British and Afghan officials at the signing of the Treaty of Gandamak (Major Cavagnari second from left, Amir Yakub Khan in the center), May 1879. Photo by John Burke, public domain, British Library.

The spectacular collapse of the Afghan government to Taliban forces in mid-August 2021, followed by the shambolic withdrawal of the last American troops at the end of the month, took many by surprise. President Joe Biden’s administration was quick to blame its Afghan partners as rumors swirled that President Ashraf Ghani fled the country with suitcases full of cash. In the ruins of 20 years of American involvement in Afghanistan, there is a widespread belief in Washington that the corruption of multiple Afghan governments ultimately undermined them, leading to their downfall. Some, including Biden, have gone further, indicting not only the Afghan state but also more problematically the Afghan “nation,” or rather the supposed lack of one. In his remarks justifying the administration’s withdrawal, Biden stated, “I have never been of the view that we should be sacrificing American lives to try to establish a democratic government in Afghanistan—a country that has never once in its entire history been a united country, and is made up—and I don’t mean this in a derogatory—made up of different tribes who have never, ever, ever gotten along with one another.”[1]

Such victim-blaming sentiments, while partially true, serve to deflect responsibility for the multitude of sins committed by the United States’ military and political intervention. On the one hand, faulting the now-deposed and never-very-popular Afghan president as the embodiment of a corrupt political class allows American policymakers to degrade a figure and institution that garners little sympathy either inside or outside Afghanistan. On the other hand, by insisting that American efforts crashed on the shoals of Afghan tribalism and lack of national unity Biden attempted to wash his hands of American responsibility, implying its imperial ambitions were no match for the forces of history. But the failure of the American project had little to do with Afghan corruption as understood in Washington, and even less to do with problems of the Afghan nation. Instead, it resulted from the historically constructed pathologies of the Afghan state.

Afghanistan’s fate—past, present and future—is fundamentally beholden to the conditions of its creation. While today those conditions—its dependence on foreign aid, lack of legitimacy among the population and inability to deliver the public good—are viewed as elements of state failure, they are in fact consciously constructed features of its original blueprint. These perversions of political design—or pathologies—embedded by outside imperial powers at the modern state’s inception have long determined Afghanistan’s political fortunes, both domestically and internationally. The re-incarnated Taliban, risen from the ashes like the phoenix, will be subject to similar vicissitudes, as will all future Afghan governments.


Problems of the Afghan Nation


In the policy world and among the US public there is a common belief that Afghanistan is a land trapped in the past, ruled by ancient ties of kinship, primordial bonds of blood, and timeless traditions and cultural customs. Any coherent semblance of an Afghan nation is lacking in this stereotype. Its place is usurped by ethnic solidarities such as Pashtun and Tajik communities vying for dominance within the geographical space occupied by the Afghan state. The Taliban are understood not only as Islamic fundamentalists—a problematic caricature for other reasons—but also as Pashtun chauvinist-cum-nationalists. Their agenda is not only the establishment of Afghanistan as an Islamic emirate, but also as a Pashtun-dominated polity. These simplified views enable analysts to speak of the Afghan civil war as one of ethnic cleavages and foreign politicians to talk of the country as a tribal society where any idea of a shared national identity lacks traction.[2]

Whereas the Afghan nation has increasingly been conceptualized in ethnically exclusive terms, the Afghan state has historically been actualized in ethnically inclusive terms. American policymakers, however, believed Afghanistan to be a Pashtun-dominated state and predicated their political calculations on this belief.[3] Consequently, following the US-led restructuring of Afghanistan in the Bonn Process, the United States supported the construction of a highly centralized, ethnically delineated constitutional structure that institutionalized Pashtun power in a dominant executive. Such institutional architecture was both based on and facilitated an understanding of the Afghan nation not as a multiethnic mosaic but rather as one where the dominant ethnic group, the Pashtun, subordinated the other people of Afghanistan to their will. Historically though, this has not been the case. While a Pashtun has served as the political executive of the country since the establishment of the Durrani Empire in 1747, he has overseen a multiethnic, cosmopolitical state complex manned by Dari-speaking functionaries drawn from other ethnic groups, most notably the Shi‘a Qizilbash and Tajiks. Even the Pashtun king, and later president, has not been a “real” Pashtun. Instead, he has been an urban Dari-speaker, more at home and at ease in the ethnically mixed realm of Kabul than the tribal tracks of Khost.

