The End Of Nation-Building

History offers a guide for why the American project in Afghanistan went wrong — and for the future of foreign engagement in the country.

An American marine passes out water to evacuees at Hamid Karzai International Airport on August 21, 2021 in Kabul, Afghanistan. (Getty)
Timothy Nunan is a lecturer in the Department of Global History at the Free University of Berlin, where he leads a Freigeist Research Group devoted to the history of Islamism during the Cold War.

Two weeks ago, I received an email urging me to donate to a GoFundMe. But this time, it wasn’t the usual plea from an American seeking to raise money for medical costs. As Afghanistan’s provincial capitals had fallen one by one, wrote an Afghan colleague, they had seen no choice but to turn to GoFundMe to pay for the evacuation of their families from Kabul. The cost of a plane ticket to Istanbul or Dubai had tripled, and as the Taliban approached the Afghan capital, their family, who had worked on issues of women’s education and health, faced retaliation. Since the Taliban took Kabul on August 15, such appeals have continued — now complicated by the fact that the personal details and heart-wrenching stories that make for an effective GoFundMe could be used to target those family members who remain in Afghanistan. Crowdfunding had gone from the United States’ de facto domestic healthcare policy to its foreign policy.

Is this the actually existing liberal international order? Since 2001, but particularly since the “civilian surge” of 2009, the United States engaged in a nation-building campaign in Afghanistan. Afghanistan was supposed to become a model for women’s rights, human rights, media freedom and democracy. Regionally, it was supposed to become the centerpiece of a “New Silk Road” of economic integration between Central Asia and the Indian Subcontinent. “An Afghan farmer,” said then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in a 2011 speech, “should be able to sell pomegranates in Islamabad before he drives on to New Delhi.” Ten years later, this vision of an Afghanistan embedded in the “liberal international order” is dead. The lifespan of the post-withdrawal Afghan government contrasts unfavorably with that of the regime the Soviet Union left behind. Beijing, meanwhile, has announced its willingness to cooperate with the Taliban.

The end to the American nation-building experiment in Afghanistan ought to be welcomed. This is not because Chinese or Russian alternatives are any better, but because it marks — hopefully — an end to decades of attempts by foreign powers to transform Afghanistan in their image and embed the country in an international order not of its own choosing. A tour of Afghanistan’s Cold War history makes this abundantly clear. Though often maligned as “medieval,” Afghanistan has been a laboratory for visions of development and internationalism exported from abroad. Clichés about how Afghanistan is “the graveyard of empires,” analogies with Vietnam, and hysteria about Afghanistan falling to China all overlook the ways in which the country has long been bound up in projects of nation-building and world-making. History, in contrast, provides clues to what may happen next in Afghanistan. It might also serve as an impulse to rebuild “the international community,” which is essentially a failed state on a global scale.

“Afghanistan became a field onto which outsiders could project norms of statehood, development and modernity.”
Graveyard Of Empires Or Laboratory Of Development?

The myth that dominates discussions of Afghanistan is that of “the graveyard of empires.” Afghanistan is a tar baby, the myth goes. Imperial powers’ attempts to civilize the country are doomed to failure, and they may even contribute to the dissolution of empire itself, as the Soviet experience in Afghanistan seems to show.

Yet, the “graveyard of empires” narrative obscures as much as it illuminates. It makes Afghans bit players, rather than protagonists, to their own history. And it fails to explain why Afghanistan has been at the margins of geopolitics for much of its modern history, in particular for much of the twentieth century. The Afghans won their independence from the British in 1919, only to discover that with liberty came an end to British subsidies. New state monopolies and tariffs allowed Kabul’s rulers to gain a measure of economic self-sufficiency. Fundamentally, however, the resources inside Afghanistan’s borders could not pay for the costs of governing the space within those borders.

Thus was born the real pattern to modern Afghan history, namely that of Afghan elites appealing to foreigners to subsidize and build up the Afghan state. Afghanistan became a field onto which outsiders could project norms of statehood, development and modernity. Ottoman and Indian Muslim technocrats flocked to Afghanistan to shore up one of the Muslim world’s few independent states with constitutions, officer schools and printing presses. Like their German and Italian successors in Kabul, these foreigners sought not to conquer Afghanistan, but rather embed it in a coalition of states that could challenge the British-dominated interwar world order.

