After twenty years, hundreds of billions of dollars, and tens of thousands of lives lost, America is done(ish?) with its war in Afghanistan. By this point it is painfully obvious that effectively nothing has been accomplished. The war began as an effort to root out the terrorist organization Al Qaeda’s presence and eliminate the fundamentalist Islamist Taliban movement which protected Al Qaeda and controlled most of the country.
Within a few years of the United States’ intervention, however, the American mission evolved into a project of nation-building, or a process of forced regime change and the construction of a liberal democratic state in the wake of what existed before. Today’s situation in Afghanistan is a crucial example of how this long-dominant strategy of spreading democracy simply doesn’t work.
The basic problem with nation-building, which has so catastrophically reared its head in Afghanistan, is that it makes it very difficult for a domestic government to establish the kind of ties with citizens needed to firmly establish legitimacy. After all, a government for, by, and of the people must be supported by and accountable to the people.
In Afghanistan, the US-backed government relied on the US and other foreign actors for security and economic support. As a result, their most important constituents were the agents of foreign governments, rather than their own people. In a twist of brutal irony, the western-educated and most recent president Ashraf Ghani once wrote a book on fixing failed states
In 2019, for example, seventy-five percent of Afghanistan’s budget came from foreign sources rather than domestic taxation. One can easily see how government officials like Ghani saw these foreign sources as more important than their own citizens for raising the funds they needed to do their jobs. Access to easy foreign money directs leaders’ incentives away from building the tax base that they need to fund the domestic necessities which endow a state with legitimacy.
In a similar vein, Afghan leaders knew that the presence of US troops was crucial to maintaining their power. In one critical example of the failure of nation-building, the United States spent $83 billion on training the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, which crumbled in the face of the Taliban’s advance over the past several months. The troops themselves seemed to recognize that they were ill-equipped to hold off the Taliban, frequently cutting deals to surrender. The entire Afghan state, then, from its military to its ability to provide domestic necessities, was built on the most fragile of foundations. Its subsequent collapse is easy to explain.
All of this poses a significant problem for citizens in the United States who believe that the model of government that they enjoy, in spite of its flaws, is one that citizens around the world ought to be able to enjoy. But the simple reality is that liberal democracy cannot be imposed from above, at least not as we’ve been trying to do it. When such true self-government comes about, it is the result of decades of committed work from citizens of the country in question, like America’s own 18th century revolutionaries, not agents of a foreign power.
The painful truth is that those who can hold power in a country are those domestic agents who can exercise a monopoly on violence—and in this case, the Taliban comes closest to matching that definition. This hardly means that the United States should lend a helping hand to a morally reprehensible regime, but it does mean that we need to develop a new model of democratization assistance which relies neither on the military nor on development funds alone, which have failed to provide much more than temporary relief.
After twenty years of this strategy of nation-building, we could do very little to build a strong and legitimate liberal democracy. Clearly, a new way is needed. In the decades to come, the United States can hope that the citizens of Afghanistan achieve the goal of self-government, but it will have to make peace with the fact that it cannot shape faraway nations simply according to its whims. What’s more, we need to get it out of our heads that somehow the solution to what will likely be a brutal regime under the Taliban is going back and doing it all over again.