Don’t Lose Faith in State-Building
The most important lesson that international policymakers should draw from their engagement in Afghanistan is to critically reflect on their own impact more seriously. But they shouldn’t give up on the idea of state-building.
Spring 2023 Issue: The China Challenge
The implosion of the Afghan government and the rapid capture of Kabul by the Taliban forces lead policymakers to similar conclusions about a “more realistic” approach to international engagements in armed conflicts—not least in Mali where Europeans are engaged in a similar mission.
On the day the German evacuations from Kabul started, Chancellor Angela Merkel said that it was already apparent that the “objectives of such deployments need to be smaller.” Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Germany’s minister of defense, called for countries to “face the concrete threat for Europe realistically” in the Sahel. Heiko Maas, the foreign minister, said during a press conference in Pakistan that military interventions were not the appropriate means to “export our preferred political order.” Finally, French President Emmanuel Macron told Journal du Dimanche, “I don’t believe in state-building. It is not up to the West to build a state in Mali, but it is for the Malians to do that in the zones that were liberated from the terrorist enterprise.”
Statements like these are an expression of an understandable frustration with the apparent lack of sustainable success of anything more ambitious than denying a transnational jihadist network space for training grounds (and even that doesn’t look promising). Didn’t President Ashraf Ghani flee Afghanistan without so much as a formal resignation? Could there be a more symbolic failure of state-building than the hasty departure of the co-author of the book “Fixing Failed States”?
A proper lessons learned process should start with the right assumptions. For many years in Afghanistan, democracy promotion and building functioning state institutions were not the focus of the US-led engagement, as long-time analysts of Afghanistan have noted. It is true though that programs to improve the governance sector “were rarely effective in the Afghan context,” a meta-review of development cooperation led by political scientist Christoph Zürcher found last year. According to Zürcher, hampering factors were “entrenched patronage-based practices within the government, a lack of buy-in from the government, donor-driven top-down project design with little regard for the core institutional requirements and demands of the partner institutions, and lack of political will of the government especially for decentralization.”
The other problematic assumption is that democracy, rule of law, and fundamental human rights were somehow inappropriate in a tribal society such as Afghanistan. They may look and work differently than in Western countries, but accountability of officials, public participation in policy-making, and basic protection of life and property are important for any society. Simply put, just because outsiders have a hard time understanding the norms, traditions, and tensions of a local society they should not assume people are happy living in a repressive system—nor that outsiders have all the answers for a better life.
Finally, reducing international engagement in a conflict-affected country to a counterterrorism mission, as postulated by US President Joe Biden at the end of the airlift from Kabul, is not likely to be effective and could even be counterproductive. Attempting to destroy a jihadist armed group only with drone strikes or special forces is unlikely to lead to success.
This is even more the case for groups such as the al-Qaeda affiliate JNIM coalition in the Sahel that are well connected in parts of the local population. A narrow security focus risks empowering the very elites whose corruption, negligence, and abuses provide recruitment grounds for armed groups. A major study of jihadist recruitment in Africa by the UN Development Programme found that the experience of government abuses among family and friends provided the tipping point for more than two thirds of respondents to join extremist groups when others in similar situations did not. Thus, trying to neutralize jihadist groups by military means alone risks the very entrenchment of foreign forces that leaders like Biden and Macron say they want to avoid.
Questioning Western Roles
One of the most important lessons that foreign interveners should learn from the Afghanistan fiasco, therefore, is to take the politics and the political economy of an international engagement seriously. This means constantly analyzing the prevailing power relations in a country and the many ways in which international interventions—military, development, diplomatic—shape these power relations. This requires sufficient intelligence and diplomatic analysis capacities. Both in Afghanistan and in Mali, Western governments have supported deeply corrupt governments with little popular support, continuing lavish disbursements of aid and security forces training after disputed elections and military coups, for example. The minimum standard for international engagement should remain not to exacerbate a conflict or enable grave violations of human rights.
Any security assistance, be it training, equipment, or the direct use of force against armed groups, needs to rely on a vetting and human rights risk assessment, like the due diligence policy already practiced by the United Nations. Furthermore, international partners should base their support on guarantees of accountability of security forces. Amnesty provisions such as in a provision of the newly created Special Forces in Burkina Faso should be a red line.
International assistance for state-building in conflict-affected societies can certainly become much better. There is already a fruitful debate in academic and practitioner circles that policymakers can draw on. It all starts with taking local contexts and the agency of local populations seriously, investing heavily in conflict analysis, dialogue processes, strengthening resilience, and constantly trying out different options. Outsiders can partner more effectively with grassroots peace initiatives and ensure that their support is at least as accountable to the needs of civilian populations as it is to the demands of donors, including through reporting and project management mechanisms. If those same populations agree on local ceasefires with armed groups for example in the Central Sahel, their international partners should not reign them in, as France, supported by Germany, does when it declares its opposition to any negotiation and dialogue with jihadist groups.
Don’t Give Up, Learn
The age of external regime change, exemplified by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (albeit in different contexts), may be ending. Drawing lessons from the significant mistakes of those interventions is important but should not result in knee-jerk reactions giving up on state-building completely. Instead, the focus needs to be on how to create sustainable peace more effectively.
Gerrit Kurtz is research fellow for conflict prevention and diplomacy in Africa at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP).