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Improving Afghan Governance: Why the Task May be Self-Defeating
Capt Daniel Schierling, USMC, 10/1/2011

But foreign intervention, if it is a brief affair, cannot shift the domestic balance of power in any decisive way toward the forces of freedom, while if it is prolonged or intermittently resumed, it will itself pose the greatest possible threat to the success of those forces.[1]

The struggle to define an appropriate mission for the military’s presence in Afghanistan is perhaps best illustrated in Bob Woodward’s latest book, Obama’s Wars. The narrative contained within the book demonstrates that at the highest political and military levels, there exists strong disagreement concerning America’s interests in Afghanistan and the best course of action to secure those interests. Interestingly, the debate has hinged almost exclusively on the number of troops to be committed to the conflict, within the framework of the proposed counterterrorism (CT) and counterinsurgency (COIN) missions. While acknowledging the significant challenges presented by a double-dealing Pakistan and corrupt Karzai government, there were no serious plans to address these concerns. These omissions underscore the inflated role that the military has taken in a war plagued with innumerable political spoilers.

In his book, Woodward relates a meeting that took place among President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton, and Secretary of Defense Gates on Oct 7, 2009. During the meeting, the three agree that “Fixing the Afghan government was central to the mission if the U.S. was ever going to get out.”[2] Similarly, on July 4, 2009, General McChrystal (then ISAF Commander) was told that “We could run the finest counterinsurgency campaign in world history and still fail because of the weak and corrupt Afghan government.”[3] In a kind of compromise, the Obama administration has reduced the scope of its mission in Afghanistan, focusing only on improving governance and establishing key institutions like the Afghan National Army and Police.[4] Nevertheless, there persists a fundamental assumption that the commitment of more troops and financial assistance will strengthen the existing Afghan government and facilitate the withdrawal of US troops.

This article aims to challenge this assumption. It is not within the scope of this article to examine whether the new troop levels will be sufficient to support either a CT or COIN methodology; or whether or not either strategy is appropriate or might be successful. This essay seeks to demonstrate that the international aid provided (both troops and money) has and will continue to undermine the authority, sovereignty, and legitimacy of the Afghan government at all levels. Therefore, there exists a fundamental paradox in the idea of providing more troops and money in order to improve Afghan governance. Evidence of this paradox can be seen recently in the increased tensions between U.S. policy-makers and Afghan President Hamid Karzai. There is a broad theoretical basis for this argument that dates back as far as John Stuart Mill, who considered self-determination to be of primary importance in the development and preservation of liberty. For a number of reasons (which will be addressed below), this theory has fallen into disrepute in modern politics. However, this author argues that there are important lessons that can be gleaned from this theory that contradict many of the assumptions held by the top political and military officers responsible for leading the war in Afghanistan. Furthermore, this lack of theoretical discussion has lead top political leaders to pursue policies that are ultimately self-defeating.

Theory and Literature

John Stuart Mill, a leading political theorist from the 19th Century, believed in a categorical distinction between civilized countries and barbaric peoples. Among the former, nations practice the international norm of non-intervention because they recognize their mutual right to independence and nationality. Meanwhile, the latter represent peoples “to whom nationality and independence are either a certain evil, or at best a questionable good.”[5] Mill recognized that such people have only “the right to be properly educated and the right to become a nation.”[6] In short, Mill rejected the idea that self-determination and political freedom were inherent rights of all people. Hence, Mill would have found the contemporary norm advocating intervention for the facilitation of self-determination unthinkable. Mill’s argument is more recently picked up by Michael Walzer, who adds theoretical clarity to Mill’s position by claiming that foreign intervention to establish self-determination and liberty “necessarily fails.” [Italics original][7] He further expands on Mill’s idea by writing that “a state is self-determining even it its citizens struggle and fail to establish free institutions, but it has been deprived of self-determination if such institutions are established by an intrusive neighbor.”[8] Thus, Walzer makes an important distinction between political freedom and self-determination. Walzer himself seems to struggle with the exact definitions of the two. Political freedom refers to the free institutions which may or may not take the form of representative government. Meanwhile, “self-determination is the school in which virtue is learned (or not) and liberty is won (or not).”[9] As best as can be inferred, self-determination exists in a state that is independent and free from outside influence or the threat of intervention. Of the two, self-determination is more valuable both because it connotes sovereignty, and because it can set the stage for the later development of political freedoms. Both Mill and Walzer agree that true political freedom is impossible without the prior attainment of self-determination.

