State-Building Vs Nation-Building: Was US Policy In Afghanistan Caught In A False Dichotomy?

State-Building Vs Nation-Building: Was US Policy In Afghanistan Caught In A False Dichotomy?
With the USA’s rapid escape from the ashes of its Afghanistan adventure, questions have risen about what exactly the superpower was doing in the region for two decades – by no means a small amount of time. With the Taliban having seized territory at an alarming rate from the US-propelled Afghan government, criticism has magnetized towards the USA’s fickle-minded and futile efforts to restore peace in Afghanistan. Today, Afghanistan seems to be back to square one, with the only difference being the lack of US interest in it.

As a response to all this criticism, President Joe Biden has categorically clarified that nation-building was, in fact, never on the agenda of the United States. Historically, his statement leans for support on former President George W. Bush’s statement in an NSC meeting during the early days of the Afghan war in October 2001, in which he vehemently rejected the idea of using US military for nation-building. He made it clear that “our forces are not peacekeepers.”

The military plan designed for intervention in Afghanistan by the US Central Command (USCENTCOM) back in 2001 delineated three objectives, none of which gave any promises of carrying out a process of nation-building. American objectives were to cripple the Al-Qaeda group, uproot the government of the Taliban and carry out a process of state-building in Afghanistan. This state-building was to be achieved through rebuilding infrastructure, constructing hospitals and schools, providing humanitarian aid and propelling some semblance of a democratic government.
The complementary functions of state- and nation-building are held as well-established custom in post-war reconstruction – something which the USA massively missed, to the observer's great surprise

With such a coherent and seemingly fool-proof agenda for Afghanistan, the USA ironically still missed the target. It conveniently and consciously steered clear of the idea of nation-building in Afghanistan. Perhaps it was simply reluctant to even consider such a task, after its longer-than-expected involvement in Bosnia, Haiti and Somalia – and the scant gains in each case.

Despite the dire need for nation-building, the Bush administration remained extremely wary of any sort of long-term commitments in Afghanistan and envisioned quite a limited role for the USA in the country: remove the Taliban, establish infrastructure and bid adieu.

But, alas, as the saying goes, shortcuts aren’t always!

The USA’s focus on state-building transformed into a hollow objective due to the lack of its coupling with a process of nation-building. That sticky situation of a long drawn involvement, which the Bush administration had tried to bypass, became precisely a nightmarish twenty-year-long reality. The complementary functions of state- and nation-building are held as well-established custom in post-war reconstruction – something which the USA massively missed, to the observer's great surprise. In this line of thought, nation-building and state-building are not supplementary to each other: instead, for the success of one, the simultaneous practice of the other is required. The USA in its top-down reconstruction approach to reform Afghan governance structures, provide better social services and improved infrastructure, missed out on the reform and reconciliation that was required at the grassroots level of the vastly divided tribal society.

Afghan women join protests in the aftermath of the Taliban take-over

What was and is needed in Afghanistan is the creation of a superior Afghan identity that rises above the ethno-sectarian tribal identities, so as to provide a clear cut path to the stabilization and protection of the country. This could have been achieved not by mere capacity-building for the state, but by combining it with nation-building efforts. Had that been done, the results reaped from the US adventure in Afghanistan might have been far more fruitful and promising. Efforts to build schools and hospitals, develop improved infrastructure and establish a more just governance system ought to have aided in removing the biggest divisive factor common in ethno-sectarian conflicts, i.e. socio-economic deprivation and marginalization of minority communities. A state-building process framed by the idea of nation-building could have aided in making what is now the Afghanistan ‘debacle’ into a success.

However, the USA’s extreme caution to avoid engaging in Afghanistan for long enough to help restructure the social fabric, landed it in the very puddle it wanted to avoid in the first place. The expected year-long engagement stretched to three years, then seven which then stretched to a whopping twenty years in the region. To make matters worse, Afghanistan stands right there from where it all started - with the Taliban emboldened even more by the fact that they managed to wear out a giant superpower on their land, and are now successfully reclaiming what they lost. With pervasive corruption, embezzled funds, rigged elections, shallow identity politics and the lack of a strong centralized government; state-building efforts made by the USA during these twenty years in Afghanistan are now proving futile in the face of the Taliban resurgence.

A lack of clarity in the US on how long it wanted to stay in Afghanistan, what it wanted to achieve and why it wanted to be there in the first place has taken a toll on Washington's prestige in the region. And perhaps the worst part, from a US perspective, is that these questions continue to remain unanswered despite its exit from the region!