The Crucibles and Dilemmas of US State Building in Afghanistan


The Failure of Governance in post-2001 Afghanistan

What allowed the Taliban – an amalgam of the remnants of the traditional 1990s Taliban, alienated Afghan tribes and powerbrokers, the Haqqani faction, and foreign jihadists – to regain traction with the population in Afghanistan after being driven from power in 2001 was the failure of the new Afghan government under the leadership of President Hamid Karzai to deliver good governance. Pakistan’s sponsorship of the Taliban, continuing through 2011, critically strengthened the group’s military staying power. But it has been the failure of the new Afghan state to deliver good governance that resurrected the Taliban’s in with the Afghan people.

The new state failed not only to meet the expectations of the population concerning economic development, but even to maintain elemental security. The absence of Afghan national and international forces from large swaths of the country, including much of the strategic provinces of Kandahar and Helmand until 2009, allowed the Taliban to come back and reestablish itself in its former base by the rule of its Kalashnikovs. As the 2000s decade unfolded, street crime, such as thefts, robberies, and the rise of unofficial road tolls that had made Afghans’ lives miserable during the early 1990s, once again rapidly spread throughout the country — frequently perpetrated by members of the Afghan National Police (ANP), an institution seen by Afghans as one of the most corrupt. Moreover, the anti-Taliban warlords who became members of the post-Taliban government were the source of much of the political infighting and physical insecurity during the early post-Taliban years. As a result the state has been critically challenged in its most fundamental and inescapable function: delivering public safety, for which it remains dependent on outsiders and private entities.

The lack of a multifaceted state presence, including effective law enforcement and a respected judiciary, has resulted in the absence of the rule of law. Conflicts over land and water and tribal feuds have continued to characterize local politics. At times, they have intensified ethnic and regional disputes as many Pashtuns came to believe that the Tajiks of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance have enjoyed unfair access to political and economic power in the post-Taliban political dispensations. Officials at all levels of the Afghan government have often usurped power for personal enrichment and power accumulation. They have approached their positions as governors, police chiefs, and members of Provincial Development Councils (the key governing body at the provincial level) as personal fiefs. Corruption has become pervasive, exacerbated by the bourgeoning illegal cultivation of poppy, structural deficiencies of state institutions, and predatory behavior of official and unofficial powerbrokers.

The overall governance situation in the post-Taliban era has been one of weakly functioning state institutions being subverted by influential powerbrokers for power and profit accumulation. The state has been unable and sometimes unwilling to uniformly enforce laws and policies, while many regulations have not necessarily been seen as legitimate by the population. Not surprisingly, Afghans systematically distrust state institutions (as well as unofficial powerbrokers) to equitably enforce laws and allocate resources. And after thirty years of conflict, Afghans have come to operate on short-term horizons and discount the future in favor of the present. The great uncertainties about the stability of Afghanistan post-2014 reinforce a historically conditioned sense among Afghans that one has to benefit from today’s opportunities now and a reluctance to undertake long-term institutional investments and submit to the rule of law.


  1. This is an excellent meta survey with good analysis. It is particularly valuable to those considering policy implications in development.

    The anti-corruption prescription from donors is often tinged with bias. For examplem there seems to be an emphasis on enforcement before capacity building and with little understanding of incentives.

    Part of your analysis, though, seems to jump to conclusions. Your statement about off-budget as “not necessarily in a less corrupt manner” is most likely factually incorrect. Off-budget funding is almost certainly more corrupt than on-budget. On-budget execution through the Ministry of Finance uses automated budget & commitment controls to prevent many forms of corruption. Transactions are fully auditable.There is additional oversight through the mult-donor trust fund. Reports from the govrnment system meet international public sector accounting standards. The latest Public Expenditure and Financial Accountability (PEFA) assessment was positive. Capacity building has enabled the Treasury to roll-out software and training to all regions in the country. Unlike off-budget, the on-budget funds avoid the quick transfer to cash. It’s cash that makes aid fungible and easily used for corrupt purposes. Of course, this will not eliminate corruption, but it makes corruption orders of magnitude harder. And, much easier to expose.

  2. On page 4, there is mention of a proposal for CDCs to exercise oversight of ALP. Does anyone know of a reference for that? I have read every assessment of NSP and every research paper mentioning NSP that I have been able to find over the past 2 years. I do not recall ever reading a proposal for CDCs to be used in that capacity. I would like to read about that in greater detail.

    • @TJM The proposal for CDCs to exercise oversight over the ALP came out of private meetings the author had with ISAF and USG officials. Unfortunately, no referencing note is available to follow up with it.

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