This theoretical framework (which Michael Doyle labels “National Liberal”) contrasts vividly with the cosmopolitan liberal framework that has risen to prominence in the American conscience. The cosmopolitan liberal framework argues for a “flat, confident moral universe” in which all peoples deserve a minimum degree of human rights.[10] Some enumerate these as merely basic freedoms from “arbitrary killing, from torture, and from assault”, while others add things like free speech, democratic elections, and private property.[11] It is likely some form of this cosmopolitan liberal thinking that has led President Obama to say that “For the Afghan people, the return to Taliban rule would condemn their country to brutal governance, international isolation, a paralyzed economy and the denial of basic human rights to the Afghan people, especially women and girls.”[12] While no one is arguing the substance of this statement, it raises two important questions: First, does the international community have the responsibility to prevent these abuses? Clearly President Obama and the rest of his advisors have sided with the cosmopolitan liberals in asserting that the United States should seek to prevent such abuses. Second, does the international community even have the resources to establish political freedom?

Fundamentally, this is the question that has stumped the highest officials within the US government. Our focus, however, requires us to view this question from a different perspective: Given the above distinction between political freedom and self-determination, can the international community leverage its resources in a way that establishes political freedom without undermining the self-determination of Afghanistan? In other words, can the US and its allies establish a free and effective Afghan government that is both legitimate in the eyes of its citizens and sovereign in the minds of its neighbors? This article comes to the same conclusion as does Michael Walzer: that any attempt to do so necessarily fails.

In order to make this claim, however, we must understand something about how a government establishes sovereignty and legitimacy. For insight into this process, we can turn to Charles Tilly, whose state-making theory speaks directly to this study. Tilly has noted that modern states emerged during times of war – and only after they demonstrated the capacity to raise taxes, field a military, exploit and consolidate their natural resources, and develop a national identity. Tilly’s theory of state-making has spawned a veritable wave of literature analyzing the effects of war on the building of states, especially in the contemporary third world. Michael Desch argues that both internal and external threats contribute to the formation of a state. However, a state that plays a primarily economic role differs significantly from one whose primary role is in the military.[13] Cameron Thies has applied Tilly’s Bellicist argument for developing states in Latin America.[14] His data suggest that fighting an external rival tends to increase a state’s capacity for extracting taxes, while a fight among internal rivals decreases it through a number of means.[15] However, he also notes that the modern trend of accruing national debt tends to mitigate this difference.[16] It is also important to note that his work is concerned primarily with post-colonial state-building. Cohen, Brown and Organski argue that the consolidation of power that ultimately forms an effective state is a violent and competitive process. They argue that instead of being interpreted as signs of political decay, violent power struggles – even when couched in terms of ethnic, religious, or tribal conflicts – are signs of political consolidation.[17] Herbst has explored Tilly’s theory in the development of African states, which share many characteristics (such as low population density and inhospitable terrain) with Afghanistan.[18] Other important scholars are Robert Bates[19], Jaggers,[20] Kirby and Ward[21], Lustick[22], and Stubbs[23].

Most important to the thesis of this article is the work of Taylor and Botea.[24] In a comparative study of Vietnam and Afghanistan, they determine two preconditions that they believe facilitate the creation of a state during times of war: ethnic homogeneity and revolutionary ideology.[25] Taylor and Botea must certainly be applauded for their selection of “most-likely” case studies and methodology. Vietnam and Afghanistan are both excellent examples of nations torn by decades of war, and are also extremely divergent in their contemporary forms as modern states. Nevertheless, Taylor and Botea have only examined the effects of ethnography and ideology, and their results indicate only mixed success in applying Tilly’s theory to the contemporary third world. They conclude, rather unpersuasively, that war-making only contributes to state-making in nations that have already developed a cohesive state.

What Taylor and Botea have ignored is the influence of external nations. While neighboring states play an important role in Tilly’s state-making thesis – through military conquest or threat of invasion – it is a very recent development that they have become involved in the process of self-determination. If this development is as important as this article portrays, it may explain why Tilly’s theory has received such ambivalent results in the modern development of states. Taylor and Botea recognize this modern development, but fail to give it proper accord. They cite Robert Jackson’s distinction between positive (effective) and negative (juridical) sovereignty.[26] Jackson’s theory proposes that the international community has accorded an unwarranted level of sovereignty to many nations.[27] For example, since the Second World War, offensive war has been categorized as illegal (as well as colonization), and modern political borders are enforced by the international community. Likewise, the very notion of sovereignty has devolved to mean less the ability to control one’s territory and population, and more to be recognized as legitimate by the international community. Jackson’s theory helps to explain why Mill’s distinction between civilized and barbarous nations has lost favor in the modern world. In watering down our notion of sovereignty, we may have undermined the very process by which it is developed.

The Exaggerated Systemic Challenges to State-Building in Afghanistan

Scholars frequently point to systemic challenges to explain modern deficiencies of governance. There is little doubt that Afghanistan presents systemic challenges to any attempt to form a cohesive state government. Yet, these challenges are often exaggerated. What is more, scholars fail to note that many successful states faced many of these same challenges early in their own state-building processes. Often referred to as the “graveyard of empires”, Afghanistan encompasses rugged terrain that has challenged historical attempts to subdue it.[28] Its central position in Asia made it a valuable conquest, and it persisted in being an important part of empires even until the 19th century. Nevertheless, the lack of any easily traversed road or river system means that vast portions of the country remain isolated from each other.[29] No doubt that this has played an instrumental role in the development of the modern Afghan state. It is impossible, however, to attribute the present political fragmentation to mere geography, since there are other states that have overcome similar challenges.

