State-Building in Afghanistan

The purpose of America’s war in Afghanistan, President Obama said in public remarks after his 2009 comprehensive policy review, is “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and to prevent their return to either country in the future.” State-building is an essential part of NATO’s strategy for achieving that goal. To defeat al Qaeda, the president has told us, NATO forces  not only have to kill or capture fighters affiliated with al Qaeda and the Taliban or to disrupt their operations; they must also “enhance the military, governance, and economic capacity of Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

It’s not hard to see why countries threatened by al Qaeda might seek to enhance the capabilities of the forces ostenibly standing alongside them in that fight, including Afghanistan’s and Pakistan’s. What deserves more critical reflection than it gets, I think, is the expectation that investments in those countries’ “governance and economic capacity” will also help to achieve the same end.

In my view, the U.S. Government’s commitment to state-building in Afghanistan and Pakistan is motivated by an ideology which is so pervasive in contemporary wealthy societies that we have come to accept many of its premises as facts. In his brilliant 1998 book, Seeing Like a State, the interdisciplinary scholar James Scott labels this ideology “high modernism”. He writes (pp. 89-90) that,

[High modernism] is best conceived as a strong (one might even say muscle-bound) version of the beliefs in scientific and technical progress that were associated with industrialization in Western Europe and in North America from roughly 1830 until World War I. At its center was a supreme self-confidence about continued linear progress, the development of scientific and technical knowledge, the expansion of production, the rational design of social order, the growing satisfaction of human needs, and, not least, an increasing control over nature (including human nature) commensurate with scientific understanding of natural laws. High modernism is thus a particularly sweeping vision of how the benefits of technical and scientific progress might be applied—usually through the state—in every field of human activity…The high-modernist state began with extensive prescriptions for a new society, and it intended to impose them.

As Scott shows, high modernism has been manifested historically in all kinds of state-led schemes, from standardizing traders’ weights and measures and establishing legitimate forms of personal identification to declaring and delineating private ownership of previously communal resources, planning urban areas, and establishing compulsory education. The immediate aim of these schemes has often been to facilitate taxation, and they all entail some degree of coercion. At the same time, these schemes have also been suffused with idea that a rational reordering of society along lines prescribed by technical experts would substantially improve the welfare of the affected citizenry.

High modernism associates order and progress with the presence and power of a certain kind of state. A high-modern state is expected to provide an array of public goods, starting with the maintenance of public order and extending to the administration of justice and commerce, the promotion of public health, the provision of education, and the protection of civil and political rights. As constructivist theories of international politics keep trying to remind us, this kind of state is not a natural occurring entity. Instead, it is an organizational form that has emerged only recently in human history, and that has become and remained dominant in global politics through the deliberate and persistent efforts of powerful actors. The system those actors have constructed acknowledges the sovereign authority of a specific organizational form (the national government) within an officially recognized territory (state borders) with the expectation that those governments will take responsibility for certain governance tasks—the public goods associated with the modern state—within those borders.

The flip side of the high-modernist coin is the expectation that the absence of state authority results in disorder, stagnation, and backwardness. In contemporary policy jargon, patches of land where internationally recognized governments lack authority are called “ungoverned zones.” States with large ungoverned zones are tagged as “failing,” and according the National Security Strategy released by the White House in May 2010, “Failing states breed conflict and endanger regional and global security.”

To prevent these unwanted consequences, the thinking goes, we have to build up the states responsible for those lapses, to help them extend and deepen their writ throughout the entire territory assigned to them by the community of states. Consistent with high modernism’s fundamental assumptions, the problem of state weakness is construed as a technical one, amenable to technical solutions. The state is understood as a series of interconnected systems serving specific governance functions that are universal to all states. Because those functions are universal, the thinking goes, weaker states can enhance their capacity by mimicking governance practices and structures present in more “successful” ones. Foreign governments can facilitate that process through technical guidance and financial support—in other words, knowledge and money.

A crucial lesson from Scott’s book, however, is that grand schemes rooted in high-modernist ideology have often ended badly, in large part because their implementers failed to recognize just how disruptive they usually are. State authority is fundamentally political, not technical. State-driven modernizing schemes inevitably disrupt local customs that are often deeply embedded and functional in their own right, albeit in ways that may not match the modernizers’ objectives. Because they are so disruptive, these schemes often trigger intense and usually hostile reactions from the people they are supposed to benefit. In fact, Scott uses comparative analysis to draw specific lessons about the conditions under which state-building schemes are most likely to end poorly. In his book (pp. 4-5), “the most tragic episodes of state-initiated social engineering” have occurred when four elements have come together: 1) state-led plans to reorder society for administrative purposes, motivated partly by 2) a deep faith in the high-modernist ideology; 3) an authoritarian state willing and able to use its coercive power to push those plans on its subjects-cum-citizens; and 4) a civil society too weak to push back.