“Thus was born the real pattern to modern Afghan history, namely that of Afghan elites appealing to foreigners to subsidize and build up the Afghan state.”

But these attempts to modernize Afghanistan rested on a fragile foundation. Attempts to tax the Afghan population or interfere in local affairs could risk revolt. Reliance on foreign aid, meanwhile, privileged deracinated Afghan elites over uncouth tribesmen. And such elites’ efforts to bolster the state’s legitimacy as a homeland of the Pashtun people provoked resistance from Afghanistan’s non-Pashtun minorities. Their irredentist stance toward majority-Pashtun lands in neighboring Pakistan also unnerved Pakistani elites.

The Cold War turbocharged this pattern of dependency. Hitherto, the United States had shown little interest in Afghanistan, not bothering to establish an embassy in Kabul until 1948. American journalists used the term “Afghanistanism” to refer to the practice of reporting on obscure problems in irrelevant countries. By the mid-1950s, however, fears of Soviet influence in the “third world” led Washington to “develop” Afghanistan along the lines of modernization theory. Modernization theory argued that “traditional” societies like Vietnam or Afghanistan could be developed in the direction of Western capitalist modernity through the right combination of reform and foreign aid. American trade and financial experts would reform the country’s byzantine tariff and taxation system. Hydrological engineers would dam Afghanistan and remake it in the image of the American West. Kabul would ban opium production.

These projects fit into a larger American project of modernization as global governance. During the Cold War, Washington demonstrated political flexibility in working with absolute monarchies, military juntas, personal dictatorships and democracies to contain communism. It preferred the nation-state as the vehicle for governance issues from soil salinity to international narcotics control. This forced Afghan leaders into a bind: submit to Washington’s demands to curtail poppy production and risk rural revolt, or ignore them and risk removal from international funding streams. When Afghanistan’s leaders did the former, they were challenged by revolts in the country and became vulnerable to coups. Cold War modernization came full circle in April 1978 when an Afghan Communist educated at Columbia University led a coup of Soviet-trained army officers against the government.

“Modernization theory argued that ‘traditional’ societies like Vietnam or Afghanistan could be developed in the direction of Western capitalist modernity through the right combination of reform and foreign aid.”
The ‘Soviet Union’s Vietnam’?

A second cliche attached to Afghanistan is the floating signifier of Vietnam. Analogies between Saigon in 1975 and Kabul in 2021 have become common more recently, but before that, Afghanistan was said to be “the Soviet Union’s Vietnam.” Yet this analogy, too, obscures more than it reveals. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, it did so not to replace French colonial rule, but to assassinate and replace the Afghan Communists who had seized power a year and a half earlier. The Soviet Union occupied a country nearly four times the size of South Vietnam with an army one-fifth the size of peak U.S. forces in Indochina. Soviet deaths in Afghanistan were one-quarter of those suffered by the United States in Vietnam.

The Soviet campaign in Afghanistan did, however, resemble the Vietnam War in that both attempted to develop a model of post-colonial governance at the scale of the nation-state. In the context of the 1980s, “development” for the Soviet Union meant building up a centralized Communist Party impervious to ultra-left deviation and expanding state-run enterprises. Soviet nation-building was also a form of world-building. Experts from Soviet Georgia managed Kabul’s garbage and public sanitation system; Polish cartographers mapped the country’s geography; Slovak film studios employed Iranian directors to film documentaries about socialist Afghanistan. Afghans were to imagine themselves as but one front in a worldwide movement encompassing Angola, Ethiopia, Cuba and Nicaragua.

Yet the Soviet nation and world-making project faltered. Some limits were familiar ones. Soviet models of state and party-building assumed that people would join Communist Party cells at their place of employment — ideally, factories, coal mines or steel plants. But Afghanistan had few such enterprises. Sunni Islamist parties borrowed much from Communist organizational models and presented themselves as superior agents of modernizing the country. Military aid from Pakistan, the United States and Saudi Arabia allowed such groups to dominate the countryside.

