The Crucibles and Dilemmas of US State Building in Afghanistan


Isolation from Local Populations and Limited Understanding of Complex Politico-Economic Structures

The counterinsurgency and good-governance-building efforts have been plagued by insufficient understanding on the part of outsiders of the very complex and fluid essence of the Afghan environment. The difficult questions of how much force protection is appropriate for the military and the civilians and how much interaction (and of what kind) is permissible between the international community and the Afghan population have tended to be resolved in the direction of greater protection requirements and a thin amount of direct exchanges between the internationals and the locals. Locked up at the military bases and headquarters of the provincial reconstruction teams (PRT), the development arm of the military effort, the internationals have been excessively dependent on selected Afghan interlocutors, such as government officials or powerbrokers, for much of their understanding of the local dynamics. The reliability of these Afghan interlocutors of the international community, however, has often been problematic. Frequently not able to comprehend or unwilling to deal with the deeper socio-economic and political problems in the areas of their responsibility, they are prone to provide a skewed intelligence picture, sometimes deliberately designed to maximize their power and profit. To the extent that international forces have ventured out among the population, they often have focused on very narrow intelligence gathering, such as tactical information on the Taliban, without generating a broad socio-economic, political, and ethnic understanding of the conditions in each locality and the recent and historic conflicts and cleavages within them.

Lack of Clarity Regarding the Definition of the Mission

Both the U.S. government and other members of the coalition have struggled with how to define the mission. For the United States, the question has been whether to define the objective as state-building that results in a stable central Afghan governing entity or as limited counterterrorism. At times, the Bush administration also included democracy and women’s rights in its objectives, issues that have been significantly less emphasized by the Obama administration. Moreover, even when counterterrorism was determined to be the primary objective, the question remained whether an off-shore, air-based counterterrorism approach could be effective without a state-building component.

These two competing definitions of the objectives dictate very different strategies, force postures, and civilian components of the strategy, such as development. They are premised on very different behavior on the part of the Afghans and create different expectations in Kabul and elsewhere in Afghanistan. They also generate different expectations in the domestic constituencies of governments contributing forces to the international coalition. Thus the vacillation among these two competing definitions of U.S. objectives in Afghanistan has greatly complicated the campaign there as well as limited the amount of resources the U.S. and its ISAF allies have been willing to dedicate to the effort.

The Obama administration inherited the war at a time when the military situation on the battlefield was going poorly and the quality of Afghan governance was progressively deteriorating. Afghanistan was experiencing the greatest insecurity and corruption since 2001. The Obama administration too struggled to resolve the counterterrorism-from-air versus state-building question, with its major domestic political ramifications, about whether to intensify the U.S. involvement, including crucially its military component, or dramatically scale down the mission. Even as it greatly increased the U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, the administration ultimately attempted to define the mission as essentially one of counterterrorism to satisfy the U.S. domestic public that has been increasingly opposed to the war. But that message failed to resonate with the Afghan population.

To pressure the Afghan government to step up to the challenge and Afghanize the war (so as to avoid the United States being bogged down in “another Vietnam”), the Obama administration also imposed a timeline on how long the U.S. military surge would last. But the imposition of the timeline has not induced Afghan government officials to reduce corruption and improve governance. Instead, it has jeopardized the military gains of the surge and contributed to a sense among the Afghans that the United States may not succeed in the effort and would abandon them, thus perpetuating and intensifying the kind of Afghan behavior that privileges short-term horizons and efforts to maximize power and profit as quickly as possible.

The two competing concepts of counterterrorism or state-building also have led to acute uncertainty as to whether a negotiated solution with the Taliban is possible and appropriate. The uncertainty extends to whether the Taliban can be trusted to uphold any agreement and break with al Qaeda, what the red lines for the U.S. government are, whether or not and how Pakistan should be brought into the negotiations, and whether negotiations and reconciliation involve only luring individual fighters away with economic incentives, peeling off tribes, or actual strategic negotiations with the Taliban. Nor has it been fully resolved whether the “reconciled” peeled-off groups would be given jobs and sent back to their villages, or rearmed under the various militia programs taking place in Afghanistan and sent back to fight the Taliban.

The question of whether to engage in strategic negotiations with the Taliban was all the more sensitive for the United States since it had previously vigorously opposed Pakistan’s series of negotiations with Pakistani-Taliban groups and their affiliates. Unlike Britain, which as early as 2005 embraced negotiations as an important part of the overall strategy and progressively came to focus on a negotiated solution, the United States was reluctant to embrace negotiations until 2010. But with a U.S. blessing finally, Afghan-led negotiations ultimately got underway in the spring 2010. Since then, the United States has taken a more active role in negotiations, at times making the governments in Kabul and Islamabad feel that they were being bypassed. Thus both Afghanistan and Pakistan have attempted to reassert greater control over negotiations, such as by arresting Taliban interlocutors like Mullah Baradar under the guise of counterterrorism, or leaking the identity of another interlocutor Tayyab Agha. Furthermore, international actors, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Germany, have tried to play a prominent role in the negotiations. The result has been that many different processes and initiatives have been taking place at the same time and making an already opaque negotiating situation even murkier.

The negotiations with the Taliban are also controversial within Afghanistan, with many groups fearing that their status would be severely jeopardized by any deal. Foremost among the wary are the northerners, especially Panshiri Tajiks, who have strong memories of Taliban oppression and who achieved unprecedented political, economic, and military power in the post-2001 Afghanistan settlement. Many civil society groups, such as women’s organizations, also fear a settlement. But so do the Kandahari Durrani elites. So far, the Afghan-led and U.S. independent negotiations have amounted mostly to talking about talking. The September 2011 Taliban assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, a prominent Tajik, Afghanistan’s former president, and Karzai’s key man for negotiating with the Taliban, further threw the various negotiations track into disarray.

Moreover, as the subsequent discussion shows, all the strategic questions – even when resolved at the policy level – become immeasurably more complex at the operational and implementation level.


  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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