The failure of the Afghan state-building project is often attributed to the belief that Afghan society was not ready and that state-building with force is impossible. The article aims to determine whether the problem with Afghanistan’s state-building project was the goal itself, where state-building by force was unattainable, or if the issue was how the state-building project was managed. The flawed initial design of the state-building process in Afghanistan lacked essential foundational elements. The concentration of power within the presidency created a cumbersome and difficult-to-manage bureaucracy. Mostly ceremonial elections did not promote national good governance practices. The security and defense sectors faced similar issues, with police and military capacity building efforts being corrupt and inefficient. The collapse of Afghanistan’s security infrastructure in August 2021 exposed the weakness of these institutions. When the Taliban approached Kabul, not a single person was willing to defend the city, including President Ashraf Ghani, who fled among the first. This contrasts with Ukraine’s President Zelensky, who famously stated, “I don’t need a ride, I need ammo” when facing a significantly larger adversary, and still holds his ground. It was the lack of vision at many levels and the lack of result oriented and adaptive implementation throughout 20 years contributed to the final fiasco.
August 2021 – the collapse
There has been much written about the fall of Kabul on August 15th, 2021, and the eight-days that saw the Taliban come to power in Afghanistan from August 8th to the 15th. The swift turn of events took many by surprise, although some had predicted that there would be a power shift towards the Taliban following the withdrawal of foreign troops.
Several months earlier, on February 29th, 2020, the United States and the Taliban signed a peace deal in Doha, Qatar. The agreement was meant to lead to the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan within 14 months. This decision followed President Trump’s choice to make a deal with the Taliban to bring an end to the war by any means necessary. At that point, it was already apparent that the Taliban would either take complete control or a power-sharing arrangement would be established. The Afghan government’s absence in these Doha-based discussions was one of the problems. Moreover, the fact that neither the US nor the Taliban expected them to have a significant role in the final settlement contributed to the rapid erosion of trust among Afghans. It turned out to be a major factor in demoralizing the people and conveyed a clear message that Ghani’s government loss of power was imminent. The release of 5,000 Taliban fighters before any peace settlement was reached further strengthened and emboldened the already potent Taliban force.
President Biden, who came into office with a broad agenda to reverse many of his predecessor’s erratic decisions, decided to follow the agreed-upon process, partly because he himself was against forever wars and state-building by force. The Biden’s administration clearly overestimated the capacity of the Afghan state machinery and underestimated the Taliban. A month before the collapse, based on advice from top intelligence and political analysts, President Biden considered the 350,000-strong Afghan defense and security force as a formidable entity. “The Taliban is not the North Vietnamese army”, he declared on July 8th 2021, they’re not remotely comparable in terms of capability. There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of the United States embassy in Afghanistan.”
However, it all melted away in a matter of days without any visible pockets of resistance. By August 15th, 2021, Chinook helicopters were rattling windows in Kabul as they shuttled American diplomats from the embassy. At the city’s airport, desperate Afghans swarmed the runway, with some even clinging to the undercarriage of a C-17 transporter, falling to their deaths in a tragic scene. The question of how the Taliban, with their 70,000-strong force armed only with light weaponry, managed to take over against the 350,000-strong government defense and security forces (better equipped and trained by the best army in the world) remains unclear.
From the complex system perspective, it is the moment when the whole gets out of coherence and parts lose the center of gravity and start making their own journey. In more practical terms the collapse was more a result of local leaders/chiefs, commanders, governors losing trust in the Ghani’s administration ability to retain power. Consequently, they saw the writing on the wall and quickly changed allegiances reducing the risk they faced with continued support of the government. So, the issue was not that much the military might of the Taliban, but the inability of the center to keep the country together and retain the trust throughout the country in its ability to stand strong against the Taliban.
After the collapse some hoped that the problem would remain confined to Afghanistan without major spillovers. The Taliban tried to pacify world public opinion and position Taliban 2.0 differently from the Taliban of 1996 that led to the major shock and horror for the US on 9/11.
So far signals are clear that the Neo Taliban is not fundamentally different from the old one. They are better at using technology and social media, and they have managed to assemble a more diverse group of supporters under their flag, including non-Pashtuns. It is estimated that the Taliban now possess military equipment worth USD85 billion, including advanced weaponry and vehicles. While not all of it may be functional, it is still a significant addition to their arsenal of AK47s and Toyota pickups.
The shockwaves of their victory have spread across the radical Islamic world. In Somalia, Al Shabab celebrated the victory of their brothers in faith by distributing sweets. The Hamas government in Gaza sent their congratulations to the new Emirate in Kabul, and in Idlib/Syria, the Nusra, an AQ offspring, celebrated with a military parade.