Thomas Barfield introduces a related concept that has much more profound consequences. He notes that the modern boundaries of Afghanistan are arbitrary in that they do not fall along ethnic or even historic political divisions.[30] The perfect example of this arbitrariness is the Durand Line, the border imposed in 1893 by the British between British India and Afghanistan. Barfield notes that Afghans reject the Durand Line as their border because it split the Pashtun population.[31] Sana Haroon further illustrates the problems with the border by citing disagreements between the British and the Afghans regarding major features on the map used to depict the line.[32] Yet, while the border remains fixed, it also remains unenforceable. There is evidence that both the Taliban and the Pakistani military (both with their roots in the divided Pashtun tribes) have no reason to seal the border, and actually benefit from having it easily transited. This, in fact, poses the greater threat to state-building. That the international community is unwilling to renegotiate the border, and that each state is unwilling to enforce it presents a stalemate that defies a major tenet in the theories of both Charles Tilly and Max Weber: the effective control over territory.

Dennis Young has attributed Afghanistan’s failure to produce an effective government in part to its historic lack of a democratic tradition.[33] This too seems to exaggerate a nearly universal systemic challenge. Democratic traditions were certainly not present in Europe even after the formation of the modern state. In fact, to require democracy before a state can be formed defies both logic and theory. More precisely, Thomas Barfield explains that the historic rulers of Afghanistan were limited to the smaller tribes, and that what is unique about Afghanistan is that the remaining sub-tribes were content to allow this power in exchange for local autonomy.[34] Thus, it is more accurate to say that Afghanistan has a tradition in which local groups favor local liberty rather than national power. Furthermore, “cooperation or hostility between particular groups is determined by the scope of the problem at hand,” meaning that centrifugal forces within society pull factions into isolation when not threatened by external actors.[35] Tilly’s theory would suggest that this trend probably has more to do with the transitory nature of the threat rather than the strength of its centrifugal force.

Finally, Taylor and Botea claim that ethnic fractionalization systemically weakens national government. Their data demonstrate “a clear relationship between ethnic homogeneity and state strength” for the selected countries.[36] But this claim is far from uncontested. Citing studies conducted by Daniel Posner, Carol Riphenburg writes that “Countries containing a single large ethnic group or two evenly matched groups . . . have been found to be more violence-prone than those including a larger number of equally sized groups.”[37] Similarly, she cites James Fearon and David Laitin in concluding that “a greater degree of ethnic or religious diversity . . . does not by itself make a country more prone to civil war.”[38] Obviously, there is a significant chasm between the lack of civil war on one hand and the formation of a successful state on the other. Thomas Johnson has written that “Afghanistan’s diverse ethnic composition makes democracy or even state building difficult.”[39] Elsewhere, Johnson more specifically notes that “successful democracies build into their system procedures and mechanisms that allow minority groups to . . . feel included in the overall governing process.”[40] Broad ethnic representation may be important for democracies, but are not necessarily required for the formation of a state. Ethnic representation could be considered an important reform to democratize and consolidate an existing government. But to require it at the outset may be putting the proverbial cart before the horse. That Afghan politicians and foreign powers have encouraged ethnic division may contribute more to ethnic in-fighting and fragmentation rather than democratic consolidation.[41] The future of ethnic cooperation or conflict in Afghanistan will be largely self-fulfilling: to the extent that tribal affiliations remain the primary tool for personal identity, they will continue to be the most divisive at the national level.[42] Therefore, the paramount task is to raise national identity above tribal loyalty.[43]

The systemic challenges often cited for the failure of state-building in Afghanistan are insufficient to account for the failure of the contemporary Afghan state. Perhaps the best argument for this claim is to point to the 19th Century incarnations of the Afghan state. While admittedly weak and ultimately unsuccessful, they very nearly approached the definition of a sovereign state. Dost Muhammad’s second reign (1843-1863) brought most of the Afghan territory under his control and even established an effective tax system that nearly tripled his annual revenue.[44] In like fashion, his successor – Sher Ali, built a professional army and reorganized society to support it. While still reliant on both British and Indian aid, Sher Ali was able to field a 56,000 man army and further expand his tax revenue to support it.[45]

The Destruction of a Tribal Society: 1978-2001

What remains for this article is to conduct a brief analysis of the last 32 years of war in Afghanistan. This account seeks to demonstrate that Charles Tilly’s theory has indeed been at work in many important ways, and that decades of war have resulted in societal changes that have set conditions necessary for the building of a future Afghan state. On many levels, these changes could be seen to have created a demand for an effective national government. At the same time, however, the influence of particular external nations and the international community as a whole has systematically undermined many of these developments.

To simply state that Afghanistan is a tribal society is to disregard many important societal changes of the past three decades. In fact, the tribal dynamic has been decreasing in both power and influence in Afghanistan. Antonio Guistozzi quotes an Afghan NGO official as saying that the tribal system itself “is in crisis and that it can no longer ‘provide peace, income, a sense of purpose, a social network’ to the local youth.”[46] Giustozzi believes that the Taliban rose to power because they were able to exploit the growing weaknesses of the tribal system and offer order, justice, and stability.[47] To find the origins of this trend, however, we must look back further than the Taliban. In fact, the breakdown of the tribal system dates back at least to the Soviet invasion in 1979. The Soviet-sponsored PDPA government had initiated a series of reforms that sought to quickly revolutionize and modernize Afghanistan. These initiatives included education, radical land reform, religion, and gender equality.[48] Of these programs, it was perhaps the anti-Islam reforms that sparked the most severe rebellions, leading to the Soviet invasion to help the PDPA hold onto power. The tribal system began its irreversible change when the US began to arm local resistance groups, to include mullahs and their loyalists, in order to repel the Soviet troops. This created asymmetry between the traditionally balanced khan (the tribal political leader) and the mullah (the apolitical religious leader).[49] This asymmetry had several effects. First, it gave the mullahs unprecedented power and enabled political aspirations. Second, it promoted warlordism and the development of a “Kalashnikov culture”.[50] Lastly, the funding and arming of these new religious tribes encouraged association with foreign and international Islamists – leading to a religious radicalization that had been absent in the traditional tribal system. As mentioned above, there is evidence that this kind of militant violence can be interpreted as a sign of political consolidation – or at least resulting in a societal demand for such consolidation.[51] Similarly, Thomas Barfield notes that the government institutions that had existed before 1979 withered and vanished. While this left much more autonomy to the local leaders, the dynamics of local communities had changed from tribal and landowning leadership to “a new class of younger military commanders.”[52] Thus, the failing Afghan state bequeathed many of its functions such as law-making and law-enforcing to local leadership that was no longer dominated by the traditional tribal structures.

Antonio Guistozzi writes that “the youth who grew up in the Pakistani refugee camps were much less likely to be respectful of the tribal elders.”[53] This underscores both the fundamental breakdown of the tribal authority structure and also the general effects of the refugee camps. It is probably impossible to overestimate the importance of Afghan refugees in modern Afghanistan. Within months after the Soviet invasion refugees fled to Pakistan in huge numbers. Sana Haroon writes of 278 Refugee Tented Villages in the NWFP.[54] Thomas Barfield estimates that “Three to five million people fled Afghanistan to become refugees in Iran and Pakistan, while an almost equal number sought safety in Afghanistan’s cities and towns.”[55] While undoubtedly adding to the problems concerning the permeability of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, this has profound implications for modern Afghan society. First, this speaks to an ongoing breakdown of the rural and tribal systems. In a nation where over 80% of the population lived in small rural villages, large numbers of people have abandoned this lifestyle to live abroad, in refugee camps, or in urban centers. In any case, they have (to some degree) sacrificed their local tribal identity. While many scholars note that this has created an ideal recruiting base for the insurgency, it also creates a societal vacuum for modernizations such as education, industrialization, and modern civil society – functions that would be well-fulfilled by an Afghan state.[56]

Despite such tumultuous circumstances, Afghans responded to the Soviet threat with a “strong sense of national unity.”[57] This national unity was truly trans-ethnic and was realized only with the external threat of the Soviet military. Ultimately, the Soviet-backed PDPA government failed. Halliday and Tanin attribute the failure of the PDPA in large part to foreign powers. They write that the PDPA government acted irresponsibly knowing that they enjoyed the military and financial support of the Soviet Union. They also note that the commitment of the U.S., Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to the insurgency guaranteed that no “meaningful political compromise” would be reached.[58] When the Soviets withdrew in 1989 (and the US later abandoned their support), Afghanistan was forced to consolidate without any external support. Sidky notes that the collapse of the state resulted in a shift toward “’identity politics’ in which claims to power . . . are based upon exclusionary sectarian, ethnic, or linguistic identities decoupled from nationalistic ideologies, the idea of the state, or national interests.”[59] It is impossible to say what the subsequent Afghan Civil War would have looked like if the tribal structure had remained intact or if the radicalization of Islam had been rejected. Nevertheless, it was precisely for these reasons that the Taliban was able to rise to prominence in and around Kandahar and eventually make their way into Kabul and the political culture.[60] Interestingly, the Taliban’s attempts at reform did not find much more traction than those of the PDPA.[61] While the Taliban were effective at enforcing their particular religious beliefs (even successfully preventing opium production in areas under their control between the summer of 2000 and the harvest of 2001[62]), they were increasingly despised for imposing what were seen as tribal norms as government policy. If the US had not ousted the Taliban government in late 2001, it is likely they would have faced a popular rebellion themselves.