Afghan nationalism is predicated on a horizontal solidarity between peoples. Absent, however, is a vertical solidarity linking people and the institutions of the state. As a consequence, Afghan nationalism is not identified with the state, creating a disconnect that partly explains the state’s relative fragility.
Afghan nationalism is predicated on a horizontal solidarity between peoples. Absent, however, is a vertical solidarity linking people and the institutions of the state.[4] As a consequence, Afghan nationalism is not identified with the state, creating a disconnect that partly explains the state’s relative fragility. That fragility is both a cause and consequence of its lack of penetration into society. The Afghan state, historically, has been both a conceptually and physically limited enterprise. In the former sense, its responsibilities have been narrowly construed, mainly restricted to taxation and security. For the most part, the state claimed authority without exercising it, knowing that any attempt would expose its weakness. In the latter sense, until the communist takeover with the Saur Revolution in April 1978, the ambition and ambit of state authority was circumscribed to the cities. The pretense of its sovereignty over the countryside was only respected so long as it was not exercised. When the communist government attempted to assert its authority in rural areas beginning in the summer of 1978, the disconnect between the cities and the countryside, or rather between the Afghan nation and the Afghan state, became painfully obvious. The assertion of state power in the name of the people was met with widespread resistance by those people, leading to the Soviet intervention in December 1979.


Pathologies of the Afghan State


One of the most salient features of the relationship between the Afghan state and nation is the lack of linkage between the two, an issue the recent Taliban “victory” has failed to address. Before the Saur Revolution, the two sat juxtaposed to one another in a precariously balanced stasis, which was the basis of the Afghan political compact. Since then, they have drifted farther apart as both the state and the nation have radically changed. Today’s violence will not cease until a new political compact, with broad-based buy-in, has been constructed and enforced. The Taliban are unlikely to have either the political skill or the will to do so. Even if they overcome the disconnect between the Afghan nation and state, they still face the structural pathologies of that state. And herein lays the real challenge.

Following the collapse of the Ghani government and the American withdrawal in 2021, a chorus of punditry has decried these events as the outcome of the failure of the Afghan state. Indeed, this trope follows a well-trodden path of analysis when it comes to Afghanistan. For years the country ranked highly on Foreign Policy’s “Failed State Index.” When it was re-imagined as the “Fragile State Index,” Afghanistan’s ranking near the top slipped little, despite years of American investment in capacity building. This index reflects the international community’s expectations: that states be self-sufficient, ensure stability and security for their populaces and neighbors and deliver a discrete set of social goods for their citizenry. Yet this vision of the state poorly reflects the lived experience of many in the Global South. Further, it does not accord with the historical origins or trajectory of the state either as a generalized abstract concept or specific concrete reality. And it certainly has limited traction in Afghanistan itself.

The Afghan state was not designed to do any of the things now expected of a modern state.
The Afghan state was not designed to do any of the things now expected of a modern state. Instead, it was built to address a wholly different set of concerns, a reality which conditioned its original architecture. When Afghanistan was constructed in the latter half of the nineteenth century, its central purpose was to serve as a buffer state between the expanding Russian Tsarist Empire and the British Indian Raj. The state was never intended to serve the needs of its people, including establishing security within its borders. Of paramount importance to the competing imperial powers was the idea that it constrained insecurity within its borders. Most importantly, the Afghan state was never meant to be self-sufficient. Instead, it was designed to be reliant on surrounding imperial powers, especially financially. Thus, the first pathology of the Afghan state—bequeathed it by its imperial architects—was that it would be a fiscal sink.
Most importantly, the Afghan state was never meant to be self-sufficient. Instead, it was designed to be reliant on surrounding imperial powers, especially financially.

From its origins, modern Afghanistan was in effect envisaged as a fiscal colony of British India, enabling the Raj to exert influence without incurring the costs of outright control. The British attempted this latter course in the two Anglo-Afghan wars of the nineteenth century and found annexation and control—even in the relatively arms-length structure of the Indian princely states—provided an insufficient return on investment.[5] Moreover, it was unnecessary. The Government of India could accomplish its objectives through the more economical policy of paying Afghan rulers to govern for them. The idea of the annual subsidy was thus born. While delivered on an ad-hoc basis since 1849, the subsidy was formalized with the Treaty of Gandamak in 1879. From then onward, an annual treasure train of 600,000 silver rupees made its way from Peshawar to Jalalabad through the Khyber Pass. Even after Afghanistan secured its formal independence with the Treaty of Rawalpindi (1921), the subsidy continued—though for a time from the Bolsheviks rather than the British.[6] Cognizant of their part of the bargain, Afghan rulers from Abdur Rahman Khan, the so-called Iron Amir, to Muhammed Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan, used that money to build the Afghan state—particularly its security infrastructure.

