Why the West lost in Afghanistan: too much nation building or not enough?

Sep 8, 2021

Now that Afghanistan is back in the hands of the Taliban and the West is in humiliating retreat the search for answers about what went wrong and who is to blame is gathering steam.


A key argument is that the US and its allies were always heading into disaster once they strayed beyond the narrowly military objectives of destroying Al Qaeda and into the realm of nation building.

As Australia’s former chief of army from 2002 to 2008, Peter Leahy, argued in the Australian Financial Review, “In the absence of high-level strategic guidance, the Afghanistan mission morphed into an ad hoc nation building campaign. Its catch cry was: let little girls go to school. No one could tell us what victory looked like”.

However, the fatal mistake of the US was not that it became diverted into an unwinnable project of nation building but that it failed to understand the importance of nation building and to effectively engage with this project.

As it had done in Iraq and in Vietnam the US had built a typically colonial model of occupation in league with local allies lacking the capacity or will to govern and with little interest in building an inclusive society.

After 20 years these were still unable to provide effective administration or to extend their presence and influence into the rural heartlands of Afghan society.

Despite arguments that the US could have eliminated the threat from Al Qaeda by destroying its bases in Afghanistan and handing things back to the Taliban, this was always a fanciful proposition.

It soon discovered that counter insurgency warfare led inevitably into the rabbit warrens of tribal and religious societies and into collision with those political interests embedded in them.

As former US ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker argued, “The United States objective in Afghanistan … was never about nation building as an end in itself, or building a new democracy, or even regime change”. However, he argued, once the Taliban chose to fight instead of handing over the Al Qaeda leadership the means to ensuring that Afghanistan was never again a base for attacks on America, “became much more complex”.

Nevertheless, Crocker argued that US efforts at nation building were effective. Investment in infrastructure was ramping up and social reforms were bearing fruit, especially for women. The problem for the West he argued was its lack of patience. These reforms needed time to embed themselves. It was a task with a much longer timeline derailed by the abrupt and early decision by President Biden to depart.

But nation building is more than just schools and hospitals of infrastructure. The speed of collapse once the US signalled its intention to withdraw revealed that there was little political capacity to sustain the reforms and no signs this was changing.

This was not because the efforts of the US and its allies were bound inevitably to flounder in the quagmire of a deeply tribal and unchanging society and political system, as the British and Russians had supposedly done before.

It is true that no Ataturk or Nasser or Sukarno had emerged to build a modern, secular society and nation. Nevertheless, Afghan governments and leaders including Amanullah Khan in the 1920s and Prime Minister, Mohammad Daud from 1953 to 1963, had attempted, albeit with limited success in the face of powerful conservative opponents, to establish centralised systems of governance and rule of law and to introduce reforms that give rights to women and minorities.

In other words, there was a history of reformist and nationalist politics, especially in the turmoil of the post-Russian period that the US could have cultivated but did not.

One reason why this did not happen is that US intervention in Afghanistan and elsewhere had always been driven by its strategic and commercial interests rather than solving problems of failed states or repressive and unequal societies.

During the Cold Was the US worked together with the Pakistan leader Zia ul Haq and the Pakistan Intelligence Service (ISI) and with Saudi interests to finance and to support the fundamentalist Mujahedeen which in turn generated the Taliban during the 1990s.

For the US it was better that Afghanistan became a terrorist dystopia than fall into the hands of the Soviets.

Ultimately this enabled the rise of those very forces that became its assassins.

When the US turned against the Taliban in 2001 and invaded Afghanistan it saw its task primarily as one of counter insurgency as it had done previously in Iraq and Vietnam. Within this logic, it did not matter that its local allies had little capacity or will to govern and little interest in building an inclusive society.

As former UN deputy special representative for Afghanistan, Peter Galbraith, argued, the US attempted to engage in a counter insurgency strategy with local partners that were corrupt, ineffective and illegitimate. They never seriously tried to address the corruption that was prevalent from the top.

Perhaps more important, with counter insurgency as the central logic of US intervention it did not matter that its local allies did not possess a political wing: a political party or movement that offered a coherent ideology to rural populations or that would enable the state to extend its presence into the countryside and establish its legitimacy by appealing to real grievances about poverty or inequality.

The perverse nature of its alliances with local clients and allies is also shaped within the logic of a larger project focused on circulating huge military budgets into the hands of private contractors, consultants and arms manufacturers and ultimately back into the US.

The pervasive presence of private contractors undermined serious nation building, not least in the regions. As the tasks of war, government and administration were increasingly handed out to private contractors the Afghan government, along with other political clients of the US, became little more vehicles for collecting and distributing among its officials and clients the largesse and the rents from the ‘rivers of gold’ provided by the US.

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