Unforeseen results of nation-building

The Afghanistan catastrophe has put forth some hard questions about the feasibility of nation-building as a foreign policy objective. Why has it failed in Afghanistan when, as many argue, it worked brilliantly in Germany and Japan after World War II?

The heads of Afghanistan’s government and U.S. Department of Defense, in 2006 - Nation-Building
Arlington, Sept. 25, 2006: Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai (L) is greeted with full honors at a ceremony at the Pentagon by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld; he met President Bush later that week. Initially wary of nation-building, American leaders changed their minds in the wake of the early successes of the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq. © Getty Images

In a nutshell

  • The challenges of nation-building by intervening powers are immense and poorly understood by policymakers
  • Russia and the U.S. had nation-building ambitions in Afghanistan but sought to impose radically different systems
  • Nation-building failures tend to be very costly to both the intervening power and targeted society

The rapid fall of Afghanistan back into the hands of the Taliban after two decades of Western efforts to change its traditionalist society cast new doubts on the concept of nation-building. The United States and its allies invested heavily in the Afghanistan project. However, the many lives sacrificed – both military and civilian – and trillions of dollars invested seem to have gone to waste. 

Before the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, President George W. Bush (2001-2009) and many U.S. conservatives talked of ushering in a new era of democratic change, freedom and prosperity in the Middle East. Many Afghans, too, embraced the idea of a pro-freedom, pro-democracy nation. This noble plan has largely failed. For future strategic reference, it is critical to examine the challenges of nation-building projects. 

Unintended consequences

The first lesson from the extended Afghanistan experiment is hardly new: foreign interventions, aimed at nation-building or not, often lead to unpredicted consequences. 

In July 1979, U.S. President Jimmy Carter (1977-1981) authorized nonlethal aid to insurgent mujahideen (“those engaged in jihad”) groups in Afghanistan. After the Soviets entered Kabul at Christmas 1979 to install a new pro-Moscow regime in response to an anti-communist insurrection, the U.S. launched “Operation Cyclone.” It boiled down to the Central Intelligence Agency’s covert supplies of “lethal aid” to the “freedom fighters” resisting the Soviets. An important aspect was that the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) played the middleman, providing the training and the weapons. Operation Cyclone lasted until the Soviet Union’s implosion in 1991. 

The Taliban promised stability, security and an end to tribal conflicts.

The U.S.’s obvious objective was to help fight a Soviet-backed regime, as per the Cold War “containment strategy,” and make sure that the Soviet Union’s strategic reach did not come too close to the Persian Gulf and the “warm waters” of the Indian Ocean. The operation also aimed to reinforce the U.S. strategic entente with the large oil-producing Saudi kingdom, which cofinanced the anti-Islamist campaign. 

To a large degree, the U.S. operation also helped create a Vietnam-like trap for Moscow that would, as President Carter’s National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski put it, “bleed the Soviets” – in terms of men, money and international standing. Indeed, the Red Army’s disastrous engagement in Afghanistan contributed to the collapse of the Soviet empire and the end of the Cold War. 

This outcome was undoubtedly good news for freedom and democracy. However, the chaos of the civil war between the various insurgent Afghan factions and warlords that followed the Soviet retreat enabled a Pakistani-supported fundamentalist organization of religion students to create, with the help of ISI, the Taliban Islamic Emirate in 1996. The Taliban promised stability, security and an end to tribal conflicts. 

However, it was a radical Sunni Islamist polity with a record of egregious human rights abuses that emerged. The world was shocked by the Taliban’s blowing up of the Bamiyan Buddha historical statues in 2001. The emirate welcomed and harbored Osama bin Laden, the founder of the terror group al-Qaeda and the mastermind of its 9/11 attacks on U.S. soil. In an ironic twist of history, that attack had an unintended consequence:  it led the U.S. to intervene in Afghanistan in late 2001.

