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The Geopolitical Challenges of State Building in Post-War Afghanistan

22 Nov 2022
By Dr Zahid Shahab Ahmed, Muhammad Faizan Fakhar and Umar Farooq Khan
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani meets with private sector leaders ahead of the London Conference on Afghanistan, 2014. Source: DFID - UK Department for International Development /

The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is not yet recognised internationally. Until this happens and the international community convenes a regional peacebuilding forum, the scars of war will continue to dominate regional state-building efforts.

While state-building is largely an endogenous process, there are many states that have experienced exogenous state-building interventions. In some cases, we have seen scholars paying attention to the influence of geopolitics on nation-building, for example in Ukraine and Moldova, but little has been studied with reference to Afghanistan where a variety of external actors have exerted influence. Since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan in August 2021, regional actors continue to engage with the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, which to date has not been recognised by any state.

In terms of state-building in a multi-ethnic country like Afghanistan, it is important to discuss the perspective of the key external stakeholder, US-led NATO, on state-building. As noted in the work of Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart, there are ten key components to this, with rule of law, a state’s monopoly over the use of violence, and  sound management of public funds being the key three. For most of the period between 2002-2021, much of the Afghan territory was either contested or under the Taliban’s control. When foreign troops were leaving in July 2021, the Taliban had full control of 90 districts. A further 167 districts were contested out of the total of 398. Hence, the state’s capacity in terms of monopoly over the use of violence was limited. Moreover, at this time, the funds for state-building were insufficient and limited, and Afghanistan  faced grave issues of corruption. According to one study, “corruption significantly undermined the U.S. mission in Afghanistan by damaging the legitimacy of the Afghan government, strengthening popular support for the insurgency.”

The United States’ state-building approach mainly centred around security sector reforms to ensure that Afghanistan was secure enough against the threat of terrorism. This should not be surprising since the rationale for the US-led NATO invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, following the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US, were to remove both the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and Al-Qaeda. An estimate suggests that the US alone spent US$2 trillion in Afghanistan between 2001-2021, with much of it going to private defence and other contractors. While security was a priority, and the US and its partners did invest a lot in terms of raising the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), these forces were nowhere to be seen during the Taliban’s largely smooth takeover between July-August 2021.

Various lessons can be drawn from such exogenous state-building efforts in Afghanistan during the last twenty years. For the United States, the most important lesson has been insufficient attention paid to the geopolitical dynamics of Afghanistan’s bordering region and the failure to understand them. Historically Afghanistan has been prone to influence from its neighbours– sharing borders with Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and China. Pakistan was among the regional actors that closely cooperated with the US under the framework of the War on Terror as a non-NATO ally. Similarly, India, Pakistan’s historical rival and a rising regional power, has also been actively engaged in Afghanistan through aid and, particularly between 2002-2021, trained the ANSF and collaborated with the Afghanistan intelligence agency, namely the National Directorate of Security.

The NATO mission in Afghanistan lacked a long-term strategy for the country. This fact was even recognised by NATO commanders who served in Afghanistan. While the US and its NATO partners were focused on democratisation, reconstruction, and institution-building in Afghanistan,  the conflict between India and Pakistan was largely ignored, even as Islamabad remained concerned about India’s increasing presence and influence in Afghanistan. At the time, India was expanding its diplomatic, economic, cultural, and security outreach with Afghanistan, investing more than $3 billion in the enterprise. This played a key role in shaping Pakistan’s position in favour of a political settlement with the Taliban even before 2010. By that time, regionals actors like China, Russia, and Iran were also establishing relations with the Taliban – a sign of recognising the group as a political reality in Afghanistan.

Most of the regional actors, with the exception of India, shared the interest of a political settlement of the Afghanistan issue. They all wanted the foreign troops to withdraw from country. To this end, many of them, including China, Pakistan, and Russia, supported peace dialogues. Pakistan also supported a US-Taliban peace deal and sought to host such dialogues between the Ghani administration and Taliban officials. The US-Taliban peace deal, signed in Doha in February 2021, has been criticised for not being inclusive as the Ghani administration was not a party to the agreement. The reason for this exclusion has never fully been explained by the American side.

Considering that regional actors have ties with the Taliban and interests in Afghan stability, they could have been better involved in the US-Taliban peace deal in terms of facilitating an intra-Afghan peace process. These actors have shared concerns particularly with respect to terrorism in Afghanistan, which can influence their own concerns about state security. A more inclusive peace deal would have gone far to draw in wider regional investment in the deal and, with it, the greater stabilisation of Afghanistan and its borders with neighbouring countries.

Unlike many NATO countries, who are now more focused on Ukraine, regional actors cannot sit on the sidelines and ignore what is happening in Afghanistan. Many continue to provide humanitarian aid to Afghanistan, and there has been rare cooperation between India and Pakistan as the latter has allowed India to use its territory to send humanitarian aid to Afghanistan. China continues to invest in Afghanistan, and the Taliban has provided assurances of securing Chinese citizens and projects in the country.

The US-led NATO mission in Afghanistan ignored the importance of regional cooperation by not involving all regional stakeholders. Still, there is no comprehensive regional forum through which regional countries can collaborate on Afghanistan. With Iran’s membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), it has become an ideal forum for regional actors to engage with Kabul. But Afghanistan is not a SCO member and might not be until the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan is recognised internationally. Before that happens, the SCO’s ability to engage with Afghanistan will be limited, since Afghanistan remains only a SCO observer.

Moving ahead, regional actors will continue to work with the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, but in a limited capacity unless the Taliban regime is recognised. Learning from the last twenty years, it is important to create an ad hoc forum that involves regional countries as well as NATO. While there is great apprehension about NATO involvement, it’s history in Afghanistan and its capabilities and influence as a force for stability require it to play a role in any regional forum going forward. Through such a forum, NATO can share its experiences and also help regional actors in terms of their engagement with today’s Afghanistan as well as with state-building.

Dr Zahid Shahab Ahmed is a senior research fellow at Deakin University in Australia.

Muhammad Faizan Fakhar is an Assistant Research Associate at the Islamabad Policy Research Institute, Pakistan.

Umar Farooq Khan is a Research Associate at the Islamabad Policy Research Institute, Pakistan.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.