Development, an Analytic Study, 6–7.
  13. See Taylor, A Secular Age, 1–22, 146–211, 221–96.
  14. Quoted in a report published by Afghanistan Institute of Strategic Studies in 2019; see Kamangar, “Religious Radicalism in the Higher Education of Afghanistan [in Persian],”
  15. Zaman and Mohammadi, “Trends in Student Radicalization across University Campuses in Afghanistan,” 24.
  16. Kamangar, “Religious Radicalism in the Higher Education of Afghanistan [in Persian],” 52.
  17. Zaman and Khalid, “Trends of Radicalization among the Ranks of the Afghan National Police,” 10.
  18. Whitlock, The Afghanistan Papers, 36.
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.  

Panelists:

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.

Panelists:

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.

 

Panelists:

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. 

Panelists:

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. 

 

Panelists:

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.

Panelists:

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.

Panelists:

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.

 

Panelists:

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