Empire and state building in Afghanistan

The Washington Post ran a report on Thursday about a little known aspect of US policy in Afghanistan: sponsorship of informal militias that pursue US counterterrorism threats. In Khost province, the CIA runs a paramilitary called the Khost Protection Force, a political-military entity that supersedes the authority of the nominally sovereign Afghan state and has committed its own atrocities:

In Khost, the KPF is more influential than the Afghan army and police, and unaccountable to the provincial government, often acting outside normal chains of command. Locally, militias such as the KPF are called “campaign forces,” an informal name Afghans use for pro-government armed groups.”

“One commander, who left the force last month, said that CIA operatives regularly hold planning sessions and that in October he received his salary directly from them. “The orders came from the Americans,” he said. They were “the real bosses.”

“Only in name is the KPF linked to the NDS,” said Mohammad Qadin Afghan, a provincial council member and former KPF fighter who maintains close ties to the force. “They still work for the CIA.”

The covert use of such proxies has been a constant and primary feature of US policy in Afghanistan since 2001. If not controlled directly by the CIA, such militias have been controlled by local warlords who become clients of US Special Forces or the CIA. These warlords then build informal power structures that undermine the formal authority of Afghan state institutions. This has been especially true in Kandahar province, the heartland of the Taliban, where the US has sponsored Gul Agha Sherzai, Ahmed Wali Karzai, and Abdul Razziq. Other regions in Afghanistan have also been ruled by warlords with ties to either the United States or other regional powers. Most prominent are Abdul Rashid Dostum of northern Afghanistan and Ismail Khan of western Afghanistan.

What’s most interesting about this detail of US foreign policy is how it resembles the ideal structure of imperialism discussed by Nexon and Wright in their classic piece about indirect rule. Nexon and Wright argue that empire is defined by patron-client relations of brokerage in which central authorities devolve power to local intermediaries. In turn, those local intermediaries enact forms of rule in the interest of central authorities, but have their own autonomy and pursue their own interests within their particular sphere of influence.

Empire works for both central authorities and local intermediaries because they can take advantage their of central positions of brokerage within the overall structure of relations. Strategically, this leads them to embrace divide and rule strategies in which the terms of rule are heterogenous among different local intermediaries. This systems is stable as long as those individuals subjugated by different local intermediaries do not communicate with each other about the terms of their subjugation, or can compare such hierarchical relations to other norms of authority that may emphasize homogenous forms of rule which should also apply to warlords.

But this is precisely the situation the United States has created. The public policy of the United States is not to rule Afghanistan through local warlords, but to support the emergence of a sovereign Afghan state which sufficient capacity to rule over its own territory based on impartial law and through formal security institutions. The United States, particularly the Defense and State Departments, have spent billions of dollars on building Afghan military, police, and judicial institutions, yet these institutions are so weak that rule of law is nonexistent and the security forces have recently lost a major city, Kunduz. What is yet to be acknowledged by these agencies is that their state building objectives have always been fatally obstructed by the terms of informal rule established by the CIA and US Special Forces.

How does indirect rule through proxies undermine statebuilding? Since warlords and militias are sponsored by the United States – the same sponsor of Afghan state institutions – they have always had the privilege and capability to wield force and violate rule of law. For leaders who have institutional roles, the fact that the United States acknowledge alternative authorities and provides them with resources to establish their own rule forces state authorities to bend the rules to deal with the power of non-state American-sponsored warlords at the expense of Afghans not associated with warlords. Thus, proxies can exploit and oppress subnational groups, and reward their followers with acquired resources.

The result is the polarization of subnational group identities and delegitimation of any claim to authority by formal state authorities. Faced with subjugation, those excluded from warlord patronage turn to rebellion.  These are the conditions that enable the Taliban to thrive and build their own alternative power that has now grown to threaten the very existence of the Afghan state.

In relational terms, the US never delegated authority in Afghanistan to a truly autonomous and sovereign state that was the sole broker of power resources. Instead, the US engages heterogenous contracting with the Afghan state and proxy warlords and makes alternative commitments of coercive support to intermediaries operating under terms of rule that ultimately contradict each other. Since the United States has sponsored multiple actors with coercive capabilities and on different terms, there’s no way the Afghan state can legitimize and enact its own claim to sovereignty unless the US ends its relationship with its counterterror proxies.

It almost looked like the United States was going to end its relationship with warlords and militias last year when the CIA made clear that it was disbanding its militias as part of the overall US withdrawal from Afghanistan. However, the Taliban sacking of Kunduz has demonstrated the minimal coercive capabilities of the Afghan state. Given the potential for collapse, the United States remains dependent on warlords and militias to prop up the state itself and prevent a major loss of territory to Taliban insurgents. Yet, as discussed above (and shown in the Washington Post article), those same warlords erode the legitimize the Afghan state.

Ultimately, our foreign policy in Afghanistan ultimately works at cross-purposes and perpetuates the very threats that counterterrorism and statebuilding are supposed to resolve.


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