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University of California Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation

Why Statebuilding Didn’t Work in Afghanistan

August 17, 2021
David Lake


The stunning speed of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has laid bare the hubris of statebuilding. In this post for Political Violence At A Glance, an IGCC-supported online magazine, IGCC expert David Lake, distinguished professor of political science at UC San Diego, explains why the US statebuilding effort failed in Afghanistan, and what the United States can do now.

The collapse of the Afghan government illustrates the larger dilemma in all statebuilding attempts. The statebuilder wants to build a government strong enough to stand on its own. To do this, the new state must win the support of the people it hopes to rule. This need not be the entire population of a country—no government wins universal praise—but it must be a sufficiently large share of the population that it has room to maneuver, favoring some groups with a policy, and other groups with another policy, but not always sitting on the knife’s edge between repression and rebellion. In short, the statebuilder wants to build a state that is legitimate.

At the same time, the statebuilder wants to build a state that shares its interests and adopts policies that it favors. In a country like Afghanistan or Iraq, statebuilding has proven enormously costly. Any statebuilder will bear that cost only if it has interests in the future political choices of the country. Humanitarian interventions are possible, but as the US mission in Somalia demonstrated, only if the costs are minimal. To pour enormous numbers of lives and dollars, and massive effort into building a state, the statebuilder expects to get something in return, and that something is a government that supports its foreign policy agenda. In other words, the statebuilder wants to build a state that is a loyal client.

In countries like Afghanistan, this dilemma is acute. As a highly factionalized, Muslim, and traditional society, the interests of average Afghans are quite different from those of the United States. Indeed, the average Afghan is likely closer politically and culturally to the Taliban than to the Western statebuilders trying to steer the country onto a new course. Efforts by the United State, its allies, and associated non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to “Westernize” Afghanistan, in turn, fell on deaf ears. Democracy, women’s rights, free and open markets were and remain quite literally foreign concepts outside an internationalized elite. In Afghanistan, the United States could have a state that was legitimate in the eyes of Afghans, or one that was loyal to American interests, but not both.

Read the full blog post on Political Violence At A Glance.