The West and its inability to learn from its own history: The example of Afghanistan

Since the beginning of the Afghanistan invasion in 2001, the international forces formulated a broad range of strategic objectives. Once officials were asked about it, the answers varied between the military aspiration to simply fight terrorism, the idea of creating peace, prosperity and progress or the aim to establish a functioning democratic electoral system. One of the most prominent objectives was to create a strong central state. However, having spent massive amounts of resources, manpower and domestic political capital on that task, the Western public is shocked about the never ending bad news of violence and casualties. Quite exemplarily, the German Afghanistan mission will end by December 2014, and it will leave behind an unstable and fragile northern province in the midst of crisis.

Nonetheless, if one steps back a bit and regards the events through the lens of an historian, the bloody decade of unrest and insurrection against Western attempts to centralise state power might not seem that unexpected.

Given the Western European experience of state-building from 1600 onwards, Western Europe has her very own distinctive history of violence, rebellion and unrest against the formation of a centralised state power. As Charles Tilly reminds us in the book chapter ‚Refections on the History of European State-Building‘ (Tilly 1975):

War made the state, and the state made war (ibid. 1975: 42).


if the European experience is a guide, the short-run cost (of statebuilding; author) is an increase in the likelihood of resistance and revolt. Hence, a close historical connection among increases in stateness, expansion of armed forces, rise in taxation, and popular rebellion (ibid. 1975: 35).

Although many geographic, political, economic or cultural characteristics of Western Europe in 1600 and present Afghanistan differ tremendously, the Western European experience demonstrated that the process of state-building in an area dominated by various other claimants of sovereignty and power is a lengthy and violent affair. It remains to be seen whether the state will eventually establish itself as the dominant form of organisation in contemporary Afghanistan. But it seems to be a naïve assumption of the international forces that the attempt to create a strong central state would not shake up as much as provoke traditional Afghan power arrangements and cause resistance.

Furthermore, there is still another aspect a careful reading of Tilly’s analysis of the Western European state-building process brings to mind: Whereas the Western European states in  the making from 1600 onwards faced an international environment supportive for their formation, contemporary Afghanistan has to deal with a completely different regional neighbourhood. Actors such as the enemy states Pakistan and India both have their strategic interest in influencing the outcomes of political development in Afghanistan. The Tajik, Uzbek or Turkmen minorities did not forget the times of civil war and might activate their relations to the countries most supportive of their specific interests. Besides these local actors, only history can tell which role the great powers such as China, India and the United States will claim for themselves. Added up, all these factors create a picture of an international and domestic environment unlikely to let Afghanistan develop a centralised state without interference.

If one sums up these facts, it seems to be that the West has not learnt from its very own history. Neither was it a sign of strategic vision that the specific domestic environment, the conflicting priorities of the international actors and its consequences for the state building process were not taken into consideration. Nor can be said that the violence was a surprising byproduct of the intervention. The Western experience itself should be the strongest reminder of how violent the process of state-building can be.


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