ISTANBUL – The United States invaded Afghanistan 20 years ago with the hope of rebuilding a country that had become a scourge to the world and its own people. As General Stanley McChrystal explained in the run-up to the 2009 surge of US troops, the objective was that the “government of Afghanistan sufficiently control its territory to support regional stability and prevent its use for international terrorism.”
Now, with more than 100,000 lives lost and some $2 trillion spent, all America has to show for its effort are this month’s scenes of a desperate scramble out of the country – a humiliating collapse reminiscent of the fall of Saigon in 1975. What went wrong?
Pretty much everything, but not in the way that most people think. While poor planning and a lack of accurate intelligence certainly contributed to the disaster, the problem has in fact been 20 years in the making.
The US understood early on that the only way to create a stable country with some semblance of law and order was to establish robust state institutions. Encouraged by many experts and now-defunct theories, the US military framed this challenge as an engineering problem: Afghanistan lacked state institutions, a functioning security force, courts, and knowledgeable bureaucrats, so the solution was to pour in resources and transfer expertise from foreigners. NGOs and the broader Western foreign-aid complex were there to help in their own way (whether the locals wanted them to or not). And because their work required some degree of stability, foreign soldiers – mainly NATO forces, but also private contractors – were deployed to maintain security.
In viewing nation-building as a top-down, “state-first” process, US policymakers were following a venerable tradition in political science. The assumption is that if you can establish overwhelming military dominance over a territory and subdue all other sources of power, you can then impose your will. Yet in most places, this theory is only half right, at best; and in Afghanistan, it was dead wrong.
Of course, Afghanistan needed a functioning state. But the presumption that one could be imposed from above by foreign forces was misplaced. As James Robinson and I argue in our 2019 book, The Narrow Corridor, this approach makes no sense when your starting point is a deeply heterogeneous society organized around local customs and norms, where state institutions have long been absent or impaired.
True, the top-down approach to state-building has worked in some cases (such as the Qin dynasty in China or the Ottoman Empire). But most states have been constructed not by force but by compromise and cooperation. The successful centralization of power under state institutions more commonly involves the assent and cooperation of the people subject to it. In this model, the state is not imposed on a society against its wishes; rather, state institutions build legitimacy by securing a modicum of popular support.
This does not mean that the US should have worked with the Taliban. But it does mean that it should have worked more closely with different local groups, rather than pouring resources into the corrupt, non-representative regime of Afghanistan’s first post-Taliban president, Hamid Karzai (and his brothers). Ashraf Ghani, the US-backed Afghan president who fled to the United Arab Emirates this week, co-authored a book in 2009 documenting how this strategy had fueled corruption and failed to achieve its stated purpose. Once in power, however, Ghani continued down the same road.
The situation that the US confronted in Afghanistan was even worse than is typical for aspiring nation builders. From the very beginning, the Afghan population perceived the US presence as a foreign operation intended to weaken their society. That was not a bargain they wanted.
What happens when top-down state-building efforts are proceeding against a society’s wishes? In many places, the only attractive option is to withdraw. Sometimes, this takes the form of a physical exodus, as James C. Scott shows in The Art of Not Being Governed, his study of the Zomia people in Southeast Asia. Or it could mean co-habitation without cooperation, as in the case of Scots in Britain or Catalans in Spain. But in a fiercely independent, well-armed society with a long tradition of blood feuds and a recent history of civil war, the more likely response is violent conflict.
Perhaps things could have turned out differently if Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency had not supported the Taliban when it was militarily defeated, if NATO drone attacks had not further alienated the population, and if US-backed Afghan elites had not been extravagantly corrupt. But the cards were stacked against America’s state-first strategy.
And the fact is, US leaders should have known better. As Melissa Dell and Pablo Querubín document, America adopted a similar top-down strategy in Vietnam, and it backfired spectacularly. Places that were bombed to subdue the Viet Cong became even more supportive of the anti-American insurgency.
Even more telling is the US military’s own recent experience in Iraq. As research by Eli Berman, Jacob Shapiro, and Joseph Felter shows, the “surge” there worked much better when Americans tried to win hearts and minds by cultivating the support of local groups. Similarly, my own work with Ali Cheema, Asim Khwaja, and James Robinson finds that in rural Pakistan, people turn to non-state actors precisely when they think state institutions are ineffective and foreign to them.
None of this means that the withdrawal could not have been managed better. But after 20 years of misguided efforts, the US was destined to fail in its twin objectives of withdrawing from Afghanistan and leaving behind a stable, law-based society.
The result is an immense human tragedy. Even if the Taliban do not revert to their worst practices, Afghan men and especially women will pay a high price for America’s failures in the years and decades ahead.
By Daron Acemoglu
Daron Acemoglu, Professor of Economics at MIT, is co-author (with James A. Robinson) of Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty and The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty.