Aiding Afghan Local Governance: What Went Wrong?

After twenty years of an ambitious, costly international state-building effort, the government of Afghanistan collapsed in the summer of 2021 in a matter of weeks. The Afghan security forces’ remarkably rapid defeat earned significant attention, but the Taliban victory over the internationally backed Afghan republic stemmed equally from deep-seated political and governance factors. Across all the facets of the Western state-building endeavor in Afghanistan, there is now an enormous need to assess how the international project fell so far short of its aims.

One major pillar of the international community’s diplomatic and development engagement in Afghanistan over the past two decades centered on strengthening subnational governance. Western officials asserted that improving Afghan local governance was a critical prerequisite to consolidating a stable, legitimate state; as a result, they launched numerous projects to bolster subnational governments’ capacity, accountability, and responsiveness. Even though the size of the overall international footprint varied greatly over the years, donor support for local governance programs remained substantial throughout this period, totaling well over $2 billion since 2002. As donors grew frustrated with Kabul-based political leaders, channeling significant aid to local governance projects seemed like an almost commonsensical decision in a country in which the majority of Afghans interact with local officials more than national ones.

Yet local governance aid from Western donors was marked by several persistent shortcomings over all these years. First, assistance programs often aimed to “build trust,” “foster dialogue,” and strengthen linkages between the state and citizenry — in essence, to teach Afghans to talk to one another—but they failed to acknowledge that the primary barriers to communication between the governed and governors were often political, not technical. Second, they aimed to build the capacity of district- and provincial-level councils, but these training efforts were perennially stymied by these bodies’ lack of clear authorities or roles. Third, donor programs often emphasized the cultivation of skills that were more relevant to being a good aid recipient than they were to navigating the real politics of the local Afghan order—an order in which citizens had long viewed the state’s village-level penetration as predatory or unwelcome. More broadly, meaningful decentralization of authority and power away from Kabul could have yielded more promising governance arrangements for Afghanistan in the long term. But partly because of these persistent flaws, donor engagement fell short of midwifing this type of change.

In short, multiple generations of international programs focused on subnational governance failed to incorporate some essential lessons. This problem is not unique to Afghanistan: around the world, donors’ institution-building aid in the democracy domain has often been used to try to solve political problems through technical means, and these efforts usually have failed. The experience of local government assistance in Afghanistan has added one more painful chapter to a familiar story. But the case of Afghanistan also reflects the immense challenge of working in an environment that is often beyond Western interveners’ control: for nearly twenty years, Afghan local governance structures were “caught in confusion,” and for many Afghan players, this ambiguity was useful.

Looking back at the long international state-building project in Afghanistan, subnational governance aid was only one part of a vast undertaking. But these programs were nevertheless important in their own right—and also for the broader problematic patterns in Western intervention that they reveal. Looking ahead to future engagements, the time is ripe for the international community to incorporate lessons from Afghanistan.

This excerpt is based on an article by Frances Z. Brown that originally appeared on the website of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (November 8, 2021).

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