No one knows what the future holds for Afghanistan once US-led foreign troops fully withdraw from the country. But the swift battleground victories of the Taliban since the troops’ withdrawal began, have surprised many observers. While a return to Taliban rule is unlikely, few would rule out a descent into civil war.
There is a particular irony to this turn of events. It is happening under the watch of a cerebral head of state globally respected for his expertise on state failure and civil wars. President Ashraf Ghani is often described as a technocrat perhaps because of his stint at the World Bank. But Ghani is a humanistically oriented academic and a policy intellectual. An anthropologist by training, he is deeply knowledgeable of the history, politics, and economics of Afghanistan. “Afghanistan’s Theorist-in-Chief”, the appellation given by American writer George Packer, seems more apt.
Packer asks if President Ashraf Ghani, “an expert on failed states can save his country from collapse”. Ironically, Ghani’s ideas on how to fix failed states — to borrow the title of the book he co-authored with Clare Lockhart — provide the best explanation for the country’s current crisis. Ghani and Lockhart see the failed state not just as a localised problem of individual states. That “forty to sixty states, home to nearly two billion people, are either sliding backward and teetering on the brink of implosion or have already collapsed”, they argue, is “at the heart of a worldwide systematic crisis”.
Fixing Failed States: A Framework for Building a Fractured World is a critique of the international community’s piecemeal and incoherent response to the problem. Ghani and Lockhart offer a framework of coordinated action that could reorient the aid system “towards building capable states”.
If Ghani speaks relentlessly about the need for a state-building strategy, Americans like to talk of nation-building, though oddly, only to disavow it as a goal. “We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build”, declares President Joe Biden. He is not the first US president to disavow nation-building. George W Bush said as a presidential candidate in 2000 that US troops should not be used for nation-building, but “to fight and win war”. Barack Obama and Donald Trump both promised not to get mired in nation-building.
But what do Americans mean by nation-building? It is not what most of us in India would understand by the term. It is a “false friend” — a word in a foreign language that seems familiar but has a different meaning. While the term has lost its saliency in Indian public discourse, it retains its old meaning — building national political communities.
Columnist Vir Sanghvi recently invoked the term in remembering Hindi cinema star Dilip Kumar. “In the 1950s, when the term nation-building was in vogue,” he writes, Jawaharlal Nehru enlisted Kumar “for the task of helping build up morale in the young nation”. Kumar promoted India’s new social welfare programmes, played leading roles in short patriotic films, appeared in events promoting national integration and raised money for the armed forces. And significantly, he did all this free of charge.
Contrast this to the use of the term in American public discourse. US diplomat and security expert James Dobbins defines nation-building as “the use of armed force in the aftermath of a conflict to promote enduring peace and establish a representative government”. When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, Dobbins declared that “no military in the world had more nation-building experience”.
The two meanings could not be more different. To most people in the global South, the idea of an invading force engaging in nation-building would seem suspect. Significantly, when many American civil and military officials disavow nation-building they often do it with a sense of wistfulness. The American general David Petraeus once told a reporter that he understands “the intellectual aversion to nation-building”, but he doesn’t “see how you avoid it”.
When commentators talk unfavourably about military personnel serving short tours of duty in Afghanistan or Iraq, the contrast is with British or other European imperial forces spending most of their careers in the colonies where they could learn the cultures and languages of the “natives”.
It is hard to miss the nostalgia for empires. American journalists reporting from Iraq or Afghanistan referred to a couple of the US ambassadors to those countries as Viceroys. While one can quarrel with this choice of words, there is little doubt that during that time the US ambassador was the most powerful person in that country, at least until the “formal handover of sovereignty” to “the host government”.
In Fixing Failed States, Ghani and his collaborator point out that in half the countries that emerge from conflict there is renewal of hostilities within a decade. If civil war returns to Afghanistan, it will be primarily because the US and its allies lacked the political capacity to target their assistance towards building a functioning state.
It was much easier for US presidents to mobilise Congressional support for a form of assistance where US private contractors were the key agents. The result, to extend one of Ghani’s examples, was that out of each US dollar “generously allocated by the American citizen to support stability in Afghanistan” as much as 80 cents ended up in the US, and at least 10 cents of the rest pocketed by Afghan elites may have ended up in Dubai. Despite evidence that the emergence of a national construction industry could be a critical factor in fixing failed states, no such industry could come up under these circumstances. If Afghanistan were to descend into civil war, President Ghani, of course, will have to share part of the blame, but only for his failure to master politics as the art of the possible despite being dealt a bad hand.
This column first appeared in the print edition on August 2, 2021 under the title ‘A failing state, a visionary president’. The writer is Professor of Political Studies at Bard College, New York