Courtesy Reuters


Arjun Chowdhury and Ronald R. Krebs

Sheri Berman identifies important parallels between the circumstances confronting state builders in Afghanistan today and those their counterparts faced in seventeenth-century France ("From the Sun King to Karzai," March/April 2010). But the differences between the two cases are as instructive as the similarities -- and point to rather different conclusions.

Berman's argument is plausible at first blush: just as French kings employed a combination of
coercion and inducements to subdue and disarm the nobles while enmeshing them in court pomp and intrigue, Afghan state builders can (with assistance from the United States and its partners) use force, aid, and patronage to bring warlords to heel while giving them a stake in the new order.

But Berman is wrong that "state building . . . can be accomplished almost anywhere" as long as the state builders are sufficiently patient and committed. Why? Because structure -- international and domestic -- matters, and the roots of France's seventeenth-century state-building success lie in three structural factors that distinguish the case from that of contemporary Afghanistan.

First, Berman ignores the crucial relationship between a country's external environment and its internal state-building imperative. Seventeenth-century France was almost constantly at war -- in the Thirty Years' War, then with the Hapsburgs, and, finally, with the Dutch. French nobles were reluctant to relinquish their autonomy, but the threat posed by external enemies and the resulting need to consolidate defenses made them more ready to accept centralized rule. By contrast, Afghanistan faces little threat of war from abroad. Although Taliban forces originating in Pakistan are responsible for some Afghan insecurity and instability, Afghans do not universally see them as foreign elements, since ethnic Pashtun and tribal affiliations cross state boundaries and often take priority over national citizenship. The warlords thus have little incentive to make common cause with the central government, and the benefits that the government can offer local power brokers pale next to what the French kings offered their

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