The British retreat from the Indian subcontinent in 1947 both facilitated and required other international benefactors to pick up the bill for governing Afghanistan. During the Cold War, this responsibility was shared by the United States and the Soviet Union, who saw Afghanistan as a key field of competition in their ideological struggle. The superpowers effectively split the country in two, with the United States responsible for the south while the Soviets looked after the north.[7] Many of their aid projects were dual use, serving both the needs of Afghan civilians and superpower militaries if required. The Soviet-built Salang tunnel through the Hindu Kush, connecting the north and south of the country, was designed to allow passage of T-62 tanks, a function it fulfilled in December of 1979. Likewise, the American conglomerate Morrison-Knudsen constructed the Kandahar airport with a runway of sufficient length and weight-bearing capacity to service any plane in the arsenal of the US (and allied) air force, something which came in handy after 2001.

The civilian form of the subsidy was radically altered during the respective Soviet and American occupations, where those governments paid for the Afghan state directly. The last public budget of the Ghani government, from 2019, totaled approximately $11.5 billion, with nearly 75 percent of that funding provided directly by foreign governments. As with previous Afghan rulers, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), supported by the Soviets, and the Hamid Karzai and Ghani administrations, supported by the Americans, dedicated most of this foreign largesse to building and buttressing the Afghan security state. The 300,000 strong Afghan National Army ate up half of Ghani’s 2019 budget. The size of the country’s security establishment is out of all proportion to its domestic fiscal resources—and always has been. It requires a foreign subsidy, the condition of which is a security apparatus meant to contain chaos within the country. Afghanistan is a money pit by intentional design. Its reliance on foreign aid is not a sign of state failure but rather a testament to how well it continues to function according to the precepts of its initial blueprint.

A second pathology conditioning the fortunes of the Afghan state since its construction in the latter part of the nineteenth century is political legitimacy. The key issue has been how the state has interfaced with and legitimated itself to a population that, for the most part, does not identify with it. For most of its modern history, the problem was limited because such interface was constrained both in time and space.

Historically, the Afghan state has been periodically, rather than permanently, manifest in peoples’ lives. Prior to 1978, it was notable for its absence rather than presence, especially in the countryside.
Historically, the Afghan state has been periodically, rather than permanently, manifest in peoples’ lives. Prior to 1978, it was notable for its absence rather than presence, especially in the countryside. Consequently, the level of legitimacy required to keep the state in place was as diminished as its visibility. In such a scenario, the state needed to be seen less as legitimate in the eyes of most of the population and more simply less seen. Mass indifference, coupled with the consent of those closest to its centers of power—namely urban dwellers—was the winning formula. Given that the urbanization of Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion stood barely in the double digits, this was not a tall order.[8]

Everything changed, however, with the advent of the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan under communist rule. As the state increasingly inserted itself into peoples’ lives, the old legitimating formula of mass indifference with limited consent no longer sufficed. It required greater sanction, which the PDPA attempted to secure through violence. That strategy led to a backlash against their rule, eventually resulting in the Soviet invasion, which itself led to further violence. Subsequent Afghan governments have been faced with this challenge of legitimacy and have likewise struggled to meet it. The first incarnation of the Taliban in the 1990s largely enforced its rule through violence before being deposed. The regime following the American intervention in 2001 ostensibly legitimated itself through elections, but no one fully believed it. Indeed, part of the reason for the seeming rapidity of the fall of the Ghani government was that many Afghans viewed it with contempt, and thus it lacked broad-based legitimacy within Afghan society.