Establishing and Undermining an Afghan Government: 2001-Present

Several months following the US retaliation against and ouster of the Taliban government, the United Nations released the “Agreement on Provisional Arrangements in Afghanistan Pending the Re-establishment of Permanent Government Institutions.” This document set a roadmap for the development of the new Afghan government and demanded that it fulfill the highest requirements regarding monopolization of the use of force, cooperation to eradicate “terrorism, drugs and organized crime”, while preserving international humanitarian law.[63] In exchange, the United Nations and international community pledged to “guarantee the national sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity of Afghanistan as well as the non-interference by foreign countries in Afghanistan’s internal affairs” and “to assist with the rehabilitation recovery and reconstruction of Afghanistan.”[64] No doubt these latter conditions were intended to create the space necessary for the consolidation of the new Afghan government. Using the terms above from Michael Walzer, the Afghan Interim Administration sought to create political freedom while relinquishing their self-determination to the international community.[65]

Afghan society has continued to change radically after the US invasion of 2001. Astri Suhrke writes that since 2001 Afghanistan “contains the seeds of radical social change” which has partially modernized Afghanistan while simultaneously introduced tensions between foreign intervention and Afghan society.[66] Modernizing trends have certainly created modes of communication which can be seen to encourage civil discourse. The proliferation of cell phones has provided an important method of communication that breaks down many of the natural barriers that Afghanistan presents to effective governance. Similarly, television in the cities and radio in the rural areas could provide an essential impetus to the growth of an Afghan civil society. Improved transportation and the growth and improvement of highways will be essential to facilitate the face-to-face contact which Afghans value so highly. Unfortunately, the inability to eliminate insurgent checkpoints on major highways (and when able, to merely replace them with military checkpoints) provides a major deterrent for travel. Recent problems with petroleum deliveries from Iran have added to the isolation of the rural areas. In spite of these modernizing advances, ISAF troops continue to isolate communities in order to prevent the spread of the insurgency. Is it inconceivable that embracing these changes could encourage the growth of civil society and thus pave the way for the development of an Afghan state?

Many of Afghanistan’s governments have failed because they attempted to institute modernizing reforms from Kabul that were ultimately rejected by the rural population. Johnson writes that these failures resulted from traditional Afghans conflating modernization with modernity.[67] In other words, they believed that to enter the modern world they would have to forsake their traditional identity as Afghans and Muslims. Developments in the last decade have in many ways brought Afghanistan into the modern world. As long as these modernizing trends occur while foreign troops occupy their land and are seen to prop up their national government, this confusion will continue. Only a true Afghan government, free from foreign influence, will be able to address these issues within the framework of the Afghan worldview. That Afghanistan has not had such a government since 1978 helps to explain the dissatisfaction with national political institutions.

It is entirely possible that the international community underestimates these changes because the Afghan elite (to whom the West has been listening) have a “flawed understanding of the considerable changes experienced by Afghan society during the past three decades of war.”[68] Indeed, Western attitudes toward Afghan politics seem fundamentally contradictory, both in theory and in practice. We lament the political fragmentation caused by the numerous ethnic groups, while attempting to ensure that the Afghan government represents all major ethnic groups.[69] This is exactly the tactic used by the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin to ensure that ethnic in-fighting would consume all political energies, thus demanding ultimate reliance on external forces. Meanwhile, the international community has removed any threat that would otherwise provide a basis for unification. Due to a tenuous US-Pakistan relationship, the US has tied President Karzai’s hands with regard to addressing his concerns with Pakistan. The current Afghan government does not have to fear border incursions from its neighbors due to the international norm of juridical sovereignty and the presence of ISAF forces. The Afghan National Army (ANA) has been given no responsibility for the protection of territory or citizens. And the ANA, with the Afghan National Police (ANP), have nothing to hold them accountable for their readiness except their ISAF trainers. The most significant unifying force in Afghanistan is widespread discontent with the “direct political interference of the US-dominated international community” and “anger about the behavior of foreign forces.”[70]

The sanctioned presence of armed militias outside of the government’s control significantly delegitimizes the government. Only recently, President Karzai has called for the expulsion of private security groups – and he was criticized in the Western press for seeking to monopolize the legitimate use of force in his country. Instead, the US has begun to arm local militias again outside of any control of Kabul. Similarly, President Karzai has recently called for the termination of the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). This was another extra-governmental organization that was dispensing aid and reconstruction directly to the Afghan people, bypassing all government channels. U.S. policy-makers are asking the Afghan population to accept Karzai’s regime as legitimate, while simultaneously recognizing that Karzai and his administration cannot be trusted to disburse aid or effectively control the military.

