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Bonfire of the Vanities: Afghanistan and the Crisis of State-Building


In Afghanistan’s Zabul Province, the UN refugee agency has provided cash grants to about 1,400 internally displaced people for such basic needs as food, water and shelter amid a ballooning humanitarian crisis in the country since the Taliban takeover in August. The essayist, a former UN development expert, demystifies the concepts of nation- and state-building in the aftermath of such failures in Afghanistan. UNHCR

The Taliban’s dramatic takeover of Afghanistan in August sparked a predictable outpouring of angst and argument as to why it happened despite the massive, two-decade effort to prevent that result. Much of the commentary focused on the supposed failures of nation- and state-building. It is important now to take stock of these concepts and to understand how these notions went wrong in Afghanistan.

The terms are often used interchangeably. This has caused confusion about what the ideas actually mean and raised doubts about the effectiveness of interventions by the West in countries mired in violent conflict.

I want to share what I learned from working for the United Nations on development and peace operations in several countries that were endeavoring to build (or rebuild) their states.

First, I learned to avoid the use of the phrase “nation-building.”

It is a beguiling concept but one that the international community can do little to put into practice. This is because nation-building is an incremental and organic process. Nations grow from local roots, evolving over time by circumstance and adaptation. External players — governments, international agencies, regional organizations and nongovernmental organizations — however well meaning, cannot hasten the gradual absorption of cultures, values and historical experiences, including, sadly, violent conflict, which defines a nation. Nation-building is an indigenous rite of passage that creates a sense of common identity that all members of society can subscribe to, regardless of ethnicity, faith, gender and class.

A state, by contrast, is a mutable bureaucratic structure built around the institutions, interests and practices of governance that can — and often are — modified from one administration to another. The shape and functions of a state are more susceptible to outside influence (for good or bad) because it has to continuously engage with the global community of states. Nevertheless, a state must gain popular legitimacy, which cannot be imposed from outside.

Nations and states are not the same thing, even though the idea of the “nation state” attempts to bridge these two concepts. Around the world, we see examples of this duality. There are populations that define themselves as nations although they do not enjoy the attributes of state sovereignty. Then there are sovereign states that have not yet developed a sense of national identity out of the mosaic of people, cultures and traditions that fall inside their national boundaries. But there are also states where past unity is eroding and demands for separation intensifying.

Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the countries of the Sahel are contemporary examples where this duality persists. Yugoslavia was a recent bloody illustration of that reality in Europe; Myanmar is a current case in East Asia.

State-building, however, is not a new venture. Post-war Germany, Japan and South Korea are cited as examples of successful state-building. But these were already homogenous nations that provided a foundation on which Western powers, especially the United States, could aid the rebuilding of state institutions.

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Decolonization, together with Cold War rivalry, provided new impetus (and resources) for state-building interventions. In the 1960s, development aid expanded rapidly, much of it directed at building or strengthening state institutions. As a young UN Development Program staffer in Kenya at the time, I recall that our assistance focused heavily on institutional support in agriculture, health, education and economic planning, emphasizing training to build technical capacities. We did not venture into political or security reform or promote human rights.

That phase of state-building began to give way in the 1980s to the allure of the so-called Washington consensus, which concentrated on reforming and even reducing the state. The poorest countries, mainly in Africa, were urged to reform their economic institutions and policies as a condition for aid.

The end of the Cold War and the wave of civil wars that followed prompted further changes in the direction and form of state-building. In 1992, UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali published his “Agenda for Peace” report, which called for “action to identify and support structures which will tend to strength and solidify peace in order to avoid a relapse into conflict.”

Boutros-Ghali framed this approach as “peace-building,” conveying the idea that the whole of society had to be engaged. Subsequently, under the aegis of Kofi Annan, the next secretary-general, mandates of UN peace operations were progressively expanded to encompass this comprehensive approach. UN missions are now routinely directed to work with society at large and not just the core institutions of the state.

The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, set up with UN endorsement, was expected to reinforce state security institutions “to enable the Afghan government to provide effective security across the country.” But it was also expected to help “create the space and lay the foundations for improvements in governance and socio-economic development for sustainable stability.”

So what went wrong in Afghanistan? No doubt early judgments (including mine) will be revisited and revised, but four lessons stand out that confirm what I have witnessed in other countries engulfed by conflict.

