How to Nation-Build: Ten Lessons from Afghanistan

By Khalilzad, Zalmay | The National Interest, Summer 2005 | Go to article overview

How to Nation-Build: Ten Lessons from Afghanistan


Khalilzad, Zalmay, The National Interest


FOR THREE and a half years, the United States has been engaged with the Afghan people in an ambitious program of state-building. Afghans have a strong sense of national identity, despite their ethnic diversity. The key task has been to establish a legitimate political process and rebuild state institutions. As the president's special envoy and as ambassador to Afghanistan during the past 17 months, I have seen that a nation wracked by a quarter century of occupation and internal conflict can lay the foundation upon which a democratic society can be constructed.

This success was not expected. Many observers too readily accepted caricatures of Afghanistan as an ungovernable tribal society whose instability could only be managed, not resolved. They said that a society with high levels of illiteracy and ethnic and sectarian cleavages could not become democratic. Some went so far as to characterize Afghan society, wrongly, as given to extremism and hostile to modernity. In their view, if democracy was ever to come to Afghanistan, it could only be at a much later time in its development.

Why have we seen this success? While the circumstances of every country are unique and Afghanistan cannot serve as a simplistic template for other countries, there are a number of factors that have contributed to success. First, the president's initiative to push forward the frontiers of freedom politically--and to support those in the Greater Middle East who seek to transform the region--is premised on the belief that the ideals of democracy, popular sovereignty, individual rights and the rule of law are universal. The experience of Afghanistan validates this view.

Second, Afghanistan is succeeding because the United States has pursued an enlightened, hands-on approach that responded to the deep aspirations of the Afghan people for normalcy, development and democracy. We recognized this yearning of the people and worked with it to make political progress. To do so, the United States conducted itself as a liberator, not an occupier. We maintained an appropriate military footprint; pursued an approach that balanced and integrated the use of our political, economic and military instruments of power; worked closely with local leaders with genuine roots in the society on a joint political-military-economic strategy; adopted a flexible multilateral approach supported by a robust U.S. program; and shaped the conduct of neighbors and did not accept the existence of sanctuaries for the armed opposition.

Even as we continue to help Afghanistan, it is useful to consider ten specific lessons that help explain what has worked so far.

1) Any effort to build the post-war order must be based on a fundamental understanding of the aspirations or political center of gravity of a newly liberated society and must be implemented by civilian and military leaders who know how to align the United States with those goals.

AFTER THE fall of the Taliban, the Afghan people had a profound wish to rejoin the world community and embrace democratization and modernity. They based this aspiration on aspects of their self-identity and recent history. Afghans' self-conception is of citizens of a nation that once gave rise to great empires based not just on the strength of their armies, but also on the quality of their culture, learning and arts. With respect to the modern period, many view the fifty years before the communist coup in April 1978 as a golden age, one in which they enjoyed peace, made slow but steady material progress, and saw their country take steps toward instituting a constitutional monarchy with real powers in Parliament. For Afghans, this is a narrative that they wish to resume.

The test for U.S. policy in Afghanistan, as in any other post-conflict setting, is how quickly and solidly we can help the people and their leaders build a political order that is legitimate by their terms and based on their traditions and history.

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