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  • Nicholas Madsen

State-Building in Afghanistan: A Critical Assessment

Conflict and external intervention have been a leitmotif of the Middle East’s history. The region has witnessed intra-regional war, external invasion, conflict from non-state networks and the resulting chronic developmental crises. Afghanistan has often been the centre of such conflict, with the result being a state with historically weak governing institutions and decentralised political and social structures. Such weakness was exacerbated after the US-led 2001 invasion which precipitated conflict and instability that endures to this day.

Despite the international community’s efforts in mitigating this instability through a process of state-building, Afghanistan still remains militarily, economically and politically volatile. As such, I explore the efficacy of state-building since 2001.

Afghanistan is one of the most penetrated states in the Middle East. It has been invaded and occupied by the Mughals, British, Soviets, Americans and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) over the course of its long history. This sustained interference, coupled with its diverse ethno-religious population, sparse geography and interwoven politico-religious governance has led to historic difficulties in governing the state and has enabled sub-state networks and groups to exist and proliferate.

In recent history, this proliferation can be seen in the rise of the Taliban, a Sunni Islamic fundamentalist group whose rise originated in 1992. The group capitalised on Afghanistan’s mass economic inequality and exploited the fractured political institutions that existed, allowing them to gain power rapidly throughout the 90s. By 1996, the Taliban controlled the capital, Kabul, and by 2001, over half the Afghan population was under Taliban rule.

The Taliban government was overthrown in 2001 and a new government was instituted by the collation forces, supported by NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), with Hamid Karzai as its leader. As counterinsurgency efforts against the Taliban stalled in the mid-2000s, the group was able to regain power over previously lost parts of Afghanistan and challenge the government’s legitimacy.

As Western involvement in Afghanistan slowed, accentuated by a withdrawal of US troops after 2011, the Taliban were able to regain power more rapidly. As a result, the chronology of external interference with Afghanistan and the evolution of the Taliban has placed the process of state-building in a challenging and at times precarious position.


The US’ invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 to kill and capture al-Qaeda leadership and to topple the Taliban government experienced initial success and is regarded by few scholars as a mistake. However, as the presence of the US-led coalition endured, forces lacked clarity and consistency in defining their missions and executing them in a way that stabilised the Afghan government. This failure in securing political institutions was due to US-forces still using traditional warfare strategies to oust Taliban insurgents, failing to adapt to the more dynamic military strategies used thereby losing military and political control of key provinces. This failure of security strategy was acknowledged by the US Army who detailed their struggles of adapting their warfare tactics to counteract the mobile and technologically advanced capabilities of embedded Taliban forces.

This re-emergence of the Taliban due to coalition forces’ inadequate military strategy led to an increase of insurgent attacks by 400% from 2002-2006, with the number of deaths caused by insurgent-violence rising by 800% in the same period. This meant that by late 2005, many pro-Karzai political forces and supporters in several rural villages were driven out as communities were taken over by the Taliban. As such, the state-building project was hampered by the military’s inability to implement effective security measures in defeating Taliban forces, therefore limiting their ability to create a national government capable of governing effectively as insurgent forces still exerted military and political control over many provinces.

This failure to ensure security for Afghan civilians and communities created an environment in which effective political institutions could not exist. This was exemplified by the attempts by the British, Estonian and Danish forces to take control over Helmand province in May 2006. These forces struggled to assert themselves and control the province because their military tactics could not nullify the Taliban’s tactics or provide communities with the level of security needed for the foundations for a successful governmental institution.

Similar inadequacies were displayed by the supranational organisations, as the ISAF was unable to work at the sub-state level and aid successful military operations in communities and villages which led to incoherent ad-hoc operations and an inability to implement bottom-up political stability. There was an over-arching issue of committing too few troops and too few resources, coupled with a lack of an effective long-term military strategy that would eradicate the Taliban military and political threat. This failure of coalition forces to execute effective military operations that aided the creation of a sustainable Karzai government undermined the state-building process as it enabled Taliban forces to re-emerge through the country and establish military and political dominance in key areas.

