For almost 20 years, the U.S. and its international allies have maintained a presence in Afghanistan with attempts to rebuild the country coming in fits and starts. Here, Adam Simpson argues for a paradigm shift in the way we view statebuilding as the only path towards a sovereign Afghanistan.

Statebuilding, which has evolved from a unilinear, empire-driven process of modernization to one that embraces the inherent complexities of systems thinking and liberal internationalism, has become hugely problematic in post–Cold War interventions. As Western actors continue to drive interventions into failed or failing states, power is demonstrated by devolving power to national, state, regional, or local authorities or other international institutions. This illusion of sovereign equality also devolves responsibility and supports a disingenuous commitment to statebuilding. Today’s normative approach has translated into complacent foreign policy that exhibits symptoms of David Chandler’s “Empire in Denial”: a continuance of self-defeating, hollow and internationalized statebuilding, in which the democratic principles espoused by Western actors are realizing perverse effects and meeting significant resistance from national counterparts. Such is the case in Afghanistan.

Further, statebuilding efforts have leveled the normative focus to address social and individual concerns. This happens largely at the community level, and in the Afghan case predominantly in rural settings. By focusing interventions in a human-centered manner, democracy and governance are considered primarily as social concepts that must be built. People are seen as “problems,” and statebuilding initiatives focus on building the capacities of these individuals, reducing the importance of addressing the political problem of building a stand-alone, democratic state.

The Sovereignty Gap

There is a paradox in statebuilding projects in which international missions compromise domestic sovereign prerogatives to foster the institutional reorganization of a failing or failed state, to democratize it, and to establish stable authorities and well-functioning institutions that, at the end of the process, will independently exercise full sovereignty again—both domestically and internationally.

Sovereignty in this context rejects the classical Westphalian understanding of the term’s meaning to a state’s political and legal right to self-govern. Historically, the autonomy and capacity of subjugated subjects were not an area of focus for imperialists. Now, sovereignty is redefined as a responsibility of intervening powers and is the normative ground on which statebuilding initiatives are justified. Per the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty, sovereignty can now be understood as a dual responsibility of a country to (1) respect the sovereignty of other states and (2) respect the dignity and basic rights of all the people within the state.

Sovereignty, then, is no longer an indivisible right; it is a responsibility. Furthermore, when the dignity and basic rights of people are breached and a state requires intervention, sovereignty is equalized as a responsibility between partners to create a new democratic set of national capacities. Sovereignty becomes something to be built to close a gap in the statebuilding process. This ideological shift has led to a new international hierarchy of legitimized norms and has removed the original concept of the right to self-government.

Empire in in Denial: Deprioritizing the Political Problematic

David Chandler’s description of post–Cold War statebuilding projects as “Empire in Denial” builds upon Michael Ignatieff’s premise of “Empire Lite”—that is, the unwillingness of the West to take responsibility for the long-term security, stability, and development of countries in which they have intervened. However, Chandler goes a step further, arguing that Empire in Denial is attributable to an avoidance of responsibility and leadership in post–Cold War interventions that stems from lack of confidence in those designing the statebuilding endeavors. It suggests that the West and its allies are not powerful and unstoppable nations but are weak and lacking accountability. Power is conceived and experienced less as a process of taking over responsibilities and more as a game of avoidance. International actors avoid taking on some responsibilities because, in the absence of a framework of meaning, responsibilities are measured only in cost terms.

Afghanistan evidences the facade of sovereign equality between the country and its partners. The interplay between the projected desire of Western actors to create strong a democratic state is concomitant with the diminution of actual sovereign rights and domestic control over Afghanistan’s political system. Arguably, Western narcissism does not drive the statebuilding agenda in Afghanistan; rather, the lack of confidence by Western partners leads to the prioritization of “easier” tasks such as the administrative, social, and technical elements of building a state versus addressing political problems. Unsurprisingly, these are areas in which experienced international experts are likely to excel.

The Inversion of Democracy

Democracy, in the same context, no longer refers to the freedoms of citizens engaged in public debate over policy goals, but to the spreading of democracy based on social capacities and capabilities. Democracy has shifted from a concept based on power and control to one in which it is something citizens are “given” as a means of equalizing social power—equalizing the capacities of a states’ citizens to behave and act as active or responsible citizens.

Foucault describes this inverted notion of democracy as a “Platonic reversal,” where democracy is separated from reason. This shift in conceptualization is one from the political to the individual, or to the human-centered world. In the latter, democracy rejects Foucauldian notions of reason and power and embraces the opposite: “democracy no longer legitimizes power but serves merely as a negative or limiting factor, serving to diversify and disperse governance within society.”

Three Trends of Empire in Denial

The Afghanistan statebuilding project evidences three trends of Empire in Denial. Central to these trends is the denial of power inherent in contemporary statebuilding, which casts international intervention as neutral assistance to nation-states that voluntarily enter into such cooperation, but that must ultimately take responsibility for the success or failure of the policies implemented. The trends are as follows.

1. A desire to act collectively

Afghanistan demonstrates the “internationalization” of an intervention, where military and civilian statebuilding efforts include a substantive list of international actors, and where their responsibilities are not clear.

