Statebuilding failed in Afghanistan but why do we continue to believe that it can succeed?

PhD candidate in the Department of International Development Aoife McCullough argues that the long history of failure of Western interventionist statebuilding projects should make us reconsider their efficacy. This article is part of a series on the ID blog, ‘Afghanistan: After the fall‘.

The colossal failure of the statebuilding project in Afghanistan has raised serious questions about this ambitious endeavour. It is not the first time that statebuilding has come under fire with critics pointing to a long list of dismal results. Some even argue that statebuilding projects create or reinforce the very characteristics that they are designed to remedy. But despite this damning evidence, the international community continues to invest in similar projects: statebuilding projects are currently underway in Mali, Somalia, and the DRC. So why do Western governments and multilateral agencies continue to spend billions on projects that are likely to fail? In this blog, I identify the misguided thinking that leads us to believe that statebuilding offers a way to stabilise conflict-affected countries.

1. If state fragility is the problem, then the solution must be to build back the state

State fragility discourse still dominates policy circles despite it being a vague, tautological and empirically slippery concept. In conflict-affected countries, the state is often imagined as weak or absent, where its absence leads to ‘ungoverned spaces’. The task of an international intervention is to rebuild the state so that these spaces can be governed and stabilised. But outside the world of policy, ungoverned spaces don’t actually exist and the state is rarely completely absent. In places where there is no immediate evidence of state presence in the form of state buildings, roads etc. the state is likely to be exerting power, or at very least brokering power, through traditional authorities, informal militias or trading and smuggling networks. 

2. It seems possible to legitimate a state through delivering basic services

A legitimate state is more likely to be politically stable. The logic behind many statebuilding projects is alluringly simple: if the state can deliver basic services, citizens will consider it the rightful authority. In research carried out by the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium, this assumption was tested in a range of post-conflict countries. We found that satisfaction with some services was associated with more positive perceptions of legitimacy but these services were not the same across countries. In Uganda, satisfaction with education was associated with more positive perceptions of legitimacy while in Pakistan, it had little effect. In Pakistan, healthcare seemed to matter more. These findings indicate that building a legitimate state is not a technical exercise of getting basic services up and running. Rather, services only seem to matter when they acquire symbolic meaning or salience in the negotiation of legitimacy. While supporting a state to deliver basic services may be a valid investment for humanitarian purposes, unless those services have acquired political salience, they are unlikely to lead to strengthening state legitimacy.

But if statebuilding projects invested in salient services, would they be more likely to succeed? They might have slightly more impact, but the endeavour will still be fraught with difficulties. For example, in a divided society, a service may matter for one group in the population but not for another. Salient services are likely to be part of the contested political settlement and require nuanced, politically-informed interventions. For example, the predatory nature of the Forestry Service in Mali is linked to radicalisation of Peul nomads, but as it is one of the only departments that collects taxes in rural areas, it will be extremely difficult to reform.

3. Surely building a state, even if dysfunctional, is better than no state

The state is not just tangible buildings and working institutions. It is also an idea that is informed both by the collective memories of group experiences of the state and individual encounters with state representatives. When people in northern Pakistan were asked to describe an encounter they had with the state, many of their stories focused on how they were mistreated by doctors, bureaucrats and tax inspectors. These negative encounters were not interpreted as one-off instances of unprofessionalism but reinforced group narratives that the state was only for the elite. This makes statebuilding in places where there are deep divisions between groups a highly risky endeavour. A negative encounter with a state official could cause more bitterness than the absence of an encounter. 71% of former members of extremist groups from across Africa named “government action” as the specific incident that convinced them to join. The problem with much statebuilding in post-conflict areas is that is seen as a task of building back rather than a process of identifying the aspects of state function that enrage certain groups and then renegotiating the functioning of those parts of the state.

4. The alternative to statebuilding is societal breakdown

Defenders of statebuilding acknowledge that it is a flawed endeavour but argue that the alternative is failed states that become hotbeds of terrorism, cybercrime and arms dealing. A Western policy maker’s worst fears. But is this really the case?  When Somaliland emerged from a civil war in 1991, a Western supported statebuilding project was not embarked on. Sarah Philips argues that the relative order that Somaliland enjoys, in comparison with Somalia, is partly because the state is incapable of reliably controlling violence. Somaliland is perhaps an exceptional case, but at the same time, the dichotomy between flawed statebuilding and absence of order is false. There are alternatives to statebuilding in its current form. Dialogue, negotiation and coalition building could lead to consensus on how to reform the state. Using this approach, the emphasis would be on changing how the state functions so that it is more acceptable to a wider set of groups rather than simply rebuilding the state. In Mali, the Algiers Peace Agreement attempted to create a space for dialogue and consensus on what the priorities should be but as jihadist groups were not involved in these negotiations, the dialogue and agreement is only partial at best.

5. Statebuilding is possible alongside the War on Terror

In his blog for this series, Florian Weigand describes how drones and house raids, key tactics in the War on Terror in Afghanistan, created a sense of perpetual insecurity and undermined the possibility of building a legitimate state. In Mali and Somalia, similar tactics are being used to suppress Islamist groups. It is possible that this experience is also undermining statebuilding efforts, as happened in Afghanistan, but little is being written about this contradiction in international interventions.

Ultimately, statebuilding in its current form is based on a Western concept of the state that relies on an idealised rational-legal bureaucracy as described by Weber. Statebuilding by outsiders is extraordinarily difficult. By aiming for an idealised state and using strategies that are based on false assumptions, we are continually setting ourselves up for failure.


The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the International Development LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science. You can read more articles in this series, ‘Afghanistan: After the fall’ hereID hosted a panel discussion on ‘The implosion of the Afghan State: what next for women and the nation?’ as part of the 2021-22 Cutting Edge Issues in Development lecture series on Friday 1 October which you can watch back on YouTube here.

Photo: Crowds in front of Kabul International Airport, 17 August 2021. Credit: VOA on Wikimedia Commons.


Statebuilding failed in Afghanistan but why do we continue to believe that it can succeed?