The questions are, how long they will hold together, and how they will govern? So far, they managed to hold a strong grip on power, and no signs of fragmentation. The way they have governed and especially the abhorrently brutal approach to women does not leave any hope for softening the radical approaches. It is disheartening to see in the 21st century girls are not allowed to schools, women to work and locked at homes.
What went wrong, why, and how?
The question that pandits will be asking for a while is what went wrong, why, and how? Was it all due to the failure of the accelerated deal-making approach in the final 2 years, or was there a more systemic issue with the state-building process that began in late 2001, which led to this catastrophic outcome? My overall conclusion is that it was a consistently flawed approach taken over the 20 years, and the final steps taken only triggered the systemic failure that had been brewing for years. While some may blame the Afghans, there is little criticism of the US or the UN, which were mandated with the responsibility of state-building, both politically and institutionally. Importantly, the major design and construction of the new Afghan statehood was marred by many deficiencies:
Constitution – introduced in 2004 aimed to build a highly centralized state and was written mostly by foreign experts. A mix of US and French constitutions centered around a strong presidency. The imposed system was maintained by a strong NATO presence, but this was more on paper. Afghanistan is a multiethnic and multilingual society and was never managed from top to down under strong central command. Perhaps it would have been better to factor in this diversity and build a more decentralized system for governance.
Election and the paradigm of one person, one vote, as the only way to build democracy and the foundation for modern state building? What about the 80% illiterate population in Afghanistan, who cannot read ballot papers and are not familiar with the concept of democracy. The ballot box magic did not work for them.
The leadership selection in 2002 using the Afghan way by Loya Jirga had full legitimacy, and in the 2004 first election, almost 9 million people participated, with Karzai receiving 4.5 million votes. The outcome was well accepted. However, in the 2019 election, less than 2 million people participated, and Ghani received only 900,000 votes. While this was enough for him to win, it was not enough to give him legitimacy, with only 5% of the electorate voting for him. The trend from 2004 to 2019 through a series of expensive electoral rituals was clear, but not many took note of it.
For the mostly illiterate Afghan population, unable to read ballot papers and unfamiliar with the concept of democracy, elections became a mysterious ritual that foreigners wanted them to participate in. Most people simply followed the instructions of their tribal leaders on how to vote, leaving little room for individual choice or genuine democratic expression.
Development and transition planning. In 2011, Hillary Clinton said that instead of having ten one-year development plans, we need one ten-year development plan. Later, it came as a decade of transformation (2014-2024). In the Tokyo meeting in 2012, 26 Public Investment Programs were agreed upon with thousands of indicators to monitor. None of these plans came to fruition, despite billions being committed and spent.
In 2012, the World Bank came up with three scenarios for Afghanistan’s next ten years of growth and development: modest, average, and optimistic. This approach was used in most countries, but it did not factor in that with foreign troop departure from 2014 onwards, the economic bubble would burst since most of the economy was about serving the foreign troops and offices.
Governance and corruption. The central power lost any meaningful touch with reality, hiding behind multilayered security protection and a corrupt bureaucracy. The President had to appoint almost 5000 public servants, including governors for provinces and districts, police chiefs, tax collectors, and many others, without much control, oversight, and all open to corruption.
People in Kabul say that from life certificates to death certificates and anything in between, you need to pay. Positions like the post of the district police chief were sold for USD100,000, and those who invested surely needed to recover their funds. Corruption reached epic proportions, as seen in the story of the Kabul bank collapse, which I witnessed in 2010. The loss at Kabul bank amounted to USD1 billion, taken by Karzai’s brother and the CEO, and invested in the Dubai property market. Another case Masoud Shah Zia, the Vice President, and the brother of Ahmad Shah Masoud, arrived in Dubai in 2009 with USD53 million cash and was arrested. Later the case was closed for unknown reasons.
These combined with the ostentatious display of cynicism and pomp by senior officials with heavy security entourages. Their cronies dispossessing people of their property, made the Afghan government incredibly unpopular. It all made the general population believe that foreign powers behind this government had no genuine interest in establishing and strengthening a system of accountability and lawfulness.
The government was more corrupt than the Taliban, and donors were feeding this for years, so who should take the blame here? The Afghans saw donors as spending bags of money and seemingly indifferent to where the money went. This kind of donor behavior and the ample financial resources committed made the corruption levels astronomical. The Afghans were simply responding to incentives. Donors had burn rates and made that clear. They were willing to turn a blind eye so they could spend.
