A Better Approach to Statebuilding

Lessons From "Islands of Stability"

A general view of Erbil in Kurdistan in northern Iraq, November 2016. Ahmed Jadallah / REUTERS

In February 2010, the United States and its allies launched the largest offensive in Afghanistan since the overthrow of the Taliban regime. Its primary goal was to help the struggling Afghan government gain control over Marjah, a remote Taliban stronghold in the southern province of Helmand. It was also a test case for a bold new state-building tactic: delivering security, health services, education, infrastructure, and a handpicked new district governor to the local population as a “government-in-a-box.” The Taliban was driven into the countryside, but the operation soon encountered unexpected problems. The local population mistrusted their dispatched rulers, the inexperienced administration was unable to deliver the public services promised, and reconstruction efforts remained sluggish. The new governor, a stranger to the region who had spent 15 years in Germany, turned out to have a criminal record for stabbing his son. Today, most of the gains made by the U.S. military in Helmand have been lost and the Taliban controls large areas of the province.

The unsuccessful intervention in Marjah is just one example, albeit an extreme one, of liberal state building’s wider failure as the dominant strategy for remaking war-torn countries. Championed by the United States and its allies and typically implemented by the United Nations, the policy aims to transform fragile states into stable democracies by strengthening and expanding the central government’s authority. Yet the approach ignores that central governments frequently lack even the most basic capacity (not to mention legitimacy) to rule their countries. It’s no surprise, then, that most major state-building interventions from Afghanistan to Iraq and Somalia have failed spectacularly.

Dealing more effectively with state collapse will be a key foreign policy priority for U.S. President-elect Donald Trump. Though on the campaign trail he often advocated disengagement from fragile countries, that policy would be shortsighted. In the absence of functioning governments, violent conflict, poverty, refugee crises, and extremist movements may fester and pose serious threats to U.S. security and economic interests.

In Afghanistan,

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