Why Afghan nation-building was always destined to fail

The Taliban returning to power opens a new, but also rather inevitable, chapter in a turbulent history for Afghanistan since the 1979 Soviet invasion.

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Dr Gareth Price

Former Senior Research Fellow, Asia-Pacific Programme

The creation of a façade of a state in Afghanistan which melted away the moment international support was withdrawn has been interpreted as showing that nation-building is a fool’s errand and, in the case of a country already nicknamed the graveyard of empires, over-ambitious if not downright naïve.

Reconstructing Afghanistan carries with it inherent difficulties, with the most important being geographical. Afghanistan is land-locked and borders Pakistan – the main backer of the Taliban and Iran – whose leaders see an opportunity to embarrass the US as trumping any desire for stability next door.

International attempts to persuade the neighbourhood that stability is preferable to chaos failed because Afghanistan is essentially secondary to other foreign policy priorities, most notably Iranian tension with the US, Pakistani tension with India, and its ongoing fear of a pro-Indian government in Kabul. With two such major neighbours intent on undermining nation-building, an uphill struggle was inevitable.

Economics is another major factor because, aside from a largely untapped mineral wealth owing to security concerns, Afghanistan has no comparative advantage in any lawful trade. Narcotics – opium and more recently methamphetamine – illegal mining, and logging all provide the most significant income streams.

Absence of profitable alternatives

Creating a legitimate state in a country with mainly illicit economic activity adds a further layer of complexity to nation-building as many economically significant actors oppose the extension of state power into areas where they are active. And as many individuals within the state apparatus were themselves benefitting from illegal activities, the absence of obvious profitable alternatives is an ongoing challenge.

International attempts to persuade the neighbourhood that stability is preferable to chaos failed because Afghanistan is essentially secondary to other foreign policy priorities

In addition, Afghan society is complex because Afghanistan is not a homogenous, mono-lingual, nation-state but encompasses several ethnic groups each of which straddle borders. Managing these complex dynamics, as well as internal feuds between clans, is difficult and the arrival of supremely well-armed international troops trying to resolve disputes by claiming long-standing enemies were in fact allies simply perpetuated conflict.

As noted by several military officials, democratic processes meant that, although a nation-building project takes several decades, the government changes every four or five years. In recent years, a stalemate had been reached because the Taliban knew it lacked the ability to hold urban Afghanistan where a few thousand western troops were stationed as well as slightly more contractors.

This situation could have persisted indefinitely but public opinion, notably in the US, had turned against the US presence. So, once the announcement had been made that US troops were to leave, the Taliban knew they could simply wait it out.

The unpopularity of the Taliban was perhaps the biggest advantage held by the US-led coalition, in that the invasion did not involve the ousting of a popular government but of a bunch of violent, despotic thugs. The problem was, after the liberation, the immediate lesson learned was the ease with which less powerful opponents could be overthrown – lessons then applied to Iraq. Afghans saw little immediate benefit until the nation-building mission was embarked upon a few years later, giving the Taliban time to regroup in safe havens in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

The period prior to the nation-building part of the project set the store for other failings as the number one priority remained force protection

A second avoidable failing was the trust shown by George W. Bush towards Pakistan president General Musharraf. Had the US demanded Pakistan act against the Taliban in the tribal areas at the same time as the invasion, outcomes could have been different.

The continued differentiation between ‘good’ Taliban who fought in Afghanistan and ‘bad’ who targeted Pakistan, cost Pakistan dear. By the time Pakistan did launch sustained military action in tribal areas in 2014, around 60,000 Pakistanis had already been killed by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

Protection remained the top priority

The period prior to the nation-building part of the project set the store for other failings as the number one priority remained force protection rather than nation-building – any alternative may have been less palatable to western electorates. However, the co-opting of local powerbrokers made any efforts at transitional justice unfeasible in a country already mired in civil war for more than two decades, and further undermined efforts to extend the power of the state.

Underpinning all this was a toleration of corruption which served as a rallying cry for the Taliban and highlights the most difficult challenge of nation-building in the circumstances Afghanistan found itself in. Most Afghans – not just the Taliban – doubted early claims the international presence would be indefinite.

The constant possibility of a future state collapse provided substantial incentive for families to ensure their future wellbeing, reducing the funds available for – and therefore the likelihood of – state creation as the greater the funds available, the greater the feasibility of corruption. If smaller amounts were channelled to more local administrative units, service delivery could have been more effective, enhancing government legitimacy.

Even if a devolution of finance – if not political power – a more assertive approach towards Pakistan, and some early demonstrations of the benefits of a post-Taliban government could have made a difference, underlying challenges would still have remained. A different approach would simply have enabled that the transition of power being seen now took months or years rather than just hours.