Security. For 20 years, the United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Law and Order Trust fund (LOTFA) project paid up to 100,000+ policemen’s salaries in Afghanistan. This was the largest programme for UNDP globally with an annual budget of USD600 mln at peak years. It was known for some time that, at least, 25% of the police, although on the payroll, did not exist. These were known as ghost police. However, there was no serious effort from either the UN or the donors to correct the situation, bring accountability, and build a capable police force. Paying the salary was acceptable, but it surely had to be complemented by a robust accountability system, with clear success indicators and measurable results.
After 20 years of capacity building the Afghan National Army still did not get a formal system of rank and file. It was more a conglomerate of armed militias that was put under the command of generals with tribal connections. The capacity building of the army was mostly a corrupt and inefficient private enterprise outsourced to mercenaries whose main interest was to make money. In retrospect it looks like a foregone conclusion that after the withdrawal of the US/NATO support, the ANA would fall like a house of cards.
Gradual deterioration in 20 years.
Throughout my UN career I had three assignments with UNDP in Afghanistan, in 2004, 2010-2012, and in early 2020 closer to the epilogue. UNDP had several good projects that started from 2002 onwards, focusing on peace and reconciliation, bringing Taliban fighters into peaceful life, area-based development, and local governance. Most of them were aiming for transformational societal change. Unfortunately, by 2020, during my last visit, all those aiming for transformational change projects had disappeared, and the focus was on easy-to-deliver transactional projects like LOTFA’s salary payment for which the organization earned a big windfall from the overhead charged. The modus operandi was more focused on profit than achieving strong development outcomes. The UN and international organizations were driven by path of least resistance, own bureaucracies’ objectives and focused on collecting lofty overheads. Indeed, UNDP Afghanistan represented at the highest, 21% of UNDP’s programming globally (80% was for LOTFA) and office was the highest money earner for the organization globally.
By 2020, the UNDP portfolio, for the main global agency for institution development, was left with LOTFA, Election support, Global Fund for HIV/AIDS, and a few more interventions on climate change adaptation. All transactional projects, easy to deliver, low impact, and not transformational at all.
I participated in the UNDP HQ mission in early 2020 to formulate a forward-looking strategy, and the final document was filled with UN clichés on SDG integration and accelerators, all which New York wanted to hear. Unfortunately, I was unable to add more content on local governance, people-centric development, or winning the hearts and minds of Afghans. The same pattern could be observed with the rest of the UN and most of the other donors, who locked themselves in heavily protected compounds and rarely interacted with real life outside the wire.
Consistent lack of visionary leadership
The state-building enterprise over the past 20 years in Afghanistan appeared to be a complex system with many intertwined elements interacting with each other in a nonlinear way. The first President, Karzai, was not highly trusted by the international community, and there were high expectations for the next President, Ashraf Ghani. Ghani, an anthropologist educated in the west, wrote a book in 2005 called “How to Fix Failed States”. Although he was highly sophisticated and respected among experts, he failed to apply his own ideas successfully when tested in real life. Meanwhile, US ambassadors, NATO commanders, and UN SRSGs were seen by some as viceroys in charge of the state-building enterprise. Unfortunately, the complex Afghan landscape, which included governance, politics, security, and diplomacy, was not properly factored into development planning. It was the lack of vision at many levels and the lack of collective understanding of how complex the system was, its turbulent nature, and how sensitive decision-making could be with many nonlinear spillovers. There was not enough effort to factor in the local complexity, and much was copy-pasting isolated models and decisions from other places. Broadly, there has not been a solid effort to build an ecosystem of actors seeking the same solutions, on peace, security, poverty eradication, and justice. Instead, all were operating in individual team/organization/unit echo chambers and looking for small, short-term, and process-related targets.
Ukraine’s President Zelensky stands as a sharp contract demonstrated leadership facing much stronger adversary 6 months after and still holding. Very different case but the role of individual leadership at the moment of critical test for nation worth studying farther. Zelensky’s famous phrase “I need ammo and not a ride” and staying in Kiev while many were predicted the fall in few days. And in contrast Ashraf Ghani with all the predictions that Kabul can defend itself for at least a year, running away and his escape unleashed the collapse of the card house overnight.
Resources. The failure of the state-building mega-project was surely not due to a lack of resources. The development aid spent in Afghanistan amounted to USD135 billion from the US and a similar amount from the EU, Japan, and other countries, totaling USD250 billion. UNDP on its own spent an estimated USD10 billion in 20 years, and the rest of the UN spent another USD50 billion. This amount is more than the Marshall Plan, and much more in per capita terms, considering that Afghanistan has just a fraction of the European population supported by the Marshall Plan.