I have never set foot in Afghanistan, served in the military, sat in a meeting of policy principals, or implemented an aid program. Still, as a distant observer, I am struck by the similarities between the nature of, and the responses to, the schemes Scott describes and the accounts of state-building efforts in Afghanistan. Arguably, all four elements of the state-building tragedies of the past are present in Afghanistan today For starters, U.S. and European leaders sometimes talk facetiously about how they don’t expect Afghanistan to transmogrify into Switzerland, but the breadth and depth of the social engineering they have undertaken there are still extraordinarily ambitious. Foreign-funded programs have sought to build the “capacity” of the central government to do just about everything a modern state is supposed to do, from patrolling its borders and policing its streets to collecting taxes, supplying electricity and potable water, expanding access to pharmaceuticals for health care, establishing and protecting property rights, holding elections, writing laws, promoting gender equality, and collecting economic statistics. The agenda from which those programs spring is spelled out in the Afghanistan Compact forged in London in 2006 between the putatively national government led by President Hamid Karzai and donor nations. In that document, the “Islamic Republic of Afghanistan” and “the international community” resolve “to overcome the legacy of conflict in Afghanistan by setting conditions for sustainable economic growth and development; strengthening state institutions and civil society; removing remaining terrorist threats; meeting the challenge of counter-narcotics; rebuilding capacity and infrastructure; reducing poverty; and meeting basic human needs.”

The gradual elevation and expansion of these myriad objectives in the NATO-led campaign against al Qaeda that began in September 2001 has arguably turned foreign assistance to Afghanistan into one of the most ambitious social-engineering endeavors of all time. A 2010 report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS) estimates that, since 2001, the United States alone has appropriated more than $52 billion in assistance to Afghanistan through the Departments of Defense and State and the U.S. Agency for International Development. (This total does not include the direct costs of the combat effort, which a March 2011 CRS report estimated at $6.7 billion per month.) Approximately 56% of those funds have been spent on training and equipping Afghan forces; the other $25 billion or so were targeted at “development and humanitarian-related activities from infrastructure to private sector support, governance and democratization efforts, and counter-narcotics programs.” And, again, these are funds from the United States alone; total assistance over the past decade is presumably much higher.

We don’t talk about it much in the United States, but there is also a deeply authoritarian streak at the core of our governments’ capacity-building endeavors. For the most part, needs and remedies are identified and prioritized by foreigners who are not known or accountable to the Afghans they purport to assist. These programs are expected to benefit Afghans, but their core purpose, our representatives have told us time and again, is to advance the interests of the citizens in donor countries. All the while, the government with which donor countries “partner” in Afghanistan was itself chosen in elections marred by widespread fraud. In short, profound decisions about the world Afghans ought to inhabit and the things that need to be done to bring that world into existence are being made by people who are formally and informally unaccountable to most of the citizens those decisions will affect. That absence of accountability is the definition of authoritarian rule.

To me, an outsider who has never visited the country, the question of the capacity of civil society in Afghanistan seems to be a complicated one. In contemporary American and European political discourse, the term “civil society” usually refers to non-governmental organizations that advocate for traditionally liberal causes, including but not limited to the defense of human rights and civil liberties, protection of the natural environment, and the expansion of economic “freedoms.” As I see it, though, this definition is endogenous to high-modernist ideology, in that it legitimates organizations that complement the capacity-building agenda while marginalizing ones that might reject or resist it. Viewed through a wider lens, “traditional” non-state organizational forms such as “tribal” councils, religious courts, and informal agricultural cooperatives can also be construed as elements of a civil society, albeit one based on an alternative conceptualization of social participation in governance. Seen in this light, it seems reasonable to construe at least some of the violent responses to state-building interventions from Kabul and abroad as the kinds of civil resistance Scott’s historical survey leads us to expect in response to “internal colonization.”

