The United States’ Intervention in Afghanistan: the Dysfunction of a Centralized Authority in a Diverse Nation

Publication type Article
Status Published
Occupation: Leading research fellow, associate professor
Institute for International Studies, MGIMO University
National Research University–Higher School of Economics
Address: Russian Federation, Moscow
Journal nameVostok. Afro-Aziatskie obshchestva: istoriia i sovremennost
EditionIssue 1

This article reviews the US-led nation-building strategy effort in Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. The history of the nation-building efforts is retraced from the creation of the Republic to its ultimate collapse. The central argument of the paper stresses the dysfunctionality of the centralization approach adopted by several successive administrations in Kabul with the backing of the United States. The inquiry reveals the problems of implementation of this strategy as well as the failure of this idea in general. In terms of implementation, centralization efforts were met with widespread corruption and cronyism. A more important aspect of the problem is that the centralization strategy did not account for the diversity of the Afghan society.  Ethnic coalitions struggled for power inside the country, countering the efforts of the central administration headed by the president to extend its influence beyond Kabul. These processes transformed Afghan politics into a zero-sum game rendering the whole nation-building effort ineffective. In the end, the Republic collapsed with withdrawal of the foreign presence essentially confirming the dysfunctionality of centralization approach. Currently, the Taliban relies on essentially the same strategy although being deprived of foreign aid. Whether this effort to re-assert Pashtun dominance in the absence of foreign intervention will succeed remains to be seen.  

KeywordsAfghanistan, the United States, intervention, nation-building, centralization
AcknowledgmentThis article is part of the research funded by the Russian Science Foundation, Project 22-18-00664 (
Publication date02.03.2024
Number of characters31831
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1 Among the diversity of views on the nature of the conflict in Afghanistan, its internal and external drivers1], one core, and majorly under-researched, element is the arrangement of political authority in the period of 2002-2021, when a pro-American regime ruled Afghanistan. 1. See, for instance [Maloney, 2007; Konarovskii, 2011; Malkasian, 2013; Nasr, 2013; Gall, 2014; Gopal, 2014; Belokrenitskii, 2016; Harpviken, Tadjbakhsh, 2016; O'Connell, 2017; Rubin 2020
2 The mainstream thinking claimed that “successful elections, institution-building, the rule of law, and economic and social development are mutually reinforcing goals. Progress toward achieving any one of them is bound to promote progress toward achieving the others. At the same time, setbacks in any of them will have negative effects on the others” [Khalilzad, 2010, p.49]. Warlords were viewed as an important source of disorder and insecurity [Marten, 2006]. Instead, the U.S. pushed for centralization of political authority in Kabul. However, the centralization effort and suppression of so called “warlords”, who were actually regional leaders, ignored the ethno-politics of Afghanistan.
3 The literature on ethno-politics of Afghanistan, the Russian school of Afghan studies has traditionally been strong on these issues, prevailingly admitted the rising strength of ethno-political identity bound together with the erosion of the Pashtun community’s historical quest for dominant role in the Afghan statehood [Korgun, 2008; Konarovskii, 2011; Konarovskii, 2014; Nessar, 2015; Knyazev, Gulam, 2023]. Cooperation and consensus-building was essential for the effective functioning of the authority centralized in Kabul, which was continuously emphasized by scholars [Korgun, 2013; Konarovskii, 2020]. In reality, the struggle for power in the central authority intensified.
4 This article examines how efforts to build a strong centralized authority contrary to expectations of forging national unity has instead polarized and destabilized Afghanistan.

The genesis of anti-warlord and pro-nation-building narrative

6 The United States aligned with the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, a diverse and decentralized collection of mostly ethnic and regional non-Pashtun militias (Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara), rapidly defeated the Taliban and their Al-Qaeda partners in November 2001. After that victory, American and United Nations mediators at the Bonn Conference in December 2001 supported the establishment a temporary power-sharing arrangement that appointed Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun exile, with limited internal support, as president. He would share power with militarily more powerful Northern Alliance leaders who had fought the Taliban.
7 Karzai and his international backers never felt comfortable with this arrangement, believing that the position of President was far too weak. Karzai’s foreigner backers believed a weak presidency would increase internal tensions, emboldening local leaders to challenge the authority of the government and returning it to the chaotic conditions that initially led to the Taliban [Rashid, Rubin, 2003]. They thought that a powerful central authority with a strong president at its helm would translate into an efficient and reliable government and prevent a return to instability [Dobbins, 2008, p.179]. This aligned closely with the idea of a strong Pashtun led centralized state espoused by many Pashtun intellectuals.
8 Two years after the Bonn Conference in late 2003, foreign mediators backed Karzai’s effort to pressure the Afghan Constitutional Loya Jirga to codify a centralized political system built around a powerful president. Non-Pashtuns reacted with a significant if under-reported revolt against centralization calling instead for devolution of political power. They eventually halted the Loya Jirga. To overcome this revolt, international mediators promised more financial and military support and accepted the limited use of regional languages while threatening those who resisted. The Loya Jirga finally approved the Constitution, which precluded political parties associated with the Northern Alliance from having any role in presidential and parliamentary elections while allowing the president to appoint all provincial governors, mayors, and police chiefs throughout the country.
9 To justify this quest for a strong presidency that he could not create merely through the support of his ethnic group, Karzai and many of his foreign backers tried to discredit regional leaders by calling them “warlords”.
10 In the 1980s, the Western notion about the war in Afghanistan was a “David versus Goliath” struggle between Islamic freedom fighters (mujahideen) and the Soviet Army. After the Soviet withdrawal, this narrative quickly evaporated as competing mujahideen groups fought for power in Kabul. As the war was mostly concentrated in and around Kabul, the majority of the country was relatively peaceful and run by various regional leaders. Outside of Kabul, only Kandahar mirrored the battle for power in Kabul and was in disarray and conflict. It is here that the Taliban emerged late in 1994 and began its quest for power in Afghanistan. The Taliban framed this drive for power as a return to the cultural Pashtun traditions and Islamic faith (order) from the apostate behavior of and disarray caused by those fighting for power in Kabul. It was this Taliban narrative that in large part would ultimately emerge as the “warlord” narrative after September 11, 2001.

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