To be precise, not everything went without impact or results. The number of children going to school increased from 1 million to 10 million, including 25% girls. Life expectancy grew from 43 to 64 years. In 2001, Kabul and the rest of the country had no electricity supply, in 2021 there was almost full electricity coverage. There was internet access, water supply, and Kabul looked different in 2020 compared to when I first visited in 2004, with modern buildings, roads, banks, shops, and malls. However, when I compare Kabul in 2012 to the one, I visited in 2020, most of the changes were in the security field, with more walls and fortifications.
Another contributing factor to the growing problem and lack of excitement among the population with the “gains of democracy” was the fact that growth was very unequal. Some up to 30,000 people were making anywhere from USD5,000 to millions in a month, while another half a million police, army, and International Organizations staff were paid decent salaries by Afghan standards. With their families, this makes up to 10% of the country’s population. Another 2 million were probably surviving on poppy income, while the vast majority of the 40 million population was left in extreme poverty. No economic growth was recorded from 2014 onwards after the bubble created by security spending burst, while the population has rapidly grown from 20 million in 2001 to 40 million in 2021.
In broader terms the governance model used for state building for the 21st century country was done without factoring in the country’s background and ensuring that proper internal stabilization factors were in place. The state system was made without enough resilience measures, and the turbulence with the US departure led to the overall collapse. Important systemic issues were not factored in from the start of the state-building process, and the war, without winning hearts and minds, became unwinnable. While the outcome could have been a softer landing, for some time, it was already doomed to land where it ultimately did.
Looking forward, will Afghanistan under Taliban 2.0 have a destabilizing impact on the region, or will it become isolated and struggle with its own problems, like North Korea? In 1996 it imploded, but Osama bin Laden brought it to an explosion with 9/11, 5 years after. Taliban knows how to bide their time and surely will wait for the next opportunity to hit.
China is emerging as a new world power and aims to control Afghanistan through Pakistan. This is part of the formation of the 2nd pole of gravity in a new bi-polar world, where China is building a Beijing centric world with less demands on allies’ record on freedom, human rights etc. They seek economic expansion through the Belt and Road project and are not very particular about their partners’ ideology. Turkmenistan has its own interests in a stable Afghanistan with or without democracy. The new major pipeline for natural gas (TAPI), is expected to cross Afghanistan and bring natural gas to Pakistan.
The Taliban’s claim of adopting a moderate approach is a tactic to buy time and secure control over Afghanistan. However, the recent draconian steps prohibiting work for women at the international organizations revealed once again the unchanged face of Taliban. Stagnation will go on for some time with millions of ordinary Afghans locked in hopeless reality with no prospects for dignified life and future.
It is crucial to diagnose what went wrong in Afghanistan not only to understand the country’s future trajectory but also to prevent similar mistakes with state-building interventions from recurring. Undoubtedly, the Afghan government was plagued by deep-rooted corruption, which can be traced back centuries to a tradition of bakhshish. However, the level of corruption was further exacerbated by the astronomical amount of money being pumped into the country.
The Afghan government had very little accountability to its citizens. The focus of accountability was on the donor community since almost half of the national income came from foreign aid, while the amount collected through taxes was very limited.
Eventually, the Taliban’s tactics proved successful in the long term. By spreading terror and horror, they forced the government and donor community to retreat into heavily protected bunkers, resulting in minimal interaction with the real world and a loss of touch with ordinary people. This perpetuated a vicious cycle of less contact, less trust, and more opportunities for corruption and personal gain. When the moment finally arrived, the Afghan population watched indifferently as the foreign-backed government fell.
Unfortunately, it is now too late to look for solutions for Afghanistan as the country has fallen into a deep abyss since August 15th, 2021. It seems that only another cataclysmic event, such as 9/11, can shake the situation enough to bring about change in the years to come. The tragedy lies in the fact that the Afghan people were never given a genuine chance to steer their country towards a better path. A constantly changing array of foreign special representatives and a select few handpicked Afghans were unable to generate substantial momentum and win over the hearts and minds of the Afghan people.
The Afghanistan fiasco highlights the need for a more nuanced and long-term approach to nation-building in fragile states. The failure to build sustainable democratic institutions, empower local communities, and address underlying political and economic grievances made the Afghan government and security forces collapse in a matter of days after external support stopped. Accountability vis a vis own people is critical to ensuring government legitimacy and trust.