While former Afghan governments could survive with indifference, present ones need legitimacy.
While former Afghan governments could survive with indifference, present ones need legitimacy. The final, related pathology of the Afghan state is the expectations—both individual and collective—of the Afghan populace. More than half of the current population of Afghanistan was born after the American intervention in 2001. Fully three-quarters were born after the Soviet intervention in 1979. These people have very different experiences and expectations of the state than their predecessors. While imperial powers and Afghan rulers alike could design, construct and maintain a state largely indifferent and unresponsive to the people it nominally controlled, that changed with the dissolution of the old order as PDPA troops stormed the presidential palace in April 1978. As the state became more invasive through the modernization projects of the Soviets and then the democratic one of the Americans, people’s expectations of the state’s obligations to them changed. No longer is it sufficient for the Afghan state to deliver a basic modicum of daily security (something it has largely failed at for the past 43 years) and, in return, tax the population. It is now incumbent on the state to provide for the public good, not just the public order.


The Past Is Prologue, and Epilogue


Despite the protestations of Biden, the American failure in Afghanistan was not due to the past problems of the Afghan nation, but rather to the present pathologies of the Afghan state. Those pathologies—reliance on a foreign subsidy, the need for political legitimacy and the expectations of the populace—are both historically conditioned and currently manifest. They are the hard realities of rule for any candidate who wishes to govern Afghanistan. When the United States intervened in late 2001, it did so with little understanding of that state, or its fraught relationship with a well-established, though now strained, sense of national identity. Over time, US leaders have proved themselves indifferent students of Afghan history, culture and politics, enabling them to disingenuously blame Afghanistan’s failures both on the Afghans as well as the supposedly immutable forces of history.

But the pathologies of the state are as important for Afghans themselves as for Americans. The repeated failures of previous governments to come to grips with them led to their ultimate demise. And although history is a poor predictor of the future, it offers a prescient warning to current holders of power in Kabul. The Taliban seem as ill-equipped and uninterested today in the requirements of rule as they did in the 1990s. No doubt this disinterest in rule partly accounts for the Taliban’s keenness to win international recognition, for with it the spigots of international aid will once again be opened. Their welcoming attitude toward international NGOs, the aid community and the United Nations is simply an attempt to deflect the responsibilities of governance onto these bodies. It also reflects the reality that Afghanistan, despite their victory, remains a fiscal sink into which the UN is looking to dump $5 billion.[9] The Taliban’s survival as a government is fundamentally dependent on their ability to woo a foreign backer—be it Pakistan, the Gulf states, Russia or potentially China. Regardless of their ultimate success in doing so, one thing is for sure: the pathologies of the Afghan state will outlast them, or likely any other government, in Afghanistan.


[Benjamin D. Hopkins is a professor of history and international affairs at the George Washington University. He specializes in South Asian history, particularly that of Afghanistan.]





[1] The White House, “Remarks by President Biden on the Terror Attack at Hamid Karzai International Airport,” August 26, 2021.

[2] See for instance, Barnett Rubin, The Fragmentation of Afghanistan: State Formation and Collapse in the International System, Second edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002).

[3] For an academic example of this belief, see “Afghanistan: The Problem of Pashtun Alienation,” International Crisis Group, August 5, 2003.

[4] David Edwards, Heroes of the Age: Moral Fault Lines on the Afghan Frontier (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996).

[5] For an argument that the Raj intended to construct Afghanistan as a princely state, see Francesca Fuoli, “Colonialism and State-Building in Afghanistan: Anglo-Afghan Co-Operation in the Institutionalisation of Ethnic Difference, 1869-1900,” ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2017.

[6] Ibid., p. 248.

[7] Nick Cullather, “Damming Afghanistan: Modernization in a Buffer State,” The Journal of American history 89/2 (2002). Timothy Nunan, Humanitarian Invasion: Global Development in Cold War Afghanistan (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016).

[8] Erwin Grötzbach, “Modern Urbanization and Modernization in Afghanistan,” Encyclopædia Iranica, V/6.

[9] Karen DeYoung, “UN launches $5 billion appeal for Afghanistan, in largest ever for country in humanitarian distress,” The Washington Post, 11 January 2022.

How to cite this article:

Benjamin D Hopkins "Afghanistan’s Present Failure Lies in its Past Design," Middle East Report Online, January 18, 2022.

For 50 years, MERIP has published critical analysis of Middle Eastern politics, history, and social justice not available in other publications. Our articles have debunked pernicious myths, exposed the human costs of war and conflict, and highlighted the suppression of basic human rights. After many years behind a paywall, our content is now open-access and free to anyone, anywhere in the world. Your donation ensures that MERIP can continue to remain an invaluable resource for everyone.


Pin It on Pinterest

Share This