There were some state-building successes found in creating bottom-up solutions to issues that both dealt with security threats and political instability simultaneously. This was initially seen in 2007 when the British deployed thousands more troops to unstable areas such as Helmand province after it was retaken by the Taliban and used the increased military presence to expand their civilian outreach and develop their Human Intelligence (HUMIT) capabilities. This helped push Taliban forces out of key areas and provided the stability and security in villages and communities that catalysed effective governance. Similarly, the ISAF was successful in supporting localised networks and organisations that were better equipped at ensuring the security of Afghan communities, such as the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and the Afghan National Army (ANA). These forces had a more intimate knowledge and understanding of the local politics of provinces and how to secure them from Taliban forces, resulting in an overall 50% decrease both in civilian casualties in the 18 months leading up to 2010.

However, the state-building process demands sustained stability and security, which have not been delivered in recent years. Adam Baczko notes how there has been ineffective local and national leadership by the US and NATO since 2011. This can be seen in the inefficient allocation of military resources undertaken by US forces to combat the Taliban insurgency. Each US Army officer received $1 million that they could spend freely, with later assessment concluding that this lack of direction in military spending led to a ‘contradiction of the process of state-building’.

The reduction in military personal in Afghanistan also hampered state-building, as increased presence was the primary way in which security could be ensure, as such, the US reducing its number of troops from over 100,000 in 2010 to around 5,000 after 2011 reduced the local and international forces’ ability to counter Taliban attacks and preserve political unity. These failures resulted in the Taliban being able to recruit members at an unprecedented rate, having a force in excess of 77,000 by mid-2018 which enabled them to control over half the population of Afghanistan. As a result, the UK’s Ministry of Defence concluded that the Taliban has de facto control over the majority of Afghanistan and the inability for the international community to effective combat their military threat has endangered the prospect of democracy and peace emerging in the country.

As such, scholars have concluded that the ‘future does not look bright’ for the ability of the national government to exert military and political control over provinces across Afghanistan. Therefore, one can see how the security dimension of the Afghan state-building process has experienced varied success. Its wastefulness with resources and aversion to deploying the necessary number of troops, as well as the inability to commit to localised and bottom-up military strategies have allowed the Taliban to regain vast control over the Afghan population, making the security element of the state-building process a failure.


State-building also requires robust economic structures in place that enable a government to successfully form and sustain itself. After 2001, efforts were made implement a long-term economic plan of diversifying the Afghan economic and creating infrastructure projects that would allay issues of unemployment and encourage wealth generation. However, these plans were not realised as the US was not investing enough time, money or man-power in the execution of these policies, with the US alone spending $85.5 billion on civilian economic assistance, which was not efficiently spent to aid an economic structure that would support the government’s stability.

Further, Afghanistan continually ranks as one of the worst states in the world for employment which is compounded by over 39% of the population living in absolute poverty and an additional 37% living just above the poverty line. This economic stagnation prohibits successful political participation and support as citizens do not turn out to vote when they are disillusioned with the economic conditions the government has created. Efforts have also failed to diversify their economy and to create higher-paying jobs, with agriculture still accounting for over 80% of their labour force.

In addition, the economic failure that plagues Afghanistan and therefore the state-building process also disproportionately affects the women. State-building requires a consensus among the population to support the government of the day, this is unobtainable when women do not share the same social, economic and political freedom and security that men do.

In developing state like Afghanistan, men receive a larger share of income for their economic contributions, and simultaneously, most women’s work in formal or informal sectors remains economically undervalued. This economic inequality inhibits social cohesion and condemns women to an existence as economic and political secondary citizens, catalysing resentment for the political establishment and any project to strengthen such an unfair institution. The inequality is not exclusively economic, as Afghanistan has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, and in 13 of the 18 provinces in Afghanistan, at least 80% of women fear for their personal safety. Furthermore, 28% of Afghan women report inadequate control over their own reproduction and many cite a direct link between the Taliban’s re-emergence into many Afghan provinces with the decline of female wellbeing, economic opportunity and political engagement.

