The western nations have for a while now signaled that they intend to make the Middle East less of a priority to their foreign policy agenda. But what exactly does this shift mean for the West’s support of weak or failed states especially after the dismal results of state-building in Afghanistan?
State-building can be defined as the effort to create stable and functioning political, economic, and social institutions that pave the way for a secure and self-sufficient future of a failed country. State-building in many cases takes place after an existing government has been ousted. Such efforts are controversial due to their recent failures in the Middle East but have proven to be successful for example in Germany and Japan after World War II.
Afghanistan’s history is the history of a country that has been torn between great powers for centuries, eventually leading to the need to rebuild the country again. Like most of its neighbors, Afghanistan was long ruled by different dynasties before western colonial interests collided in the region, turned the country into a proxy during the cold war, and caused a series of civil wars that eventually brought the Taliban to power in 1996. With the Taliban refusing to extradite Osama Bin Laden after the September 11 attacks in 2001, the United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan and remained present in the country until this year.
After managing to remove the Taliban from power, the US and its western allies remained in the country to help establish a democratic government and support the process of democracy consolidation, aiming to prevent the Taliban or other terrorists from returning to power. However, after almost 20 years of presence, trillions of dollars in foreign aid, and a barely successful attempt to establish a functioning, coherent, and trusted government, the US-led forces withdrew from Afghanistan. In 2020, after all the state-building efforts, the country still ranked near the bottom of most socio-economic measures.
With such rankings in mind many political scientists now openly question whether it is at all possible to support failed states by trying to establish robust institutions and a solid infrastructure. Turning away from state-building might however prove to be even more counterproductive. Over the past decades, a fast-growing population coupled together with struggling governments generated and still generates large numbers of unemployed and disaffected young people in the region. These people will not sit idle simply because the western powers are leaving their country. Soaring poverty and few prospects of improvement might play into the hands of other power-seekers. Hence, terrorist groups, warlords, or governments opposed to the West might try to fill the vacuum by providing military, economic, and ideological support.
At the same time, denying help to failed countries might make western diplomats’ position in many post-war regions more difficult and reduce the trust in the West’s claim to protect an open and free world. Western diplomats, hence, face a situation where opposing powers might fill a power vacuum while their offers to counter such initiatives lose value. That leaves foreign policy’s most important tool - diplomacy - in a difficult state.
The key aspects of state-building that need to be reconsidered can be divided into two categories – issues surrounding the country on the one hand and issues within the country on the other.
The problem of several power centers competing for influence in the Muslim world became obvious in Afghanistan, where the Taliban forces constantly received shelter and support from Pakistan’s secret service from where they could constantly undermine state-building efforts. Ensuring that no neighboring powers completely undermine any stabilization efforts will be crucial to any further state-building attempt. For the Middle East, an increase of pragmatic diplomatic efforts to try to create a common cause could initiate a process of sustainable stabilization in the region. This means sponsoring efforts like the nuclear deal with Iran instead of abandoning them, embracing small steps of rapprochement like the Abraham Accords between Israel, Bahrain, and the UAE, and establishing some form of structured regional dialogue that is supported and potentially mediated by the UN Security Council.
Considering the interior issues, many political scientists argue that a less top-down approach is necessary to give any state-building effort a chance of success. This is especially true for countries like Afghanistan where the society is territorially decentralized with central state institutions long being completely absent. Such existing structures require compromises that consider political traditions instead of enforcing some central government from the outside. However, this will require better knowledge about the local structures and more small-scale efforts that directly address the population instead of leaving this task to one centralized government. Slowly empowering the people to participate in and benefit from the new developments instead of feeling alienated by foreign powers is probably the only way to unite a country behind the common cause to rebuild a state. Ensuring the security of such rebuilding efforts without initial top-down enforcement of governmental structures will, however, be a very delicate balancing act.
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The Economist; America’s flight from Afghanistan will embolden jihadists around the world. August 28, 2021
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Acemoglu, Daron; Why Nation Building Failed in Afghanistan. August 20, 2021;