Two nation-building projects

The Afghan rebellion in the late 1970s was, in fact, a reaction to nation-building. In April 1978, Mohammed Daoud Khan, Afghanistan’s first president (in power since 1973), an autocratic, socialist-leaning reformer trying to escape Moscow’s grip – was assassinated in a coup led by the Afghan military and its communist party (the so-called Saur Revolution). The Soviets supported the coup, and the power went to loyal communists, Muhammad Taraki and his aide, Hafizullah Amin. The tandem immediately initiated collectivist reforms to redistribute land and reduce the role of Islam, notably in education. Eventually, Amin had Taraki murdered in October 1979, only to be killed himself by Soviet operatives on December 27 of the same year, as part of Operation Storm 333 that began the Soviet-Afghan War.  

A large section of the Afghan population, especially girls and women, certainly benefited from the effort.

Their communist-style reforms were rejected by the pro-western elite and, most importantly, by most of the rural population. The attempts to unroot traditional ways and institutions were accompanied by brutal force and large-scale executions of opponents. That was enough to trigger a rebellion against the communist nation-building. Fearing Amin’s poor capacity to govern, the Kremlin had him replaced with Babrak Karmal (1979-1986) as it began its invasion: it was the start of the Soviet 10-year-long quagmire.

Fast forward to Spring 2002. While punishing the Taliban and killing bin Laden (the latter took place only in 2011) had been its original mission, the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan soon turned into nation-building as well. President Bush, previously an opponent of such an endeavor, had changed his mind. The project was enticing, and a large section of the Afghan population, especially girls and women, certainly benefited from the effort. 

However, as we see today, the nation-building project under U.S. supervision and its seemingly unlimited material resources also failed to deliver desired results. Some say the investment was insufficient, even after 20 years. Others believe the task was unachievable and prohibitively costly.

Nations and states

Advocates of nation-building usually point to the successful examples of Germany and Japan after World War II. However, in 1945, these countries featured largely homogenous societies. The allies’ effort was not building the nations but putting them back on a more democratic track and helping their reconstruction.

A picture of the Taliban indoctrinating female students at a public university in Kabul - Nation-Building
Kabul Education University, Sept. 11, 2021: Women attend a program supporting the Taliban after the takeover of the capital. Publicly, the Taliban declared an amnesty across the country and promised to respect human rights and the rule of law – according to Afghan tradition. In reality, Afghan people are the victims, especially women. © Getty Images

This is not to argue that nation-building should never be tried, but ethnic fragmentation – as in Afghanistan – poses a formidable roadblock. State-building can help accelerate nation-building, but then, a sort of chicken-and-egg puzzle arises.

In any case, removing one government entails a moral obligation of replacing it with a more stable one, lest chaos follows, as in Libya after the toppling of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. A regime replacement operation requires functional institutions such as an army, a judiciary system, and the executive branch to be successful. Also, the “ownership” of decisions by local authorities is of critical importance. Unfortunately, the nature of the interventions in Afghanistan excluded positive institutional evolution. Severe incentive and knowledge problems prompted a succession of unintended consequences. 

National democracy

Nation-building in the context of an asymmetric war poses insurmountable challenges. Asymmetric wars are essentially impossible to win, meaning that there will be a long-lasting rebellion against the imposed rule, which prevents any sort of reconciliation essential for nation-building. When one section of the society benefits from or collaborates with foreign intervention, inspiring national unity becomes quite a task. This is especially true when counterinsurgency means air strikes causing numerous civilian casualties. People feel stuck between insurgents and the government – unsure who to trust, they keep their distance from both camps. Hardly a fertile ground for a Jeffersonian democracy to bloom on.

An inclusive government, even including the Taliban, should have been sought in Afghanistan early on.

Multiethnicity only reinforces these obstacles, as various ethnic clans have diverging interests and worldviews. Against this backdrop, forcibly introducing Western-style democracy (or rather, “elections”) with a winner-take-all presidential system only compounds problems. In place of national dialogue and a power-sharing scheme, one dominant clan formally rules over the others. As we described elsewhere, institutional copy-pasting rarely fits the local institutional needs.

Also, this is a recipe for neopatrimonialism and all-encompassing corruption, as the clans in power recruit and finance their networks to build loyalties. And naturally, it feeds popular mistrust and cynicism about the political process. The administration is not inclusive, and employment is not based on merit. An inclusive government, even including the Taliban, should have been sought in Afghanistan early on, but the U.S. refused this option in 2002. As a result, the government essentially ruled the capital city of Kabul while other parts of the country were left to warlords. 