However, there have been moments of success for economic development in Afghanistan at the hands of coalition forces pursuing state-building. Projects like the Afghanistan Youth National and Social Organization (AYNSO) have successfully aided the economic opportunities for many young Afghans by helping with job-searches, developing employability skills and putting on civic education programmes which teach Afghans about their political and economic potential and responsibilities.

Economic initiatives undertaken by the international community are proving to be effective in helping the stability of the Afghan state. For example, the World Bank’s Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Find (ARTF) is committing over $1.3 billion to the Afghan state in order to help pay wages of civil servants and support for infrastructure projects. Other initiatives such as employment strategies from USAID have helped to bolster the economic stability of Afghanistan by training more than 35,000 people in high-demand work skills, with 36% of those being women.

The future prospects of Afghanistan’s economic capacity in relation to state-building is more promising that its military situation. It has been shown that through bottom-up economic initiatives such as the AYNSO and through efficiently targeted investment like the USAID employment strategy that there is great potential for economic stability, there must be efficient and targeting allocation of resources for ‘durable state-strengthening’. These initiatives can have a significantly positive impact, as Afghanistan’s GDP grew by 2.7% in 2017, with it steadily rising over the past few years.

The economic and social situation for women is also improving, as the number of girls going to school is rising year on year and previously restrictive districts like the Khogyani District has allowed girls to go to school for the first time in 2017. In addition, there are plenty of factors that indicate that the future for Afghanistan’s state-building can be significantly aided by economic prospects. Afghanistan’s mineral wealth is estimated at $3 trillion and it has a young workforce, as such, if it can find a way – with the help of the international community, if needed – to redirect their economic priorities to take advantage of these factors then it can look forward to a prosperous economic outlook and a stable political future.


After the invasion in 2001, US taskforces, in the pursuit of a stable national government to underpin the state-building process, prioritised democracy above all other institutional developments. This was an attempt at bringing both coalition forces and the Karzai government legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghan people, however, such ambitions failed. Coalition forces were afforded no such legitimacy as they could not ensure the integrity of the elections, with 38% of people surveyed in Afghanistan believing results of initial presidential elections were unfair. Such political endeavour did not improve as the state-building project endured, as mass fraud was uncovered in the 2009 presidential election, where over 1 million votes were found to be ‘suspicious’, with 95% of these votes, which all happened to be for incumbent President Karzai, being deemed fraudulent. This undermined the state-building process as the ISAF and other external forces struggled to yield any influence over Afghan territories without a credible and legitimate partner.

The systemic corruption in the Afghan election widened the gap between the citizens and elites, and by extension the international community, as over two thirds of the Afghan population were dissatisfied with the authenticity and validity of the 2009 election. This made state-wide governance near-impossible as citizens gave no legitimacy to the national government, especially as Afghanistan regressed to being a system based more on kinship and patronage, not on democracy and freedom, which underpin the state-building endeavour that coalition forces were trying to achieve, thereby relegating the project to near certain failure.

Furthermore, the state-building process was also hampered in the political realm by the inability of coalition forces and international organisations to establish strong and resilient political institutions. These institutions were not only unable to counteract the domestic threat to political participation, but also unable to counteract external dangers that threaten the integrity of Afghan sovereignty. As Vishal Chandra notes, the US and the ‘so-called international community’ such as NATO and the UN have failed in establishing governmental institutions that can repel interference from state like Pakistan and that can control and rebuff the political advances that the Taliban is making across many provinces in Afghanistan. This ability to fight external forces that seek to undermine the political foundations of the state is elemental to state-formations and the international community has failed in providing the Afghan government the framework in which this can be achieved. As such, scholars such as Hamish Nixon have proposed the suspension of democracy-building in favour of strengthening the political institutions in which the international community is trying to inject democracy, as without an initial robustness of the governmental intuitions, subsequent attempts at democracy are doomed to fail.

