The unravelling of the Afghan Potemkin village

Florian P. Kühn | 19 August 2021

A picture looking over the rooftops of Herat, showng a minaret in the foreground and more in the background, with a few trees in between tan buildings
This photograph of Herat, the third-largest city in Afghanistan now under Taliban control, was taken by the author in 2006.

Editorial note: This post marks the beginning of the BlogSeries, Taliban in Power, with contributions looking at and analysing the developments in Afghanistan in 2021. We will cover these developments, bringing in scholars’, development practitioners’ and diplomats’ perspectives on recent developments and the politics of interventionism more broadly.


The Taliban have taken control of Afghanistan again. The Taliban had been forcibly removed from power following the attacks of 9/11. Two decades later, pundits are struggling to explain their resurgence. Among the most popular explanations is the corruption and greed of Afghanistan's non-Taliban elites. However, the world is frequented by corrupt and greedy regimes able to stave off contenders. Why was the Afghan government so fragile?


The now toppled government of Afghanistan—recognised though not very legitimate given a participation rate of under 20% and plenty of irregularities in the last elections—excelled only in euphemising the speed and scope of the Taliban’s advances. Nevertheless, their complete lack of institutional resilience is remarkable. The Taliban, meanwhile, might be surprised at their sweeping success. They have shown impressive strategic ability, out-manoeuvring the Afghan government along with Western intelligence. However, their reactions indicate that they were overwhelmed by the dynamic speed at which they resumed power.


Over a decade ago, Berit Bliesemann de Guevara and I published a book entitled Illusion Statebuilding (available in German, Hamburg: Edition Körberstiftung). We systematically compared the statebuilding projects of Afghanistan and Bosnia and Hercegovina based on our respective PhD projects. One of the main findings was that external statebuilding helped create a facade of a state with formal institutions and positions fashioned after Western--—that is, capitalist and bureaucratic—states. These hollow institutions were not embedded in, or meaningfully connected to, society. We called the resulting state dummy a ‘Potemkin State’, akin to the villages Potemkin is said to have erected to impress Empress Catherine the Great in the late 18th century. Such villages would include a courthouse, a city hall, and other institutional buildings, but behind the facade, they were void. We argued that Western intervention dominated politics and economy in these countries and thus itself prevented the development of local and stable political institutions. Simply transplanting Western-style, Weberian institutions rather than adjusting these institutions to local social conditions and norms, customs and political practice, was, at best, tolerated but not adopted. As a result, these institutions would only survive as long as they were nurtured by Western political dominance and funding.


The age of interventionism ended several years ago. NATO countries understood already back then that statebuilding would not achieve the results hoped for and decided to end the NATO military (fighting) mission in Afghanistan in 2014, leaving only a training mission to enable Afghan security forces. No full-scale Western interventions have taken place since 2014, including in Libya or Mali, or other places where humanitarians would argue military engagement might prevent the worst. However, it took until 2021 for a full withdrawal from Afghanistan. Although the withdrawal is still incomplete, the Taliban have taken over district after district, and provincial capital upon provincial capital, and finally, the big prize: Kabul. That there was hardly any fighting and that the capital was handed over so simply made it very clear that the Taliban are, indeed, the new de facto government (if only legitimatised by force).


The speed with which the Potemkin village has fallen to dust is astonishing, however. After all, the U.S. and many of its allies have extensively equipped, financed, trained and enabled the Afghan National Army (ANA). However, changing sides, as military commanders and police chiefs have done, saving their lives and speeding up the Taliban’s success, is an Afghan war tradition. The Afghan government’s statements during the advance could not mask the limited capacity and motivation of the ‘Republic’s’ forces to fight and defend Ashraf Ghani’s administration. Officially numbered at 300,000 (against estimated 75,000 Taliban) and well equipped, it turned out that a large number of these Republican forces likely never existed. These soldiers seem to have been kept in the books only to increase salary payments coming from the West, predominantly from the U.S.


Lacking the U.S.-military’s tactical support and overwhelming fire-power (including its deterrent function), the Afghan army left control to the Taliban, largely without a fight. In other places, the Taliban took advantage of the government soldiers’ fear, enhanced by a spirit of invincibility supported by their swift advance. This resembled their initial successes when they started pushing back on the ever more fragmented and ruthlessly predatory Mujaheddin militias after 1994. Until a few weeks ago, many Afghans expected that the Taliban would not march on Kabul, based on the assumption that the U.S. would not ‘allow’ it. Also, many hoped that the Taliban would install a mildly Islamist way of governing, some kind of ‘Iran light’ regime with strict rules but no public whippings or stoning. Many additionally assumed the Taliban would be pragmatically happy to split the country into parts controlled by what has become known as ‘the Republic’ and themselves. Because the Taliban are held to be non-corruptible and coherent, and thus calculable, many in Afghanistan were not too worried; after all, most people suffered from the violence enacted by government officials, police and thugs. The expectation for the time after a Taliban take-over was, mostly, that the streets would be safe again at night. People, in a mix of defiance and fatalism, somewhat resigned themselves to that scenario.