The number of international actors in Afghanistan is staggering. Statebuilding efforts are normalized through large-scale, human centered programs that build local governance capacities but do not provide strong links to the top levels of national government. The programs create a de-facto gap between Afghan society and overarching political processes. The desire of the international community and national counterparts to act collectively has led to confusion about roles, responsibilities, and time lines to achieve a unified vision for Afghanistan’s democratic state.

2. Focusing on problems with no immediate solutions

There has been a tendency in Afghanistan for Western actors to focus on problems with no immediate solution. These include the War on Terror and capacity-building initiatives that do not explicitly link the strengthening of state institutions and governance to the societies they are charged with overseeing.

The War on Terror has led to a protracted partnership between international forces and Afghan forces that was not envisioned at the start of the mission. Although the Afghan government has reduced the international military footprint and increased its own security capacities, the role of the military in statebuilding efforts—simultaneously engaging in warfare, civilian protection, and, at times, humanitarian response—evidences a lack of vision and provided little assurance of a near-term solution. The War on Terror and its evolving mandate have driven the security agenda in Afghanistan with a strategy of denial of power; international forces have denied any interest in empire-building, and their subsequent “lite” approach to the conflict has led to capacity-building efforts falling short of their intended objectives.

3. Passing responsibility to those with the least influence

International actors claiming ownership and responsibility for key statebuilding processes often pass this responsibility to national partners before there is a good chance of success. The ongoing conflict demonstrates this trend. Although an international troop draw-down has been welcomed by the Afghan government, the inability of the state to control violence within its borders remains a severe problem that is receiving dwindling attention. Without significant continuing international investment, it is not likely that Afghan forces will be successful in securing the country’s borders in the near term. Yet, Western foreign policy indicates some engagement being better than none, where troops are committed for a longer time but in a manner lacking any true power. This complacency around the military elements of the Afghan statebuilding project appears acceptable to unconfident Western political leaders and members of the “Resolute Support” mission.


Internationalized statebuilding projects must fundamentally remain democratic political projects. They must prioritize the state political problem above other elements of the process. The Afghanistan project has historically focused on the social, administrative, and technical elements of statebuilding, such as large-scale military and governance capacity-building programs, yet, weak democratic governance and lack of legitimate control over violence has led to the continuation of Afghanistan as a failed state.

The normative statebuilding approach in Afghanistan evidences the heavily technocratic and administrative role of international partners. Although these roles are important to capacity-building efforts, the desire to act collectively is not book-ended by a collective vision of the overarching political requirements. The capacity-building approach employed by international experts could benefit from more stringent planning and visioning to make these programs more effective.

This is easier said than done. Afghanistan’s post-2001 reconstruction and development has suffered at the hands of multiple and often competing architects, including the national government, lead donor countries, multilateral organizations, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan and other UN agencies, the US Agency for International Development, and several thousand NGOs. Going forward, practitioners should consider the limitations of prioritizing “easier” social processes over political ones. This could help constrain scope creep and harness the work of thousands of national and international actors into a coherent strategy.

If today’s statebuilding partnerships are not guided by a deeper understanding of the power (or denial of power) that international partners bring, then the ability to blame national counterparts for any shortcomings becomes a convenient way to avoid or pass on responsibility. The first step in resolving this issue is to understand and agree on what sovereignty means in statebuilding partnerships. A second step would be to consider what a democratic state should look like when designed as an international partnership. There seems to be a consensus among practitioners that states are “normal” and important. This thinking is linked to Westernized, Weberian orientations of the state, which has led to the application of policies and reforms heavily based on these models, in some cases with little or no success. There appears to be little consideration that this favored form of statehood hardly exists in reality. This lack of consideration has led to an increasingly idealized vision of the efficacy of the Western “state” model, and as such has been pursued in multiple countries in the post-Cold War era, including Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Finally, shifting from a human-centered to a client-centered approach may also reduce the perception of people as “problems.” People should not be viewed primarily as subjects in need of transformation via external assistance. During the first decade of intervention in Afghanistan after 2001, major initiatives such as government capacity-building programs and country-wide physical infrastructure projects reflected this way of thinking. Now, efforts are underway to reverse the adverse effects of some of these initiatives, such as the exclusion of opposed groups in the Bonn Agreement negotiations, the creation of a parallel second civil service, and a lack of capacity by line ministries to fund, build, and maintain critical infrastructure.

Dr. Adam Simpson is an experienced advisor for development and peacebuilding initiatives. As Manager of Global Programmes for UN Women, he provides strategic guidance and oversight for the Programme Directorate's global portfolio. Adam is also an advisor to the High Level Panel for Women’s Economic Empowerment, which was established by the United Nations Secretary-General in 2016. The Panel has brought together influential leaders from various fields to launch a shared global agenda that accelerates women’s economic empowerment in support of implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. 

Adam previously worked for the United Nations Office for Project Services, overseeing projects in Asia, Europe and the Middle East, based out of Denmark, Serbia, and Jordan.  He also worked with the Aga Khan Foundation and NATO in Afghanistan, where he managed a suite of healthcare infrastructure projects in the northern provinces, designed to improve quality standards and access to care. Prior to working in development, he spent several years in the private sector as a management consultant, where he helped establish Canada’s first distributed medical learning education programme.

Adam’s doctoral dissertation examines post-Cold War statebuilding and behavioral norms and project management capacities of development institutions in conflict settings.