A full version of this essay appears in the January issue of the Journal of Democracy.
Why did the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan collapse so suddenly? Tens of thousands of people flooding the Kabul airport to escape the Taliban’s rapid advance prompted foreign policy analysts to argue that Afghanistan was ungovernable. The conventional wisdom was that its government and society were hopelessly corrupt, and its values were incompatible with democracy. President Joe Biden echoed this view as well. He recently argued that efforts to build an Afghan state, no matter what strategy was employed, would never have worked. He said, “It’s been the graveyard of empires for a solid reason: It is not susceptible to unity.”
Such thinking, while perhaps understandable, is completely wrong. Painting Afghan society with a broad brush only obfuscates the mistakes of those in power. The policy choices made by Washington and Kabul since the 2001 invasion are largely to blame for Afghanistan’s collapse. The international community made many avoidable errors in its state-building attempts. These contributed to the creation of an overcentralized and unaccountable Afghan state that lacked legitimacy in the eyes of its people. While the sources of this legitimacy crisis were multiple and interwoven, as I have recently argued, three stand out: the post-invasion constitution, the priorities of the donor community, and President Ashraf Ghani’s arrogant leadership. Had the Afghan state not been considered illegitimate by the people, the Taliban would not have had a fighting chance inside of Afghanistan. In other words, without the kindling of poor governance, the fire of insurgency would never have been lit.
It is easy to believe that Afghanistan was not fit for democracy given the rapid collapse of its government. But during the early days after the fall of the Taliban government in 2001, there was a groundswell of support in Afghanistan for the international effort and the United States. The hope for democracy was even greater: After two decades of fighting, citizens were no longer content being subject to a distant government in Kabul.
Thus the original sin of the U.S. intervention was to resurrect old institutions that had their roots in Afghanistan’s authoritarian past rather than giving citizens the opportunity to build something new that embodied the country’s self-governance norms. Despite Afghanistan’s ethnic diversities and autonomous regions, there was no effort to reform the highly centralized system that had been a source of Afghan instability for generations.
The 2004 constitution produced one of the most highly centralized governments in the world. Based on the 1964 constitution, which introduced limited democratic elements to a primarily authoritarian system, the 2004 charter also resurrected Soviet-era government regulations and introduced a powerful elected presidency. An initial ban on partisan affiliation in parliament and the country’s electoral system hindered the development of strong parties, making the legislature at best a weak check on the executive. This top-down model of control provided citizens with few real opportunities for democratic decision making and bore little resemblance to genuine Afghan society.
While the 2004 constitution reflected a political choice made by Afghan leaders, the United States made clear its preference for a powerful presidency atop a centralized state. Ambassador Robert Finn claimed that Afghanistan “needed a strong president given all the vectors of power.” Many in the international community believed that centralization would produce an effective state. In reality, the new Afghan government and its international partners had revived the rotten political system of the authoritarian era and simply slapped a veneer of democracy on it. Although there were civil society organizations supported by the international community on the ground, few made a direct impact on policy, especially not those outside the capital.
Moreover, this international coalition was focused on fighting an insurgency and consolidating power—missions distinct from and often at odds with democracy-building. International donors desperate for quick fixes poured vast resources into Afghanistan with minimal monitoring. And rather than reforming dysfunctional state institutions, they created parallel ones, further undermining state legitimacy.
For example, the World Bank–funded National Solidarity Program, one of the largest and most celebrated aid programs in Afghanistan, promised to build social capital and reconnect Afghans to their government by creating more than 30,000 Community Development Councils. Through ostensibly participatory processes, these councils would allow citizens to identify problems and then receive large block grants to solve them. My research indicates that communities with the councils were more likely to have disputes and less likely to solve them than were those that lacked councils. The World Bank’s own evaluation of the program found that governance outcomes in communities with the councils were worse than in those without them. These councils were ineffective because they fostered corruption and created parallel decision-making processes that undermined long-standing social norms about community governance.
The National Solidarity Program is indicative of the widespread belief among donors that Afghanistan’s traditional decentralized political order was anathema to the proper underpinnings of a modern state. Yet this robust system of informal and local governance, maintained through decades of war, provided numerous public services in a manner that could be more inclusive than the formal state: In Herat province in 2007, for example, I found a community that was electing its traditional leaders via secret ballot. This was ironic, given that after 2001, citizens were never granted the opportunity to elect their formal local leaders, who were all appointed by Kabul. I even found women who had climbed the ranks of traditional authority structures. Rather than create space for these widely trusted community bodies engaged in democratic practices, international donors intentionally sought to undermine customary authority to allow for greater state control over society.
The intemperate rule of Ashraf Ghani also hastened state collapse. Ghani, who kept a small circle of insiders and had only a narrow base of support, micromanaged both the economy and the state, and he discriminated against ethnic minorities. Many had expected that the erudite president, who has a doctorate in anthropology and had worked for the World Bank, would rule as a technocrat. But his behavior was more authoritarian than democratic: While he had appointed many women and young people to important government positions and initially tolerated public dissent, Ghani restricted civil liberties after protests in 2017.
Ghani, repeating the mistake of many of his predecessors, centralized control to speedily realize his vision of reform. But by doing so, the president alienated almost everyone around him, including the Afghan people. During his final two years in office, his inner circle numbered two advisers; together they were known as the “Republic of Three.”
Rather than strengthening state institutions, Ghani again mimicked his predecessors and donors, creating parallel bodies and decision-making mechanisms to get around the levers of government. Critics charged that Ghani was wasting time micromanaging decisions that should have belonged to the ministries. Just a week before Kabul fell, Ghani famously convened his National Procurement Commission to grant permission for a dam to be built in Kunduz province—which was no longer under government control. Ironically, his efforts to defang his rivals, the mujahedeen commanders in the provinces, left his government without its strongest source of protection against the Taliban.
The rapid collapse of the Ghani government seems to have shocked the Taliban as well, and they are still figuring out how to govern Afghanistan. For now, they are doing things differently than the last time they held power (1996–2001). For instance, they have not banned women from public life, nor have they required them to wear a burqa or travel with a male companion. An authoritarian movement, the Taliban have no desire to decentralize authority or to allow meaningful opposition. But if the past 40 years of Afghan history teach us anything, it is that without devolving some authority away from the capital, the Taliban’s current reign will be violent and short-lived.
Diagnosing what went wrong in Afghanistan is important not only to understand the country’s future trajectory but also to prevent a repeat of the same foreign policy mistakes. Clearly, the Afghan government was deeply corrupt. But that corruption was not rooted in Afghan society or culture. Rather it was incentivized by the rules governing society combined with the absurd amount of money being pumped into an economy that could hardly absorb such sums. By 2021, nearly 40 percent of the country’s GDP came from foreign aid.
Corruption undermined the Afghan republic. But that was only possible because the central government was accountable not to society but to international donors—and therefore lacked popular legitimacy. Money cannot win hearts and minds. Gaining trust in Afghanistan did not require vast resources, complicated plans, and sophisticated military strategies. It required treating people with dignity and giving them a role to play as citizens. The U.S.-led state-building effort prioritized strengthening state capacity but did not bother establishing effective constraints on state power—the key to accountability. The tragedy is that Afghans were largely left as onlookers, never granted a genuine chance to put their country on a better course. The future appears as grim as it does familiar.