Nation Building in Afghanistan

The lesson of Afghanistan is not that the US is washed up as a great power. The lesson is that the US is such a great power, militarily and economically, that it is continually tempted to try hopeless things that nobody else on earth – including China – would ever attempt. 

David Frum

On July 8, 2021, President Biden said that: “the United States did what we went to do in Afghanistan: to get the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 and to deliver justice to Osama Bin Laden, and to degrade the terrorist threat to keep Afghanistan from becoming a base from which attacks could be continued against the United States.  We achieved those objectives.  That’s why we went.
We did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build.” “Remarks by President Biden on the drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan”

In fact, except for killing Osama Bin Laden, we had achieved those objectives before I arrived with an IMF team in January 2002 to contribute to building a more effective government. Finding and killing Bin Laden was delayed until May 2, 2011, because of the redirection of American efforts to the ill-advised and illegal war in Iraq. So why were American troops still occupying Afghanistan until August 30, 2021?

In an August 18, 2021, interview with George Stephanopoulos, President Biden explained what happened asking: “Then what happened? Began to morph into the notion that, instead of having a counterterrorism capability to have small forces there in — or in the region to be able to take on al-Qaeda if it tried to reconstitute, we decided to engage in nation-building. In nation-building. That never made any sense to me.”  “Biden’s claim that nation building Afghanistan never made any sense”

George W Bush opposed nation building in his 2000 presidential campaign. In his memoir, Decision Points, he states that “After 9/11, I changed my mind.” Already by April 2002, he stated that “We know that true peace will only be achieved when we give the Afghan people the means to achieve their own aspirations. Peace will be achieved by helping Afghanistan develop its own stable government.” He was right. However, as he noted: “Our government was not prepared for nation building.” He was right about that as well.  “Bush on nation building and Afghanistan”

The U.S. officials responsible for “nation building” in Afghanistan knew little about its history and culture. They foolishly imposed an alien Western style government dropped on a diverse people as if from a drone. The US military is an excellent machinery of war. The best in the world. However, it does not have the skills required for “nation building.” Our military couldn’t even recruit the right solders or provide the training they needed to fight on their own, much less build a proper military organization. “Afghanistan combat interpreter Baktash Ahadi: U.S. cultural illiteracy”  And attempting nation building at the point of a gun is bound to fail.

And why did the Afghan soldiers that Americans trained for decades not fight to defend the existing government? “Afghan forces were demoralized by neglect, corruption and ethnic bias among their superiors. Often they went without pay and ammunition, and sometimes without rations….  ‘The why is corruption, the why is poor leadership,’ John Sopko, told The Washington Post in 2017, ‘If leadership is poor, the people below don’t care, and they wonder why they have to die.’” “Afghanistan U.S. troop withdrawal”

On Sunday August 15, 2021, Taliban forces walked into Kabul and took over the government without a shot.  “The Band of Brothers and Afghanistan”   But what did they take over or replace? And did 20 years of so-called nation building make any difference.  “Nation building” is often given a bad name because it has too often been associated with the imposition of a “government” by an occupying military force as with imperialism.  Afghanistan is a very different place than it was 20 years ago. Both the nation and its government and its institutions have changed considerably. We can hope that the Taliban has changed as well.

Governments consist of ruler/decision makers, and the institutions that administer whatever it is that the government does. A nation extends beyond its government to include civil society, and social and cultural norms. The Taliban have displaced Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani, who fled to Uzbekistan then to the UAE rather than step aside for a transition period as had been agreed. Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Officer, Abdullah Abdullah, remained and with former President Karzai is discussing the composition of a new government with Taliban leaders.

“Taliban co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar will lead a new Afghan government….  Haibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban’s supreme religious leader, will focus on religious matters and governance within the framework of Islam.

“While the Taliban have spoken of their desire to form a consensus government, a source close to the Islamist militant movement said the interim government now being formed would consist solely of Taliban members. It would comprise 25 ministries, with a consultative council, or shura, of 12 Muslim scholars, the source added.

“Also being planned within six to eight months is a loya jirga, or grand assembly, bringing together elders and representatives across Afghan society to discuss a constitution and the structure of the future government, the source said.”  “Taliban co-founder Baradar will lead new Afghanistan govt”

Prior to the fall of Kabul, the government of Afghanistan consisted of the cabinet of ministers, provincial governors and the national assembly, with a democratically elected president serving as the head of state, head of government and commander-in-chief of the Afghan Armed Forces. It appears that the new government will retain the same administrative units. In addition to the central bank (DAB), which I advised, these would include functions such as Foreign Affairs, Internal Affairs, Finance, Economy, Agriculture, Energy and Water, Justice, Information and Culture, Education, Industry and Commerce, Transportation, Women’s Affairs, Public Health, Mines, and of course, National Defense. Though the U.S. did a poor job developing Afghanistan’s National Defense institutions, more experienced international agencies made considerable progress in developing more efficient and effective agencies in many other areas. Of at least equal importance, a generation of Afghan men and women have grown up expecting their place in the world to reflect their skills and accomplishments (merit) rather than who they knew.