Security matters

Another core institution for nation-building is the army. In Iraq, the dissolution of the military for anti-Baathist reasons led to a catastrophe. In Afghanistan, too, the U.S. ruled out in the early years a sizeable Afghan army (mainly for financial reasons, as U.S. Congress had little incentive to earmark large amounts for the project). It took a decade to recruit 130,000 men (including for the police forces) when, according to General David Petraeus, one of the commanders of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan, about 600,000 were needed. 

However, the “surge” in U.S. troops in 2009-2011 created a feeling of a lack of Afghan ownership. Besides, the Afghan army was not diverse (essentially ethnically Tajik), not well trained and dependent on U.S. contractors. Troops’ morale was weakened by corruption at the top and irregular or absent salaries – not exactly good incentives to fight. As the flash surrender to Taliban units has demonstrated, the Afghan forces lately were essentially a ghost army. 

Aid dilemmas

Foreign aid poses serious dilemmas. In the context of nation-building, the problems can become even worse. Aid not only creates dependency but also, in a neopatrimonial state, feeds and enhances corruption. On top of that, the West forces’ constant insistence that they would be leaving Afghanistan soon, taking the aid with them – as opposed to departing after conditions are met – incentivized the reaping of short-term “benefits.” And corruption is bad for nation-building. 

To counter this problem, many aid and development agencies short-circuited the Afghan government using “autonomous projects.” One unintended consequence was eliminating the government’s ownership of such projects, and thus an even greater deficit of accountability. 

The potential for nation-building, or at least state-building, rested on very shaky foundations given the local conditions.

Moreover, coordination between various projects was lacking. The emphasis on “monitoring and evaluation” aspects, on “what is seen” and measurable in the short term, worked against broader, longer-term and fundamental goals, as emphasized by the July 2021 report of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). Schools were built but there were no tables or teachers, etc. Also, as foreign agencies recruited staff at much higher wages, the local administration was bled of competent personnel. This also obstructed state-building.

Bad neighbors

For a nation-building project to have a chance of success, the intervening party must ensure maximum support for it from the neighbors. As the Soviet and U.S. experiences in Afghanistan have demonstrated, the lack of such consent can be damning. In particular, Pakistan’s geopolitical strategy was to support the Taliban. That important neighbor played a double game in Afghanistan that the U.S.-led coalition could not counter. 

NATO partners have long been wary of the extent to which Pakistan focused on an “Islamic” Afghanistan to counter the possible Pashtun nationalism threatening its own northwestern border. In its cold war with India (which has invested a lot in Afghanistan), Pakistan also sees the country as a client state, pivotal to its “strategic depth” policy. Hence Pakistan’s support to the Taliban. 

Unfortunately, it is too late for the Afghan people, who are back to square one after two decades of devastating conflict. The potential for nation-building, or at least state-building, rested on very shaky foundations given the local conditions. Bad choices made and the lack of awareness rendered the whole effort futile. General Douglas Lute, the Bush and Obama administrations’ “War Czar” responsible for overseeing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, confessed: “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan – we didn’t know what we were doing. … We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.” 

This neatly sums up the idea that the hurdle to nation-building is foremost the so-called knowledge problem; it hinders every foreign intervention from changing local institutions – an immense task, given their complexity in a multiethnic society.



The future of nation-building depends on several parameters. Should a new wave of terrorist attacks be linked to a “failed state,” the lessons just learned could be easily forgotten. Also, the need to secure crucial natural resources from volatile developing countries may lead to decisions to impose security and stability there through some form of nation-building. Such a scenario also cannot be discarded. 

And then, there are vested interests in the nation-building business, financed with taxpayers’ money; these range from security and arms companies to the international aid bureaucracy. These actors’ ability to lobby for new nation-building experiments that also happen to open new markets for them remains considerable. Weighing on the other scale, Washington’s ability to corral its allies and partners into a new nation-building adventure will probably be more limited, given the challenges to America’s global role. 

Finally, as authoritarian states become more powerful, nation-building “from within” existing states – as opposed to “from the outside” – will likely intensify.

Related reports

Scroll to top