At the same time, socialist world-making came under stress. Death squads and militias challenged Marxist regimes on the ground, and the United States’ refusal to reinvent the United Nations as a forum for global economic governance limited the policy space for regimes in the Global South. And in contrast to the United States, which used its exit from Vietnam to realign its foreign policy with the transnational money flows of globalization, the Soviet Union could perform no such pivot. Under Mikhail Gorbachev, Moscow got out of the game of nation-building and socialist anti-imperialism altogether.

The ‘Encirclement Of Cities:’ From Maoism To The Taliban

A third myth that the American collapse in Afghanistan has revived is that it will accelerate the rise of China. Chinese state media took advantage of the debacle to suggest that Washington lacks the resolve to defend Taiwan. The Taliban’s takeover may give Beijing the opportunity, moreover, to develop the world’s second-largest copper mine some twenty miles outside of Kabul. China is, however, no newcomer to Afghanistan. Its current position reflects its historical willingness to withdraw from the project of world and nation-building earlier than its adversaries in the Cold War. Much of what happens next, however, will depend on whether China can restrain itself from the urge to transform Afghanistan and embed it in a chimerical project of international order.

In theory, Afghanistan should have been an optimal biotope for the Maoist ideology that Beijing propagated throughout the developing world in the 1960s. Maoism saw the world in terms of a “global countryside” encircling the “cities” of the industrialized and complacent colonial metropoles (the Soviet Union included). Against Khrushchev’s and Brezhnev’s policies of peaceful coexistence and detente, Mao preached armed struggle and self-reliance. Yet rather than direct resources toward the overwhelmingly agrarian country with which it shares a small border, China did not seek to export revolution to Afghanistan during the Cold War.

Afghanistan was one of the first countries to recognize a diplomatically isolated People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1950 and establish diplomatic relations in 1955. During a visit to Kabul in 1957, Zhou Enlai (the first premier of the PRC) offered economic and technical aid to Afghanistan and noted with pleasure that Afghanistan’s rulers shared their opposition to American imperialism. After the two countries demarcated their borders from 1963-1965, China offered Afghanistan a $28 million interest-free loan to build light industrial projects in eastern Afghanistan and Kabul. As China proclaimed itself the capital of international revolution, it maintained cordial relations with the monarchy to its west.

Beijing’s restraint vis-à-vis exporting Maoism to Afghanistan did not prevent Afghan intellectuals from taking up and reworking Maoism for their own purposes. From Sendero Luminoso in Peru to the Naxalite movement in India, history furnishes many examples of intellectuals in agrarian countries adapting Maoism to their own needs. Afghanistan is no exception. Educated Afghans embraced Maoism as an ideology of self-reliance and emancipation. Maoism’s influence was especially powerful among the country’s oppressed Hazara Shi’a minority. Afghan Shi’a bemoaned those “handful of people who had become intellectuals, ruminated on scum […] and plunged our people into the dragon’s maw.” Indeed, with the collapse of the Afghan government last week, there were many on Chinese social media arguing “that the Taliban had copied some of the tactics of Mao Zedong, who led the Communist Party of China to power by rallying support in remote areas, eventually seizing power by surrounding the cities from the countryside.”

Yet in the 1970s, Beijing turned away from its vision of world revolution altogether. The Chinese hosted Richard Nixon in Beijing in 1972. Beijing turned toward supporting regimes in the Global South, often in spite of, and in some cases due to, their opposition to socialism. Beijing helped Sri Lanka suppress Communist insurgencies; sided with the United States and South Africa against the leftist regime in Angola; and recognized the Pinochet regime in Chile. Beijing also devoted some 7% of its GDP to aid to developing countries. Unlike Moscow, which increasingly sought to transform regimes in Southern Africa, the Horn of Africa and Afghanistan into simulacra of itself, Beijing supported an eclectic range of forces as it rebuilt its own economy at home.

China’s retreat from socialist world-making contributed to the fortunes of Islamism. Traveling through Afghanistan in 1972, one aide to Ayatollah Khomeini observed that China’s reactionary turn created an ideological vacuum that Khomeini’s anti-imperialism could fill. China’s influence on Afghanistan would continue to be felt through its support for the Afghan jihad and mujahidin’s denunciation of the USSR as a “social imperialist” power.