Of course, the catastrophic events of the weekend 14–15 August 2021 demonstrated another aspect of the Taliban regime. While many in the country-side share the ethical values of the Taliban, whose code rests on a harsh interpretation of Sharia law as practiced in tribal society for centuries (most famously, but not restricted to, the tribal code of ‘Pashtunwali’), it is the educated, urban, emerging ‘middle-classes’ who fear for their freedoms, and often, their lives. The scenes at Kabul Airport, of desperate ‘collaborators’ fearing revenge trying to cling to planes and blocking the runway, preventing others from being evacuated, only hinted at what is at stake for them. The Taliban leadership has urged their fighters to practise restraint, but taking revenge in the moments of triumph may be too tempting. Threats against everyone who worked with or for Western agencies, military and development projects alike, have been added to hit-lists for years. There is a substantive danger that the Taliban’s virtue police, once re-installed, may single out the people on such lists for punishment, including civil society, activists, journalists, human rights advocates, but also teachers, female politicians, and many people who publicly spoke out against the Taliban. In any case, it is clear that all Western states have done too little, too late, to save those who helped them implement their statebuilding project over the years. Many of them will die as a result.


Many Afghans, international observers and scholars (including me) were apparently mistaken in assuming that the Taliban, striving for international recognition, would practice moderation in their conquest. The rapid military advances belie any restraint or acceptance of requests for a power-sharing arrangement. Emboldened by the dynamics of a collapsing republic, the Taliban are on a ‘winner takes all’ quest. In this light, their slow negotiation style of recent years with both the U.S. but also the Afghan government, makes a lot of sense. They reportedly did not even bother talking about sparing the U.S. embassy in Kabul—which confirms that they were certain they would take over the national capital within weeks and that the U.S. expected exactly that to happen sooner rather than later. It is one of history’s paradoxes that Zalmay Khalilzad, the architect of the dysfunctional Afghan political system in the early 2000s, is now the US-envoy tasked with negotiating the U.S. exit with the Taliban. The U.S.’s concern that no pictures akin to the famous evacuation from the rooftop by helicopter in Saigon would emerge certainly was fully confirmed—it is doubtful that the Taliban would not welcome another easy propaganda victory such as taking over and blocking the airport before evacuations could be completed.


While corruption and cronyism have undoubtedly characterised the Afghan government and administration, nationally as well as in the provinces, it was centrally a symptom of failed statebuilding efforts by the (mostly Western) intervention. With amounts of money, disproportionate in buying power but also excessively favouring some groups at the disadvantage of others, spent often unchecked on the statebuilding exercise, the intervention created the very conditions for fraud and financial abuse that it lamented. Development projects went uncoordinated, as each country or organisation in the pluralistic ‘international community’ (see Bliesemann de Guevara and Kühn 2011) guarded their field of activity, while no coherent development ‘plan’ was agreed upon. Donors’ political leverage never went as far as to obligate the Afghan government to actually implement a functioning anti-corruption strategy. Hence, large parts of the funds were funnelled to bank accounts in the Gulf emirates, and many of the people who profited most from the statebuilding project hold passports from other countries. They have already left or are about to, as those who suffered from fraud and expropriation have to stay behind and suffer at the hands of the victorious Taliban and the inevitable violence that will likely unfold in the next few weeks. The bitter irony, of course, is that those who created the current situation in Afghanistan are, for the most part, not going to suffer the consequences. This includes not only corrupt Afghan elites but also decision-makers in Washington, Brussels and other ‘peaceful’ capitals.


Globally, the result of 20 years of Western statebuilding is much worse than might have been expected. Not only were (often exaggerated) expectations regarding vastly improved living standards disappointed, but also the democratic experiment and its promise of a ‘good life’ in a democracy, the very democratic experiment, are in shambles. Liberal interventionism, operatively not a success anyway, has succeeded ideationally in discrediting any notion of democracy. Islamists all over the globe are having a field day. The damage done to democracy in the global competition of ideas is hard to measure. However, it seems safe to assume that the appeal of Chinese and other authoritarian models of development will further grow around the world.


What is left for Western countries? During the unfolding turmoil, covered by the ‘fog of war’ (Clausewitz) the true developments are difficult to establish, let alone analyse. Obviously, Western diplomatic options are limited. Attempts to evacuate ample strata of vulnerable people will be too late for many, but an open asylum policy is now a moral imperative. Once the Taliban attempt to gain international recognition, damage control should guide policy. While influencing the Taliban in their domestic politics will likely be impossible, preventing neighbouring countries from using Afghanistan as a proxy theatre of war might still be feasible. That way, a fragmented war akin to the conflagration in Afghanistan in the 1990s that brought the Taliban to power in the first place, might still be averted. Iran and Pakistan as well as regional powers aspiring to fill the political void such as India, Russia, and China, , might otherwise turn Afghanistan into a stage for their geopolitical rivalries. Tragically, the human rights and humanitarian catastrophe of a triumphant Taliban government is all but assured.

Keywords: #AfghanGovernment #Afghanistan #statebuilding #Taliban #USmilitary #USwithdrawal

Florian P. Kühn is a Senior Lecturer for Peace and Development Research and Co-Programme Director for the M.A. Global Studies at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg. He has researched Afghanistan for 20 years and written extensively about international interventionism, statebuilding and the ambiguities and contradictions of global politics. He has published numerous articles in international academic journals and is Co-Editor of the Journal of Intervention and Statebuilding. His books include (with Berit Bliesemann de Guevara) „Illusion Statebuilding. Warum der westliche Staat so schwer zu exportieren ist“, Hamburg: Edition Körberstiftung 2010), ‘Security and Development in World Society. Liberal Paradigm and Statebuilding in Afghanistan’ (Wiesbaden: VS 2010, in German), which won the German Association for Middle East Research’s book award in 2010.


Works cited:

Bliesemann de Guevara, Berit and Florian P. Kühn. 2010. Illusion Statebuilding. Warum der westliche Staat so schwer zu exportieren ist. Hamburg: edition Körberstiftung.