From the Sun King to Karzai

Lessons for State Building in Afghanistan

In December 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama announced the fruits of his administration's lengthy review of Afghanistan policy: temporary troop reinforcements and a new military strategy designed to reverse recent gains by the Taliban, efforts to increase the quality of Afghan governance, and a stronger partnership with Pakistan. The troop increases and the proposed withdrawal starting date of July 2011 dominated the headlines, but in the long run the effects of what Obama called a "civilian surge" will be even more important.

As General Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, noted last August, Washington's mission will not be accomplished until the Afghan government can "sufficiently control its territory to support regional stability and prevent its use for international terrorism." But this would require a dramatic turnaround from the current situation, which, as McChrystal has put it, is marked by a "crisis of popular confidence that springs from the weakness of [government] institutions, the unpunished abuse of power by corrupt officials and power-brokers, a widespread sense of political disenfranchisement, and a longstanding lack of economic opportunity."

Calls for strengthening Afghanistan's state institutions have become a cliché, duly repeated in every major speech or report on the war. Yet there has been relatively little serious discussion about just what buttressing these institutions would actually entail. Perhaps this is because the deeper one digs, the more entrenched the obstacles appear. Powerful warlords; traditions of local, rather than central, governance; the dominance of tribal and ethnic identities over a national one; difficult terrain; a long history of internal conflict and violence -- none of these augur well. Indeed, they were the reasons why many critics wanted Obama to pull back rather than escalate: since establishing even a minimally credible and effective central state in a country with such powerful centrifugal tendencies is a fantasy, they argued, any mission that depended on achieving this was doomed to failure.

Analysts on all sides have invoked various recent precedents to bolster their positions, from successful

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