I have written earlier about the dramatic progress in modernizing the central bank’s operations. It was achieved in the proper, traditional way of “nation” and institution building. We explained best practice for central banks derived from the experiences of established central bank and the approaches we thought would fit best with Afghanistan’s existing central bank and economy. But DAB’s management and staff made the decisions of what to embrace and how to move forward and we offered guidance on designing and implementing those decisions. “BearingPoint Afghans”

But one institution can’t develop independently of what is happening in the rest of the country. In particular, developing the rule of law is critical and difficult. An example was provided by DAB’s (the banking supervisor) confrontation with a corrupt President and Attorney General over the resolution of the insolvent and criminal Kabulbank in 2010-12. The founders and owners of Kabulbank (President Karzai’s brother Mahmood was the third largest shareholder) had rapidly grown this newly licensed local bank into the country’s largest depository and had lent almost all of its deposits to themselves. During the global financial crisis of 2008, many of Kabulbank’s owners’ investments failed and they were unable to repay their depositors. DAB’s banking supervisors were blamed for weak supervision and even arrested and jailed in disregard of the provisions of the central bank law. The scandal revealed considerable corruption, but the supervisory resolution of the bank somewhat strengthened (modestly) the rule of law in the process.  “Afghan President Ghani’s attack on corruption”    “The Kabul Bank Scandal”

Another huge set back to the impressive development of DAB resulted from President Ghani appointing an unqualified friend, Ajmal Ahmady, as Acting Governor of the central bank. He fired many of the best of the BearingPoint Afghans and brought in his own small group of cronies. Mr. Ahmady’s appointment was rejected by the Parliament, but he illegally remained in his post.  The Taliban (???) have now appointed Haji Mohammad Idris as the Acting Governor of the central bank. “Mr. Idris was head of the Tabliban‘s finance section, but he has no formal financial training or higher education.”  “Haji Mohammad Idris”

These examples are meant to illustrate the distinction between a government’s leaders and its administrators. Time will tell whether our “nation building” efforts with DAB survive the attacks on it from Afghanistan’s leaders (current and past). But as a result of the nation building efforts of many international bodies, Afghanistan is a very different and better place, and its young population has very different expectations, than twenty years ago. I hope that the Taliban leaders that have taken over the government are also very different than their repressive and brutal forebearers of twenty years ago.

While the new government will no doubt leave many of the institutional structures in place that have been developed over the last two decades, from which they and the country have benefitted, the big question is what policies and rules they will establish under the name of Sharia law, especially with regard to the rights of women. The Taliban have their own internal factions that need to be sorted out and their earlier version of Sharia was an extremely harsh interpretation not shared by most Muslims. The Taliban has pledged to treat women and others fairly, within the dictates of Sharia Law. Other Muslims will need to convince the Taliban to moderate their earlier interpretations of what that means. The United States, the EU  “EU sets five conditions for future operational engagement with Taliban”, China, Russia, and the international organizations, have enormous financial and diplomatic leverage with which to encourage the Taliban government’s better behavior. They should be used vigorously to help build a better Afghanistan. Early signs are not encouraging, but these are early days. One Afghan friend changes locations every night in the hopes of not being found. Other friends are afraid to leave their homes at all.

The idea that we should refuse to cooperate with the new government and should oppose it at every turn from the outset is bone headed. Just ponder the alternatives for a second. Do not think that it is easy for me to sit here in my comfortable Bethesda home and urge us to give the Taliban a try. My days begin with heart wrenching pleas for help from Afghan friends and strangers. I challenge you to read the following account of dashed hopes without weeping: “After a university falls in Afghanistan a DC organization scrambles to keep students safe and still learning”   

Efforts to achieve a better Taliban government this time around may be a long shot, but the alternatives of a return to civil war and worse yet the return of American and NATO troops are not pretty either. The U.S. intention to cooperate with the new government in countering ISIS-K is encouraging, but, like anything else in life, not without risks.  “US may coordinate with Taliban to take on ISIS-K”  Nation building by everyone but the U.S. government over the last 20 years has not been a waste of time. Now is not the time to give it up.

Nation building is unlikely to be successful when coerced, i.e., when it is part of a military intervention. It does not follow that nation building–sharing best practice in the design and operation of institutions public and private–is an unworthy objective and undertaking.

About wcoats

I specialize in advising central banks on monetary policy and the development of the capacity to formulate and implement monetary policy.  I joined the International Monetary Fund in 1975 from which I retired in 2003 as Assistant Director of the Monetary and Financial Systems Department. While at the IMF I led or participated in missions to the central banks of over twenty countries (including Afghanistan, Bosnia, Croatia, Egypt, Iraq, Israel, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Kosovo, Kyrgystan, Moldova, Serbia, Turkey, West Bank and Gaza Strip, and Zimbabwe) and was seconded as a visiting economist to the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (1979-80), and to the World Bank's World Development Report team in 1989.  After retirement from the IMF I was a member of the Board of the Cayman Islands Monetary Authority from 2003-10 and of the editorial board of the Cayman Financial Review from 2010-2017.  Prior to joining the IMF I was Assistant Prof of Economics at UVa from 1970-75.  I am currently a fellow of Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, Institute for Applied Economics, Global Health, and the Study of Business Enterprise.  In March 2019 Central Banking Journal awarded me for my “Outstanding Contribution for Capacity Building.”  My most recent book is One Currency for Bosnia: Creating the Central Bank of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I have a BA in Economics from the UC Berkeley and a PhD in Economics from the University of Chicago. My dissertation committee was chaired by Milton Friedman and included Robert J. Gordon.
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