The Crucibles and Dilemmas of US State Building in Afghanistan


Conclusions and Broad Lessons for State-Building in the Context of Insecurity

Poor governance from the center and within the periphery has enabled the Taliban insurgency to once again get traction with the Afghan population and intensify. Governance in the post-Taliban Afghanistan has been characterized by weakly functioning state institutions unable and unwilling to uniformly enforce laws and policies. Instead, official and unofficial powerbrokers have positioned themselves to be able to issue exceptions from law enforcement to their networks of clients who can thus capture high rents. The Taliban has stepped into this lacuna of state power and accountability and offered itself to marginalized communities and those unable to capture rents from the post-2001 windfalls, acting as a patron capable of redressing these deficiencies. At the same time, more often than not it has simply imposed its rule on the population through the barrels of its Kalashnikovs.

The Obama administration came into office with the determination to make the war in Afghanistan and its spillovers into Pakistan a key focus of its foreign policy. But although it significantly increased the military, economic, and civilian resources available for the war compared to the Bush administration, it has found itself facing some of the same dilemmas and challenges as the Bush administration:

First, insufficient security has prevented ISAF and other international civilians from interacting fully with the Afghans. Their isolation at the bases resulted in reliance on problematic interlocutors for information and intelligence, which they often distort to serve their interests.

Second, both the United States and the international community have struggled to resolve whether the mission in Afghanistan is one of narrowly-defined counterterrorism or whether it also includes broader state-building, and hence needs considerably more resources. Oscillation between the two definitions of the U.S./ISAF mission has both raised and disappointed the expectations of the Afghan population.

Third, the limited willingness of the United States and its allies to devote the necessary resources for the larger state-building mission, including the military aspects of counterinsurgency, has led to various problematic shortcuts on the battlefield, such as the reliance on manipulative powerbrokers and unreliable and abusive militias, both of whom undermine governance in Afghanistan. Washington is also continually conflicted over whether and how to tackle corruption.

Fourth, efforts to work through the national government in Kabul or through local officials have so far failed to redress the governance deficiencies.

Fifth, far from uniformly encouraging needed economic development, the large levels of economic aid flowing into Afghanistan without effective monitoring have generated their own problems. Often designed as short-term programs to buy love rather than catalyze sustainable development, the aid flows have encouraged some of the predatory and rapacious behavior that underlies bad governance in Afghanistan.

Yet in the context of the collapsing legitimacy of the national government, heightened ethnic tensions, and increasing influence of problematic powerbrokers, many Afghans also understand that it is the presence of the international forces that is keeping the country from exploding into a full-blown civil war.

The consequences of such an outcome and more broadly of a failure to leave a stable government behind in Afghanistan would be dire for the United States. Although al Qaeda’s capabilities in Afghanistan have been diminished, should parts of Afghanistan fall back to the Taliban – an inevitable outcome during a civil war under the current circumstances – violent jihadi groups would likely be able to reestablish significant presence in Afghanistan and once again plot dangerous terrorist attacks. Equally significant, an unstable Afghanistan with strong jihadi terrorist presence would also further weaken the already-fragile Pakistan. Pakistan-oriented salafi groups could use Afghanistan as a safe haven for actions in Pakistan. Pakistan’s military and intelligences services, preoccupied with minimizing India’s influence in Afghanistan and with Pakistan’s perceived encirclement, would likely be even more reluctant to confront Pakistan’s own militant groups forcefully, jeopardizing the country’s internal security.

As the 2014 withdrawal of the majority of U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan looms ever closer, the question for the United States and the international community is whether they can establish the security and economic superstructures necessary to improve governance in Afghanistan. Underlying that question is a core uncertainly as to whether the internationals still can induce the Afghans to move away from immediate short-term power and profit maximization and resurrect their confidence in a better and stable future. ■

* Dr. Vanda Felbab-Brown is Fellow in Foreign Policy at the Brookings Institution and author of Shooting Up: Counterinsurgency and the War on Drugs.


  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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