The massive influx of foreign aid also undermines the Afghan government. From the US alone, which admittedly contributes the bulk of Afghan foreign aid, Afghanistan received over $15 billion last year. For 2011, that total is expected to exceed $17 billion.[71] Aid from the US alone equals more that the entire nominal GDP for all of Afghanistan.[72] This has resulted in a government that has not developed the capacity to effectively raise taxes, or conversely, to develop any public discussion for the allocation of those taxes. Altogether, there has been no concerted effort to conduct a census or institute taxes that would support a local or national government. As such, Afghanistan remains a rentier state, which undoubtedly feeds the corruption that has become rampant among government officials.[73] Similarly, no social or political contract has been established between the people and their rulers. Until the government is able to levy taxes and distribute services, the bond between government (at any level) and population will be weak.

Conclusion and Implications

This article has suggested that foreign intervention in Afghanistan will necessarily fail to improve Afghan governance. Both theory and practice suggest that foreign troops and financial aid undermines the mechanics through which a state is formed. Underpinning the ISAF strategy of improving governance are two competing ideologies: respect for the juridical sovereignty of Afghanistan, and a liberal anti-pluralism that seeks to establish a democratic government that respects human rights. The nature of these two ideologies suggests that they cannot co-exist, or that they at least contradict each other. As discussed above, leaders within the international community have embraced a cosmopolitan liberal theoretical framework in which political freedom (even democracy) and human rights have become the primary goals of government. At the same time, this government is expected to exercise effective control over its sovereign territory and population. The history of developed nations demonstrates that both are not simultaneously possible at the outset. Yet, the violence and political turmoil which has resulted in the creation of nearly every Western democracy is now thought to be unnecessary for the creation of modern states. If this paper’s thesis is correct, it has important implications for the future of the Afghan state.

Ultimately, the US and the international community are forced to choose between the establishment of a self-determining Afghan state and a liberal Afghan colony. These are the only two possible logically consistent conclusions. A self-determining state would be free from foreign influence and would be left to fight for its own survival. It would face armed warlords from its own interior and a militant Pakistan who would like to keep Afghanistan weak for its own strategic depth. It would have to form its army and police for its own defense, and raise taxes for their sustainment. It would need to deal with radical Islamists on its own terms, and would likely provide a training ground for terrorists for the foreseeable future. It will depend heavily on the opium trade for revenue, and will likely face mounting international pressure to harness its drug production. Afghan civilians would likely be targets of extreme violence and women would face extreme prosecution. In short, it would probably closely resemble the Civil War years of 1989-1996. In the end, there is a chance that after an untold number of years of violence, a government might develop and begin to provide the stability we expect from a modern state. On the other hand, a failure to consolidate could result in a Pakistani annexation, ultimately resulting in the de facto demise of the country we now recognize as Afghanistan.[74]

If the international community chooses to establish an Afghan colony, the worst violence can be avoided. Foreign forces can occupy the country and attempt to enforce human rights while giving the illusion of democratic participation. United States troops will still fight insurgents much as they do today. The Afghan government would be run effectively by US officials with competent Afghans incorporated into the bureaucracy where needed. This would not be a puppet government; it would be an extension of the US government. The situation would likely resemble the British colonization of India, though without the lucrative financial benefits. And like India, there may come a time when Afghanistan is able to govern itself and will seek to expel the foreign colonizers. This too will be a violent affair, and may even approach the political turmoil suggested above.

Nevertheless, there has persisted a demand from the international community that we take the best from both worlds. But the middle road is not much more appealing. As both of the coherent options are distasteful, it seems that Afghanistan is doomed to be, at best, a weak state with marginal control over its territory. Corruption will continue as long as foreign aid permits it to remain a rentier state and no social contract is formed with Afghan tax-payers. Human rights violations will continue and Afghanistan will face radical Islamists as it struggles to enter a modernity that remains conflated with western morals. As stated at the beginning of this paper, there is an assumption that foreign aid can lead to the consolidation of a liberal government. In theory, Walzer notes that this method necessarily fails. In practice, this essay seeks to demonstrate that foreign aid undermines the mechanics that build effective state governments. There is a fundamental contradiction between the broadly accepted norms of humanitarian intervention and sovereignty. As long as these competing notions generate broad appeal among international leaders and the people who support them, effective state-building will continue to be an important but impossible task. Interestingly, the participation of the international community in support of these competing norms may also help to explain the mixed results of Charles Tilly’s war-making, state-making theory in the contemporary third world.

