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 counterinsurgencies to unsuccessful imperial interventions. Yet none of the commonly cited analogies is ideal, because none provides an answer to the most pressing current question: whether and how a country such as Afghanistan today can acquire a reasonably well-functioning centralized state.

Looking deeper into the past turns out to be more useful. Early modern Europe, for example -- the birthplace of the modern state -- offers numerous lessons for contemporary policymakers to ponder. The paradigmatic case of state building in this era was that of ancien régime France, which managed to transform itself during the seventeenth century from a collection of localities into a unified polity. Exploring how such changes occurred provides grounds for both hope and concern. Hope, because many of the challenges facing Afghanistan turn out to be neither unprecedented nor insurmountable. Yet concern, because many of the state-building attempts throughout history have failed, and even those that succeeded did so only through long, bloody, and complex processes. State building, in short, is not a fantasy, even in conditions such as those of Afghanistan today. But nor is it a job for the impatient, the squeamish, or the easily frustrated.


Since public debate often conflates several aspects of political development, clarifying concepts and defining terms is a crucial first order of business. The central challenge for Afghan politics right now is not democracy promotion (the development of political institutions representative of and responsible to the citizenry) or nation building (the development of a unified national consciousness among that citizenry). It is state building -- the development of a national government that has a monopoly over the legitimate use of physical force throughout the country. As The New York Times reported recently, "The ability of the Afghan state to govern -- to keep order, to build roads, to deliver basic services -- is virtually nonexistent outside the capital." An essential characteristic of modern states is the centralization of authority, and, indeed, this is perhaps the greatest challenge President Hamid Karzai's government currently faces: extending the reach and writ of the government in Kabul across the full extent of Afghan territory and directing it toward effective governance.

Of course, the absence of a national political order does not mean the absence of all political order. In many countries without strong, modern states, local leaders or elites nonetheless monopolize force in specific areas. Authority exists, but it is fragmented and segmented, held and exercised by local powerbrokers. Today, such people are called warlords; in the past, they were simply lords. Whatever the term, the essence of state building involves destroying, undermining, or co-opting these actors so as to create a single national political authority.

This is precisely what happened in Europe, where modern states first arose several hundred years ago. Up until the seventeenth century, the European continent was divided into many small political units with vague and porous borders. Where kings reigned, they usually were only titular leaders with little power outside a capital city. They had little contact with, or even direct impact on, their supposed subjects. The dominant authority figures in most people's lives were religious leaders or local notables, and popular identities were based on religion, locality, or community rather than anything that could truly be called nationality. Christian clergy exerted immense social, cultural, and political influence, and the church carried out many of the functions normally associated with states today, such as running schools and hospitals or caring for the poor.

Responsibility for security, meanwhile, lay chiefly with local or regional nobility, who maintained private fortresses, arsenals, and what would now be called militias or paramilitary forces. Political life in this prestate era was brutal: warfare, banditry, revolts, and religious and communal conflict were widespread. Even in England, where authority was centralized earlier and more thoroughly than elsewhere in Europe, one-fifth of all dukes met unnatural, violent deaths during the seventeenth century.

Around 1600, however, many European kings began to centralize authority. Their efforts were fiercely resisted by those with the most to lose from the process -- namely, local political and religious elites. The resulting confrontations were so frequent and severe, and debates about the appropriate nature and locus of political authority so sharp, that many scholars consider them part of a "general crisis" that Europe experienced during the seventeenth century. The historian William Doyle notes that although "centralization may have been an essential step in the modernization of states . . . for those who attempted it, it often proved more trouble than it was worth." Across the continent, as the sociologist Reinhard Bendix put it, the result of national leaders' "efforts . . . to establish their authority over a country" was "bloody turmoil."

State building proved a greater challenge in some areas than others. It was particularly difficult where local, communal, and religious authorities were strong, the geography forbidding, and conflict and violence rampant. (Sound familiar?) But there were successes even under these conditions, including the most celebrated of all examples of activist state building, that of France under the ancien régime. France is often held up as the first modern, centralized state, and it was certainly the one contemporaries regarded with the greatest awe. The means French state builders used to outmaneuver the local notables and religious authorities that stood in their way, moreover, can speak across the centuries to policymakers facing similar challenges in the developing world today.


Nation building in France was not completed until the early twentieth century, and the country did not become a consolidated liberal democracy until the 1950s. Much of the development of a centralized French state, however, had occurred long before. The Bourbon monarchs Henry IV, who died in 1610, and Louis XV, who became king in 1715, shared blood, religion, and culture. But the former was not much more than first among political equals in his immediate area, whereas the latter inherited a centralized national administrative apparatus that was the envy of Europe. The French state, in other words, was largely built during the reigns of the monarchs in between.