However, the ISAF and UN have been able to establish measures that give deference to the historically decentralised nature of Afghan democracy and invested in bottom-up civil engagement. This can be been in the emphasis put on ‘National Community Recovery’, a process which implements decentralised regional political activism and engagement which has been shown to strengthen participation and democratic legitimacy in the rural periphery. Greater emphasis has also been placed on developing local political leadership in key provinces such as Paktika and Helmand, where increased funding for local political initiatives has rebuilt regional political institutions and local communities. Overall, the US has spent more than $120 billion on the political reconstruction of Afghanistan since 2001, and although funding has been decreasing over recent years, with more targeted initiatives that prioritise localised political engagement, there are observable achievements in the political state-building project.

When looking at the recent history and potential future of political stability in the state-building project in Afghanistan, one can see mixed results. In the past two years, Russia has joined Pakistan in undermining the democratic integrity of the Afghan government by supporting the Taliban in their endeavours to regain territorial and political control of Afghanistan. Furthermore, there remain domestic issues with the political stability of the country as terror threats and attacks continue to pervade the democratic process, as there were close to 200 security incidents during the 2018 parliamentary elections, with at least 17 civilians being killed in election-related violence.

However, one can see positives for the future of Afghanistan political stability, as according to a report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), as of January 31, 2018, 56.3% of districts were under Afghan government control, with only 14.5% experiencing political rebellion, a significant decrease compared to the years preceding. There are also reports of progress being made in peace talks with the Taliban which have the potential to legitimise the sitting government and quell further political unrest, nationally and regionally. These political measures are promising, however, with Afghanistan still being ranked as the 9th most corrupt state in the world by the Corruption Perception Index (CPI), there must be a sustained and comprehensive effort from the international community to support the democratic integrity of the Afghan government, its elections and its institutions if political stability is to emerge.

Concluding Remarks

The extensive efforts at repelling the Taliban, reconstructing the Afghan economy and developing strong political institutions have experienced a mixture of success and failure. The security operations in Afghanistan were initially effective and experienced most success when forces engaged, embedded and integrated with local communities to repel insurgent forces. However, these operations faltered when these tactics were abandoned through the withdrawal of funding and troops, enabling insurgent forces to reclaim lost territory and undermine the security of provinces across the country. The economic prospects have also had some success, through targeted investment in key areas such as unemployment and diversification, however, there has been too much wasted money and financial aid with development stagnating and women suffering the most. The political side to state-building has also had temperamental success, with the systemic corruption and institutional weakness hampering any real potential for political stability. However, with bottom-up civil engagement strategies and potential for peace talks on the horizon, political and democratic integrity can be improved through a commitment to these two factors.

These successes in state-building should not be ignored, despite the country’s current stability being precarious. If these localised, bottom-up, efficiently targeted and contextually specific measures are enacted then a more comprehensive and holistically successful state-building project can be realised. However, such an achievement cannot be done without the help of the international community and international organisation such as NATO, the UN and financial institutions like the World Bank.

However, the critical element of this is that there must be help and support from external actors, but they must then realise when it is appropriate to step back and allow domestic governance to prevail and evolve into a legitimate and sustain presence in the country. As Simon Chesterman prescribed at the start of the state-building process, ‘international actors … are first and foremost as facilitating local processes, providing resources and creating the space for local actors’. Therefore, future state-building in Afghanistan and elsewhere can be successful if the above-mentioned measures are undertaken accompanied by measured and appropriate support from the international community.

Author: Nicholas Madsen

Nicholas is a scholar in international relations at the University of Amsterdam, specialising in European and Middle Eastern integration and security.

©2018 by Foreign Policy Press