Surveying the scene from a distance, then, I think it is not a stretch to say that all four of the conditions Scott associates with the most tragic failures of social engineering in the modern era are present in Afghanistan today. The point of this observation is not to claim that U.S.-led efforts to build an Afghan state are doomed to fail to secure foreign interests or to improve Afghans’ welfare, although I do believe they face long odds on both counts. By calling out the ideological foundations of these efforts, I hope to help create space for alternative views on the appropriate aims of foreign governments in Afghanistan and the best ways to achieve them. We know that the war we have chosen to fight in Afghanistan is extremely costly: more than 1,500 American lives lost so far, orders of magnitude more American lives permanently altered by severe injury and post-traumatic stress, close to $10 billion per month in American spending, and—important not just morally but also pragmatically—hundreds of thousands of Afghan lives disrupted or ended.

What we can learn by seeing the world through Scott’s lenses, I think, is that a war effort predicated on large-scale social engineering is also likely to be self-perpetuating. Contemporary counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy guides us to build state capacity as we “clear” areas of enemy fighters in an effort to draw sympathy away from that enemy and build up a durable alternative order that will rebuff the enemy’s attempts to return. A deeper awareness of the ideological foundations of the civilian side of the COIN coin and the consequences similar programs have produced in other contexts can help us understand the challenges these efforts face and the reasons they are so unlikely to succeed. Even if we are right to think that the emergence of a “modern” state in Afghanistan would significantly reduce the risk Americans face from terrorist attacks, we ought to be more honest with ourselves about how the construction of a “modern” state is not necessarily an unmitigated good for Afghans and—more important—whether or not it can be done at all.


This New York Times story on a USAID-funded road-building project is a sad and interesting piece of anecdotal evidence about the kinds of problems I have in mind. Road-building is one of the activities Scott discusses at some length in his book.

A recent Slate story looks at this question through the work of the U.S. military’s 27 Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). According to author Maura O’Connor, “Research shows that support for government significantly increases when security improves and only a little when development of infrastructure or services gets better. If U.S. forces are going to win the counterinsurgency before a full withdrawal in 2014, they may need to shift their strategy from ambitious electricity plants and large hospitals to smaller development projects in individual villages where the allegiances of local elites can be co-opted.”

Christopher J. Coyne (George Mason University) and Adam Pellillo (West Virginia University) have written this unpublished academic paper that applies Scott’s ideas to Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of Congo and reaches some conclusions similar to my own.

Norwegian social scientist Astri Suhrke published this paper , entitled “Reconstruction as Modernization: The ‘Post-Conflict’ Project in Afghanistan,” in the journal Third World Quarterly in 2006. In it, she concludes that, “The conflation of post-war reconstruction with a broader agenda for reconstruction and modernisation has brought out a wide range of tensions associated with social change…As a result, the entire project shows signs of severe contradictions that are adding to the problems caused by the growing insurgency.”

Stephen Krasner, former Director of Policy Planning at the U.S. Department of State and professor of international relations at Stanford University, writes in a recent issue of Prism about the impossibility of quickly building fully functional states in some poorly governed countries, and about the other forms of sovereignty the international system establishes to try to fill the gaps. He concludes that, “Policy could be more effectively framed if decisionmakers abandoned their commitment to conventional sovereignty and recognized the variety of authority structures, not only horizontally within states but also vertically between them, that exist in the contemporary international system.” You can find a PDF of the article here.

Finally, for a thoughtful discussion of the unintended effects a strengthened Afghan state might have on international relations in South Asia and beyond, see this recent blog post at Slouching Towards Columbia.

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  1. This is a great post, thanks for pointing me towards it (on Twitter) I’ve just got one or two questions (if that’s alright?)..I’m wondering not only was state building/’democracy promotion’ etc feasible in Iraq, but could the violence that developed have been avoided (with a stronger international coalition, better policies etc – however you can measure that) For example if the US didn’t implement the policies that journalists pay such attention to and claim undermined the war effort (de-Baathification, structural adjustments, weakening the state/military etc)
    Also, as something of an aside, do you think there was a realistic political alternative to the war that would have lead to a positive outcome to the problem Iraq posed US interests in the Middle East? Primarily, a major change in US policy, change in the power structure in Iraq etc..or was the violence we saw always inevitable at some stage?

    • Those are huge questions, and I won’t do them any justice in a short comment. I don’t want to dodge them, though, so:

      1. No, I believe that any massive state-transforming effort is essentially doomed to fail, however it begins and however much external support it enjoys. We simply aren’t capable of “engineering” on this social scale.

      2. Actually, I don’t think Iraq posed much of a threat to U.S. interests at the time, and I believe the realistic alternative was to wait for the regime to transform on its own, as it almost certainly would have by now. Because it was essentially a personalist regime, the most likely trigger to that transformation would have been Saddam Hussein’s death, but other paths were possible, too.

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