The Crucibles and Dilemmas of US State Building in Afghanistan


The U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan, which began in 2001 as a presumably swift regime-change operation to drive the Taliban from power, morphed by the mid-2000s into a full-blown counterinsurgency against the Taliban’s effort to retake control of the country. In 2009, the Obama administration inherited the U.S. and international mission there in a condition of deep crisis. The Bush administration’s economy-of-force, minimal-input approach for Afghanistan, and its prioritization of Iraq, had left a structural environment in Afghanistan that motivated national and local powerbrokers to return to their ways of narrowly pursuing immediate power and profit maximization at the expense of building effective and accountable governance. Although the Obama administration tried to reverse these negative dynamics, its imposition of a time limit on the deployment of U.S. forces only reinforced the short-term, what’s-in-it-for-me calculus of the Afghan powerbrokers. The result has been a continuing uphill struggle to devise mechanisms to improve governance and sustain security gains. Henceforth, and still prevailing at the time of this writing, the United States and its allies have been struggling with a fundamental predicament: The Taliban insurgency feeds on the condition of inept and corrupt governance; yet the United States and its international partners have been unable to induce better governance from the Afghan government and unofficial powerbrokers.

Consequently, although the U.S. narrow counterterrorism objectives of deposing the Taliban and disrupting al Qaeda might seem to be accomplished, the success of the larger project – establishing a stable and legitimate government in Afghanistan that can deliver security and other essential public goods, and anchoring it in a solid regional arrangement — remains a huge question mark. The Afghan National Army (ANA) is improving as a force capable of providing security to the Afghan population and assuring Kabul’s writ. But whether these improvements will be sufficient before the majority of U.S. troops depart in 2014 is as yet highly uncertain. Meanwhile, political trends and the quality of governance in Afghanistan continue to deteriorate and are increasingly generating pressures that could yet explode in civil war. Thus even observable increases in physical security may not indicate durable stability if Afghans’ confidence in the future does not increase.

This article assesses the effects of U.S. policies adopted in Afghanistan on the quality of governance there. It focuses particularly on the Obama administration that early on elevated Afghanistan to a top priority in its foreign policy. The article highlights the key policy dilemmas, such as ambivalence over fighting corruption, in which even the Obama administration, highly motivated to induce governance improvements in Afghanistan, found itself caught up.


  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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