This analysis is likely to be discomforting to both sides of the current debate regarding the future of Afghanistan. Those who advocate a quick withdrawal may not be comfortable with the human rights abuses which are certain to flare up inside Afghanistan. Those who favor a more lengthy commitment certainly fear a long term nation-building mission with little hope of success. During his nearly year-long review of the war in Afghanistan, President Obama advocated the challenging of US assumptions concerning its commitment to Afghanistan. Clearly, these assumptions have not been challenged at all. President Obama wanted to make clear his commitment was not to build an Afghan state, yet ISAF remains committed to “improving Afghan governance.” This author fails to see a distinguishable difference. ISAF’s new mission statement is the combination of two theoretical opposites. Before the United States and its allies commit more troops and treasure to this conflict, there needs to be a solid theoretical debate concerning the feasibility of the mission. This discussion will serve to educate the public on the impossibility of having a legitimate, sovereign and liberal Afghan government immediately. Thus, it will free U.S. policy-makers from the burden of having to form contradictory mission statements, and the U.S. military from having to fight an unwinnable strategy.


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1. Michael Walzer, Just and Unjust Wars, 4th ed. (New York: BasicBooks, 2006) 88.

2. Bob Woodward, Obama's Wars (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010) 207.

3. Ibid., 151.

4. This new mission is demonstrated in Woodward, 386 and is reflected in the ISAF mission statement available at http://www.isaf.nato.int/mission.html.

5. John Stuart Mill, "A Few Words on Non-Intervention” (1984) http://international-political-theory.net/texts/Mill-Non-Intervention.pdf (accessed Feb 16, 2011), 119.

6. Michael W. Doyle, "International Intervention," in Kavea Mingst and Jack Snyder, Essential Readings in World Politics (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2001), 268-277 (274).

7. Walzer, 88.

8. Ibid., 87.

9. Ibid.

10. Doyle, 273.

11. Ibid.

12. Woodward, 113.

13. Michael C. Desch, "War and Strong States, Peace and Weak States?" International Organization 50, no. 2 (1996): 241.

14. Cameron G. Thies, "War, Rivalry, and State Building in Latin America." American Journal of Political Science 49, no. 3 (Jul 2005): 451-465.

15. Ibid., 463.

16. Ibid.

17. Youssef Cohen, Brian R. Brown, and A.F.K. Organski, "The Paradoxical Nature of State Making: The Violent creation of Order." American Political Science Review 75, no. 4 (1981): 902.

18. Jeffrey Herbst, "War and the State in Africa." International Security 14, no. 4 (1990): 117-139.

19. Robert H. Bates, Prosperity and Violence: The Political Economy of Development (New York: W.W. Norton, 2001).

20. Keith Jaggers, "War and the Three Faces of Power: War Making and State Making in Europe and the Americas," Comparative Political Studies 25, no. 1 (1992): 26-62.

21. Andrew Kirby and Michael D. Ward. "Modernity and the Process of State Formation: An Examination of 20th Century Africa." International Interactions 17, no. 1 (1991): 113-126.

22. Ian Lustick, "The Absence of Middle Eastern Great Powers: Political "Backwardness" in Historical Perspective," International Organization 51, no. 4 (1997): 653-683.

23. Richard Stubbs, "War and Economic Development: Export-Oriented Industricalization in East and Southeast Asia." Comparative Politics 31, no. 1 (1999): 337-355.

24. Brian D. Taylor and Roxana Botea. "Tilly Tally: War-Making and State-Making in the Contemporary Third World." International Studies Review 10 (2008): 27-56.

25. Ibid., 28.

26. Taylor and Botea, 29. See also Robert H. Jackon, Quasi-states: Sovereignty, International Relations, and the Third World (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 25.

27. Jackon, 13ff.

28. Thomas Barfield writes that this claim is often exaggerated, and that the primary threat to conquering forces were “attacks by rival states, not rebellions by the inhabitant.” See Thomas Barfield, Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010), 66. Nevertheless, he admits that the terrain and weather “discourages easy travel.” See Barfield (2010), 45.

29. Barfield (2010), 47.

30. Ibid., 48.

31. Ibid.

32. Sana Haroon, Frontier of Faith: Islam in the Indo-Afghan Borderland (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007), 19.

33. Dennis O. Young, "U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute." Overcoming the Obstacles to Establishing a Democratic State in Afghanistan. October 2007. Available at http://www.StrategicStudiesInstitute.army.mil (accessed Feb 4, 2011).

34. Barfield (2010), 305.

35. Ibid., 78.

36. Taylor and Botea, 36.

37. Carol J. Riphenburg, "Ethnicity and Civil Society in Contemporary Afghanistan." Middle East Journal 59, no. 1 (2005), 32. See also Daniel N. Posner, "The Colonial Origins of Ethnic Cleavages: The Case of Linguistic Divisions in Zambia." Comparative Politics 35, no. 2 (2003), 127-128.

38. Riphenburg, 32.

39. Thomas H. Johnson, "Afghanistan's post-Taliban transition: the state of state-building after war." Central Asian Survey 25, no. 1-2 (2006), 3.

