Lorenz Lüthi is a professor of history of international relations at McGill University and the author of Cold Wars: Asia, the Middle East, Europe.
The United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan concluded this week, and almost two decades of U.S. state-building efforts have ended in defeat. The speed of the Taliban takeover has not left us with much time for reflection. But a broader look at U.S. state-building since the Second World War might help us make sense of what just happened – and of what we can expect over the next few years.
The American record in state building after 1945 is mixed. Washington has led successful projects in Germany, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, but suffered defeats in Republican China in 1949, South Vietnam in 1975, Iraq after 2003, Libya after 2011, and now in Afghanistan.
Why the different outcomes?
Germany and Japan were totally defeated in a global war that they had started. As a result, they ended up completely occupied and disarmed in 1945. However, for the unrelated cause of the emerging Cold War containment of the Soviet Union, they soon received political and economic support, and eventually were even allowed to rearm. U.S. commitments were massive and long-lasting.
But success was also linked to particularly beneficial preconditions. Germany and Japan had some experiences with constitutional government. Moreover, after 1945, both countries offered relatively unified political elites that willingly bought into the American-led state-building project. And both comprised well-educated populations ready to overcome destruction and restore their societies to former wealth in the process.
As former Japanese colonies, Korea and Taiwan presented slight exceptions to these preconditions. Neither had experienced constitutional rule before 1945, and both underwent authoritarian rule during the Cold War. Yet, here too, U.S. political, economic and military commitments were massive and long-lasting. Furthermore, authoritarian rule focused on economic development, eventually followed by democratization as the Cold War wound down in the late 1980s.
The failed instances of U.S.-led state building efforts since 1945 display a number of commonalities. In all cases, the U.S. commitment to state building was neither comprehensive nor long-standing. In Republican China and South Vietnam, Washington concluded that massive and long-term commitments would not lead to better outcomes in the future. Hence, the United States decided to stop throwing good money after bad. In Libya and Afghanistan, the White House lacked strong domestic support for a drawn-out mission from the start. And in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American government made the conscious decision not to undertake an all-out state building effort at all.
Yet, U.S.-led state building also failed because local preconditions that were so crucial for success in Germany, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan were almost completely absent.
As a rule, government corruption in the failed cases was massive, which in turn created or deepened divisions among different political actors. Even in instances where the U.S. tried to reduce corruption, it did not succeed, like in Republican China, or gave up out of fear that the regime might simply switch sides in the Cold War, as in South Vietnam.
Often, Washington forced state building upon countries that did not find themselves occupied because they lost wars that they had started. In Iraq in 2003, the U.S. was even the aggressor, for example.
More often than not, the U.S.-led state building effort also failed to focus on general education to raise the socio-economic well-being of the local population. Hence, the U.S. effort had little chance to co-opt a willing citizenry, as it had in Germany or Japan. Indeed, local populations often remained hesitant or even resistant to U.S.-led state building projects that offered little to them, and sometimes appeared even outright alien.
And in all failed cases, U.S. involvement caused a backlash after American departure, partly deepened by Washington’s continued hostility to the new regimes.
This all leads us to the question of where Afghanistan is headed. Historical and comparative experience point to authoritarian rule, civil war, continued hostility to the West or any combination thereof.
Of course, this is a great tragedy, particularly given Afghanistan’s history. It is important to remember that the country was prospering in 1970, and its female population had made great strides in terms of emancipation. But after 1973, Afghanistan endured internal political instability. And since 1979 it has experienced consecutive external interventions – Soviet, Islamist and American. Decades of military conflict left the majority of the population – especially women outside the cities – undereducated, impoverished and oppressed.
Even moderate Taliban leaders, if they understand the magnitude of the reconstruction task ahead, will face a massive uphill struggle to lift the country out of its long-term decline and current distress. But there is no guarantee at all that moderate Taliban leaders will be dominating the new regime. At best, Afghanistan will become a semi-stable and authoritarian state caught in long-term and slow recovery. At worst, it will return to a regime akin to the first Taliban rule from 1996 to 2001. Continued outside hostility will serve neither Afghanistan nor the world. But constructive engagement, if feasible at all and if tied to clearly defined political conditions, may lessen the radicalism of the regime and help preserve some of the achievements of the past two decades.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.