When Hugh Capet, the first king of the dynasty that would eventually create what is now known as France, came to power, in 987, he ruled over a few hundred square miles around Paris and Orléans. Much the same was true for his successors over the following several centuries. Some nearby provinces were ostensibly part of France, but local nobles and the clergy held most of the property and the political and administrative power there; others were independent polities ruled by princes, counts, and dukes. French kings gradually expanded their authority over more territory, but up through the sixteenth century, France was essentially a collection of loosely affiliated communities with independent institutions, customs, and even languages. It was primarily during the reigns of Louis XIII (1610-43) and, especially, Louis XIV (1643-1715) that the monarchy expanded its armed forces, legal authority, and bureaucracy and took control of the country.

This process was remarkably conflictual. Its first several decades were marked by peasant revolts, religious wars, and the obstinate resistance of provincial authorities, which culminated in the series of conflicts known as the Fronde (1648-53) and threatened to plunge the country into complete chaos. Louis XIV eventually defeated the recalcitrant nobles and local leaders on the battlefield, but the costs of victory were so high that he decided to complete the process of centralizing power by co-opting his remaining rivals rather than crushing them.

During the second half of the seventeenth century, accordingly, he and his ministers focused on buying off and winning over key individuals and social groups that might otherwise obstruct their state-building efforts. Adapting and expanding a common practice, for example, they repeatedly sold state offices to the highest bidders; by the eighteenth century, almost all the posts in the French government were for sale, including those dealing with the administration of justice. These offices brought annual incomes, a license to extract further revenues from the population at large, and exemptions from various impositions. The system had drawbacks in terms of technocratic effectiveness, but it also had compensating benefits for the crown: selling off public posts was an easy way to raise money and helped turn members of the gentry and the emerging bourgeoisie into officeholders. Rather than depending on local or personal sources of revenue, these new officeholders eventually developed new interests connected to the broader national system.

Louis XIV and his ministers also adopted what would now be called targeted tax breaks. Nobles were freed from the hated taille (a direct levy on property), and the church was allowed to keep the revenue it earned from the land it owned (between six and ten percent of the country's territory) in exchange for modest gifts to the king. The church was also permitted to collect the tithe -- one-tenth of every person's livelihood.

Such material incentives were deployed to build up an elaborate clientelistic system dominated by Paris. Rather than abolish the existing patronage networks, officials put them at the service of the new French state. Cardinals Richelieu and Mazarin, the chief ministers to Louis XIII and XIV, respectively, studied the relationships that allowed local elites to control their underlings and reward their supporters and tried to supplant those with new relationships centered on the king and his ministers. They selected provincial brokers who had excellent contacts in far-flung areas but whose loyalties were to Paris and then gave these brokers money and benefits that could be channeled to others in turn, thus expanding the reach of the crown throughout the periphery.

Another tactic designed to secure the state's authority was the construction of Louis XIV's glittering palace at Versailles, which was officially established as the seat of the French court in 1682. The luxury of the palace was more than merely a celebration of the wealth and power of the Sun King; it was also a crucial weapon in his battle to domesticate the obstreperous French nobility. Louis XIV made the aristocracy's presence at Versailles a key prerequisite for their obtaining favor, patronage, and power. By assembling many of the most important local notables at his court, he was able to watch over them closely while separating them from their local power bases. The tradeoff was clear: in return for abandoning their local authority and autonomy, nobles were given handsome material rewards and the opportunity to participate in the court's luxurious lifestyle.

Over time, these tactics helped increase the power of the king and his state while decreasing that of his rivals. By the time Louis XIV left office, the national government had defeated its internal enemies and had at its disposal a powerful military apparatus and a loyal bureaucracy. It was finally able to control and govern the territory now known as France. This process was not a zero-sum game, however. Although the political power of local elites was undermined, their social status and economic advantages remained largely intact. Similarly, Louis XIV left enormous financial resources in the hands of the Catholic Church, even as he asserted the king's right to make ecclesiastical laws, approve papal declarations, control French bishops' travel, and shield royal officials from excommunication. Nonetheless, one might say that the two Louis and their ministers essentially bribed their way to power. The result, as Alexis de Tocqueville noted, was that although by the end of the eighteenth century the nobility had ceased to "act as leaders of the people," they had "not only retained but greatly increased their fiscal immunities and the advantages accruing to them individually."


Looking at weak states in Afghanistan and elsewhere today, and the conflict and poverty they engender, observers tend to mourn a putative long-lost era when state building was straightforward and less problematic. Such nostalgia is often accompanied, consciously or not, by undertones of ethnic or cultural superiority -- as if the struggles today in the developing world stem from unique or intrinsic characteristics of the communities living there.