First, when outside forces are drawn into armed hostilities sparked by internal conflict, they risk becoming surrogates for national security forces. It is only when the outside forces withdraw does the security deficit become apparent. The peacekeeping and counterinsurgency forces positioned in the Sahel, South Sudan, Somalia and the Congo may face similar predicaments as they presumably exit.

Second, the state is much more than a central government sitting in the capital. The government should set the sense of direction and the tone of governance. But it must encourage and support the daily efforts by communities to prevent and resolve conflict locally, particularly in countries that are deeply divided by tradition and custom. Justice and reconciliation have to be nurtured from below and not imposed from above.

Third, money can make a difference but not always the right one. The US, NATO and development agencies have sunk upward of a trillion dollars into Afghanistan, a country of 38 million people. This funding helped to boost economic growth and improve the well-being of many Afghans, who now live nearly 10 years longer than they did two decades ago. As The Financial Times noted, during this period, “Women’s lives improved across a swath of indicators.”

But money cannot compensate for poor leadership, and indeed may compound it. Huge subsidies from the US and NATO could not ensure that the Afghan army stayed in the field, especially when the logistical back-up ended.

In fact, the flood of money probably worked to the detriment of the Afghan military. The former commanding general of the NATO force in Afghanistan, John Allen, warned the US Congress several years ago that corruption, not the Taliban, was the existential threat to the Afghan government. In the same vein, a senior commander of the Afghan Special Forces remonstrated that “disruptions to food rations and fuel supplies — a result of skimming and corrupt contract allocations — destroyed the moral of my troops.”

I witnessed the same behavior in the eastern Congo, which has undermined the effectiveness of government forces.

Those remarks confirm my personal experience of state-building, and, more broadly, peace-building: to work, it must be nationally inspired and led. Foreign intervention cannot substitute for that essential ingredient. Where there is good leadership, progress can be made. By contrast, the hasty and furtive departure of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani when the Taliban approached Kabul in mid-August seemed to encapsulate the “fin de regime” fatalism that triggered the collapse of the government.

Finally, a recent comment by retired Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, the former White House coordinator on Afghanistan, summed up why state-building went astray in Afghanistan. “We tended to over-rely on military tools, on the military means, and we, thereby, counter-discounted political, economic and diplomatic tools,” he said.

So is state-building a mistake?

Some states regularly relapse into violence — Haiti, the Central African Republic and the Congo come to mind — notwithstanding serial interventions by the UN and others to restore a legitimate, functioning state. Nevertheless, we should not allow these failures, including the current one in Afghanistan, to obscure the fact that many states that have suffered violent conflict, like Timor-Leste and Sierra Leone, have improved the lives of their citizens using foreign aid for state-building initiatives. But this works only when we recognize the limits of intervention and do not fall into the trap of substituting financial and military aid for the national commitment to peace and human development.

This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Alan Doss is the chair of the advisory board of the Oxford Global Society and former president of the Kofi Annan Foundation. He is the author of “A Peacekeeper in Africa: Learning From UN Interventions in Other People’s Wars.”

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Bonfire of the Vanities: Afghanistan and the Crisis of State-Building
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1 year ago

It is necessary to avoid completely the term “nation-state” for the reasons that Alan Doss indicates. In addition, as David Forsythe, Roger Coate, and I wrote in the first (1991) edition of “The United Nations and Changing World Politics”: “this label is not totally false, but it can be misleading because nations and states are not the same. A nation is a people (a group of persons professing solidarity on the basis of language, religion, history, or some other bonding element) linked to a state. Legally speaking, where there is a state, there is a nation, but there may be several peoples within a state. For example, the citizens of Switzerland (officially the Helvetian Confederation) are, by legal definition members of the Swiss nation, but in social reality the Swiss state includes four peoples: the Swiss-Germans, the Swiss-French, the Swiss-Italians, and the Swiss-Romanisch. The confusing notion of a multinational state also has arisen alongside divided nations (East and West Germany between 1945 and 1989, and North and South Korea today) and states with irredentist claims (Serbia and Russia). The members of the United Nations are territorial states (with the exception of the Vatican), but this only begs the question of who is a national people entitled to a state. Many persons in existing states, from Belgium to Sri Lanka, from the United Kingdom to Canada, have not fully and finally settled this issue.” — Thomas G. Weiss

1 year ago

Interesting read but the focus on successes and failures ignores the question of the principle of intervention as if it is beyond question

1 year ago
Reply to  Sue

I agree, Sue.

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