Statebuilding in Afghanistan : a case study of empire in denial
Simpson, Adam Edward
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This dissertation provides an assessment of statebuilding practices in Afghanistan, focusing on practitioner experiences in infrastructure and rural development projects. After numerous interventions and decades of international development, Afghanistan remains a failed state. This dissertation uses Afghanistan as a case study to address reasons why internationalized statebuilding projects in the post-Cold War period remain problematic and fraught with difficulty. Due to a Western denial of real responsibility, which casts international intervention as neutral assistance to nation states who must ultimately take responsibility for the success or failure of the policies implemented, Afghanistan’s post-2001 transition into a standalone democracy has suffered considerable perverse effects and setbacks. This research is stimulated by scholars like Michael Ignatieff, David Chandler and others, who have developed a theory of post-Cold war empire-building and associated forms of intervention. Chandler, in his eponymous book, suggests that these new forms are ‘Empire in Denial’, where external regulations are driven less by the desire to extend and enforce Western power than they are by the desire to deny it (2006, p. 18). Empire in Denial explains the maintenance of the facade of sovereign equality in post-Cold War statebuilding, and the interplay between the desire of Western actors to create strong democratic states with the concomitant diminution of actual sovereign rights and domestic control over a state’s political system (Chandler, 2006, p. 78). This theoretical approach does not subscribe to the idea that simple narcissism is what is driving modern statebuilding projects. Rather, the desire of Western actors to ‘deny’ aspects of classical statebuilding is indicative of their lack of confidence in designing or co-designing effective statebuilding models. This leads to internationally-led efforts that prioritize administrative, social, and technical elements of building a state, and deprioritize the overarching political components required to effectively govern a democratic state. In doing so, post-Cold War projects such as Afghanistan have leveled the normative focus of statebuilding to address social and individual concerns. Concepts of democracy and governance are considered largely as social concerns; individuals of the state are viewed first and foremost as products of their social environments, not as key actors in an overarching political initiative. Statebuilding efforts therefore become primarily social projects, not political ones, where people and communities are viewed as subjects in need of transformation via external assistance, in order to build their individual social capacities. The dissertation’s broad-based case study approach applies a practitioner-focused, constructivist lens to analyze the Empire in Denial concept in the Afghan context, focusing on key societal and political variables that impact development efforts and influence governance structures, including the continuation of Afghanistan’s ‘Great Game’. The findings, extracted through practitioner and expert interviews, observation, document analysis, review of development project methodologies, and a comparison against key elements of the Bosnia statebuilding project, point to the problematic adoption and application of stagnant international development norms as reasons why statebuilding efforts in Afghanistan in the post-2001 era are failing to meet their intended political objectives.
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