Much of what happens next in Afghanistan depends on whether China can continue to resist the nation-building temptation that has plagued its rivals. In December 1989, Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen explained to the Soviets that China sought nothing more than “an authentically independent, non-aligned state” in Afghanistan. China’s capabilities and international prestige today are vastly greater than they were then, but its ambitions to transform Afghanistan appear limited. Beijing will recognize the Taliban and ensure that they, Pakistan and the Central Asian states sign on to China’s regional “anti-terrorism” initiatives. China is also likely to encourage the Taliban to continue the Ghani government’s participation in the One Belt, One Road Initiative. Yet the history of development aid to Afghanistan is marked by good intentions gone awry; China’s white elephant projects at home and “debt trap” projects abroad do not offer grounds for optimism.

“Much of what happens next in Afghanistan depends on whether China can continue to resist the nation-building temptation that has plagued its rivals.”
Building An International Community Worth The Name

What, then, of the “liberal international order”? In light of the promises that the United States and its European allies have made to Afghans since 2001, they have an obligation to extend refuge to the Afghan people. Recent rhetoric from European politicians does not provide much grounds for optimism. In Germany, which will elect a successor to Angela Merkel on September 26, the candidate of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union recently stated that “the mistakes in the handling of the Syrian Civil War cannot be allowed to be made again. 2015 should not be repeated.” The day after Kabul fell to the Taliban, French President Emmanuel Macron proposed a joint EU initiative to “anticipate and protect ourselves against significant irregular migratory flows.” The Prime Minister of Estonia announced her readiness to accept 10 Afghan refugees; the Portuguese say they will accept 50.

Responses from the United States and Canada have been more ambitious but fail to respond to the gravity of the challenge. Justin Trudeau has pledged to resettle some 20,000 Afghans — above all, women activists, human rights advocates and minorities. Existing American channels allow for the resettlement of Afghans who worked directly for the U.S. military, American non-governmental organizations, or projects or programs funded by the U.S. government. Yet these channels often assume that Afghans can make their way to a safe third country to apply. They also leave little room for the vast majority of Afghans who do not fall into these categories but seek a decent life.

What would the alternative look like? At a minimum, the United States should extend an open door policy for Afghan refugees. It should provide government-run rescue flights for SIV and P2 visa applicants, and it should do everything possible to keep the U.S. Embassy in Kabul open to process applications. In addition to doing everything in its power to restore commercial aviation to Kabul, it should encourage those countries most likely to harbor large numbers of such refugees — Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan — to drop visa requirements for those fleeing Afghanistan. To do so, it should help countries that have taken in Afghans, like Tajikistan, build refugee camps and guarantee transit flights for Afghans out of countries like Uzbekistan that have been more skeptical about admitting refugees.

The Biden administration will have to make the moral case for resettling Afghans bluntly and unapologetically. The likes of Stephen Miller (former advisor to President Trump) have already accused Biden of “doing to America what Angela Merkel did to Germany and Europe.” Let them. Here, as elsewhere, there is an opportunity for Biden to position himself against the leading terrorist threat to the United States — white nationalism — and on the side of those who fought for democracy.

“The United States could use the Afghan debacle to pivot away from nation-building and toward global governance.”

Ultimately, the United States could use the Afghan debacle to pivot away from nation-building and toward global governance. American resettlement of Afghans offers an opportunity for Biden to articulate a multilateral approach to refugee crises, including those driven by climate change. More broadly, the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan present an opportunity to restore much-ballyhooed American credibility. The more that Biden can show that the United States is serious about reducing its own emissions and contributing to global vaccination campaigns, the more likely it is to be seen to care about more than just its own interests and be able to influence other countries. Such a posture would not transcend great power geopolitics. It would demand modesty to accept that the United States’ ability to transform foreign societies is limited. Nor would such a pivot save Afghanistan.

But as a tour of that county’s history shows, Afghanistan has long served as a mirror of the international community as it actually exists. Steps like cooperating with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan to resettle Afghan refugees, articulating a multilateral refugee initiative and using the November 2021 UN Climate Change Conference to find a modus vivendi on climate policy may lack the drama of nation-building. They will not transcend interstate geopolitics. But building an international community worth the name may be the most decent thing the United States can do in the medium term to help Afghanistan recover from decades of militarized nation-building and utopian visions of international cooperation.