40. Thomas H. Johnson, "Democratic Nation Building in the Arc of Crisis: The Case of the Presidential Election in Afghanistan," in James A. Russell, ed., Critical Issues Facing the Middle East: Security, Politics, and Economics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 7.

41. That the US and the international community has stressed the importance of an ethnically representative parliament may have contributed to the recent refusal of President Karzai to seat the Parliament.

42. This perspective is clearly taken from the Constructivists, who treat identity as less a historic and social fact than as a self-construed division. This perspective is represented in Riphenburg, 31 and Barfield (2010), 21.

43. Johnson, 5.

44. Barfield (2010), 127.

45. Ibid., 137.

46. Antonio Guistozzi, Koran , Kalashnikov and Laptop (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 39.

47. Ibid., 39.

48. Astri Suhrke, "Reconstruction as Modernisation: the "post-conflict" project in Afghanistan." Third World Quarterly 28, no. 7 (2007), 1295.

49. David Edwards suggests that this imbalance occurred as early as the British military intervention in 1897, when the “Mad Mullahs” began to levy political power. Nevertheless, this imbalance was not so severe as to marginalize the Khans until the Soviet invasion of 1979. See David B. Edwards, Heroes of the Age: Moral Fault Lines on the Afghan Frontier (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1996) 172-219 and Thomas Barfield, "Culture and Custom in Nation-Building: Law in Afghanistan." Maine Law Review 60, no. 2 (2008): 363-364.

50. H. Sidky, "War, Changing Patterns of Warfare, State Collapse, and Transnational Violence in Afghanistan: 1978-2001." Modern Asian Studies 41, no. 4 (2007): 849, 867-868. See also Fred Halliday and Zahir Tanin. "The Communist Regime in Afghanistan 1978-1992: Institutions and Conflicts." Europe-Asia Studies 50, no. 8 (1998), 1365 and 1367 for a discussion of the PDPA militarization of society.

51. Cohen, Brown and Organski, 902.

52. Barfield (2008): 363.

53. Guistozzi, 40.

54. Haroon, 201.

55. Barfield (2010), 281.

56. See, for example, Guistozzi, 40.

57. Barfield (2010), 278.

58. Halliday and Tanin, 1376.

59. Sidky, 869

60. Barfield (2010), 255-260.

61. Ibid., 261-262. Barfield attributes the Taliban’s ineffectiveness at governing to its inability to transition from a social movement to a government.

62. Matthew C. DuPee, The Narcotics Emirate of Afghanistan: Armed Politics and their Roles in Illicit Drug Production and Conflict 1980-2010, M.A. Thesis, Monterey, CA: Naval Postgraduate School, Dec 2010,

63. Available at http://edocs.nps.edu/npspubs/scholarly/theses/2010/Dec/10Dec_DuPee.pdf

63. Bonn Agreement, Paragraph V. Sections 1-3. Available at http://www.un.org/News/dh/latest/afghan/afghan-agree.htm. Accessed 22 Feb 2011.

64. Ibid., Annex III, section 1-2.

65. The problem can perhaps be seen as fundamentally paradoxical, since the Bonn agreement called for both foreign protection and assistance while simultaneously calling for foreign “non-interference.” Ibid.

66. Suhrke, 1291.

67. Johnson, 8.

68. Nazif M. Shahrani, Afghanistan's Alternatives for Peace, Governance and Development: Transforming Subject to Citizens & Rulers to Civil Servants. The Afghanistan Papers, The Centre for International Governance Innovation, Centre for International Policy Studies, August 2009, 4.

69. See in general Johnson (2006), 1-26 for a demonstration of the highly fragmented post-Taliban government. Yet, Dr. Johnson argues that this arrangement still does not adequately represent the Pashtun majority.

70. Thomas Ruttig, "The Other Side: Dimensions of the Afghan Insurgency: Causes Actors and Approaches to 'Talks'." Afghanistan Analysts Network, July 2009, 2.

71. Kenneth Katzman, Afghanistan: Post-Taliban Governance, Security, and U.S. Policy. RL30588, Congressional Research Service, 26 Jan 2011, 80-81.

72. Ian S. Livingston, Heather L. Messera, and Michael O'Hanlon, Afghanistan Index: Tracking Variables of Reconstruction & Security in Post-9/11 Afghanistan. Brookings Institute, 31 Dec 2010, 27. Available at http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/Files/Programs/FP/afghanistan%20index/index20101231.pdf

73. See for example Young (2007).

74. Mark Berger reminds us that the emergence of modern states is by no means routine. The fact that strong states are the norm in the modern world implies that weak states fail to persist. See Mark T. Berger, "From Nation-Building to State-Building: The Geopolitics of Development, the Nation-State System and the Changing Global Order." Third World Quarterly 27, no. 1 (2006): 5-25.


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