The truth, however, is that modernization has almost always been traumatic and the emergence of strong centralized states has almost always been fraught with difficulties. This makes perfect sense when one considers what is actually involved: the breakdown of a traditional order and long-standing patterns of authority and their replacement by a new social and political framework. The decidedly mixed record of contemporary state-building efforts should also come as no surprise, since that has been a historical constant as well: the vast majority of the political units that existed in early modern Europe eventually disappeared, even in the area known today as France -- just ask any Breton, Gascon, or Norman.

Despite all the ways the contemporary world differs from the past, there is little reason to expect that history's lessons about state building no longer apply: it can be accomplished almost anywhere, but only after a long, hard slog. This leaves policymakers looking honestly at the challenge of state building in Afghanistan today with two options. The first is essentially to abandon the attempt, on the grounds that success would be difficult to achieve and even in the best-case scenario would take too much time and effort to be worth it. The second is to grasp the nettle and dig in for the long haul.

Adherents of the latter position can take comfort in the thought that there is no reason to believe state-building efforts are doomed to fail, even in places such as Afghanistan. Contemporary officials even have a potential advantage over their historical predecessors, because they can learn from the past and can see where they are heading. But in order to have a chance at succeeding, they need to think carefully and concretely about what state building actually entails.

Whether in seventeenth-century France or twenty-first-century Afghanistan, a crucial prerequisite for state building is the centralization of political authority. A key challenge facing state builders, therefore, is how to deal with the local elites who stand to lose out in the process. In France, this meant managing the nobility and the clergy; in Afghanistan, it means handling warlords, tribal chiefs, and the Taliban.

How to do this best is a subject of debate. Appeasers advocate trading money or land for peace; hard-liners decry making any deals with corrupt, brutal, or fanatical opponents. The example of seventeenth-century France suggests that both these positions are misguided and that both sticks and carrots are required.

Would-be centralizers need enough military power to raise the costs of resistance and scare their opponents into contemplating cooperation. In France, the monarchy's hard power played an important role in persuading many nobles to consider making peace with the growing state rather than continuing to confront it. In Afghanistan, this strategy is presently being carried out by the International Security Assistance Force, the NATO-led mission in the country, but in the long run it will need to be performed by local forces loyal to the government in Kabul.

But coercion alone is insufficient, both because it is extremely costly and because the rapid destruction of traditional social, political, and economic relationships leads to chaos unless paired with corresponding efforts at stabilization and the rebuilding of authority and order along new lines. Alongside their coercive efforts, therefore, centralizers need to find other ways of bringing their rivals into the fold and keeping them there. In France, the king and his ministers recognized -- even after their military victory in the Fronde -- the high costs of trying to complete centralization by force alone. So they gradually bought off their opponents, inducing them to give up local power bases and independent political aspirations in return for social and economic payoffs.

Merely handing out goodies to local power brokers, however, is not a viable state-building strategy. Unless material incentives are carefully designed and targeted, they will simply end up increasing the resources of local elites and hence their ability to confound the state-building process. French kings before Louis XIII and XIV had been offering payoffs and privileges to local elites for centuries, but it was only in the early modern era that leaders in Paris deliberately designed and dispensed such benefits to facilitate significant centralization.

Successful state builders in France and elsewhere have confronted their domestic rivals with a choice: continue to struggle and be crushed in war or make peace with the centralizing enterprise in return for various benefits. The dispensing of such benefits can cost authorities a lot -- in money, in forbearance, and in functional effectiveness. Today, they also cost a great deal in honor and principle, since the local power brokers in question are often brutal thugs who routinely violate a broad range of human rights. Still, the returns can be significant -- a clearer path toward the development of the centralized national administrative structures that a functioning, modernized polity needs. With state building a necessary prerequisite for order, stability, and growth, the costs may be worth paying.

In Afghanistan, this would mean recognizing the need to deal with warlords, tribal chiefs, and members of the Taliban. Such dealings need to start from a position of strength, so that local elites realize that the costs of noncooperation are real. But they also need to be informed by a strategy for using material resources to reshape local and national political relationships, so that over time the center can gradually extend its reach over the periphery.

The Obama administration has undertaken a sober analysis of the difficult national security problem posed by Afghanistan. Its decision to bet on a combination of counterinsurgency and efforts at improving Afghan governance has historical resonance, and given enough time, effort, and resources, it might conceivably achieve its goals. But given the challenges that Afghan state building will involve, the attention devoted to the military and nonmilitary elements of the policy has been inversely proportionate to their respective long-term significance. What everybody should recognize up front is that counterinsurgency will be the easy part.

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  • SHERI BERMAN is Associate Professor of Political Science at Barnard College, Columbia University.
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