Commentary: State-building cannot be imposed from outside; the EU and others must learn lessons from Afghanistan

A state cannot be built from outside, with a foreign army standing on top of it to supervise the process, argues Dennis Sammut in this commentary. As the EU expands its global ambitions, it must be aware of the risks of "mission creep" and make sure the mistakes in Afghanistan are not repeated.

The scenes at Kabul airport in the last days have been upsetting. Even more disturbing is the prospect that a violent organisation – one that is inspired by an extreme and skewed interpretation of religion – has returned to govern Afghanistan.

Afghanistan will pose serious challenges to the international system going forward in multiple ways, and long after the distressing pictures from Kabul airport have faded from the front pages of websites and newspapers. Managing the future with a Taliban government in situ in a strategic part of Eurasia must now be the priority for decision-makers, and officials responsible for putting their policies into practice.

There will remain for a long time a lingering question: What went wrong, and why have twenty years of military and political engagement with Afghanistan, backed by billions of euros of expenditure, been to no avail?

The international community, spearheaded by the US and NATO went to Afghanistan in 2001 in response to the 9/11 attacks in the United States. It was an act of retribution against those who perpetrated the attack and those who abetted them, and foremost amongst the latter were the Taliban of Afghanistan, who were then, as now, in power in the country. The military operation succeeded. The Taliban offered some resistance, but mostly melted away into the Pashtun villages of southern Afghanistan, preparing to fight another day. Eventually, Osama bin Laden was found and killed at the place where he had been hiding – in Pakistan rather than Afghanistan.

Once the Taliban had been pushed out of Kabul, and their capacity eroded at least in the short term, the military mission was achieved. But by this time, a second mission emerged, that of state-building. Governments, especially in the US, UK and Europe, had preferred to articulate the military mission as a mission of salvation of the Afghan people, as well as one of retribution. This made it more palatable for public opinion back home. The mission now became a mission of state-building: to emancipate the Afghan women, to turn Afghanistan into a democracy, to eradicate poverty and bring education to all. In fact, in Afghanistan the mission was to build the state anew, from scratch. But whilst the military objective of ousting and punishing the Taliban could be achieved successfully within a short period of time, the more ambitious mission of state-building failed. Once the foreign military support was withdrawn, the Afghan state and its institutions, including the army, collapsed.

Speaking from the Oval Office on 16 August, US president Joe Biden said: “Our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building. It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy.” So now we know that what happened in Afghanistan was “mission-creep”, in other words, you start to do something and end up doing something else. Did it really need to take twenty years, a trillion dollars of expenditure, and the lives of thousands of US, NATO, allies and Afghan soldiers and civilians to realise that!

The lesson that states – in the Middle East especially – cannot be built from outside should have been learnt a long time ago. In the 1960s, a misguided British attempt to create the state of South Arabia (in present day Yemen), failed in circumstances not dissimilar to the one we have seen in Kabul in recent days. The South Arabia Federal Army, that had been built with much effort and lavish funding by the outgoing British administration, and on which British hopes for the sustainability of the South Arabia state lay, simply disintegrated and evaporated once the British started to leave.

The key lesson that needs to be learnt is that a state has to be built by its people, preferably from the bottom-up, although elites in some countries have had success of building their own state from top down. A state cannot be built from outside, with a foreign army standing on top of it to supervise the process. This is what the US and the west tried to do in Afghanistan in the last two decades. Many other countries, international institutions, and NGOs were their partners in this endeavour. Everyone was telling the Afghans what they needed to do; few were listening to what the Afghans actually wanted. The result was a hollow edifice that collapsed immediately the foreign military support was withdrawn.

Afghanistan is a conservative, tribal society, with huge economic and social problems.  Most of its population lives in abject poverty. To think that it could be catapulted into the 21st century under a US and NATO military umbrella was always a misjudgement. The country and its people needed help, and change was, and is, inevitable. But the help needed to be focussed more specifically to areas such as health and education, and the change should have come from bottom up, with people aspiring for it, not trying to resist it because they detested it as an outside intrusion, feared it because they saw it as threatening their deeply held values, or didn’t understand it, because it simply was too far away from their reality. Many of the Afghans implementing the changes in Afghanistan in the last two decades were disconnected from the grassroots and were more interested in enriching themselves. The fact that the West did not comprehend these realities in Afghanistan, where this truth was so stark for everyone to see, means that the same mistake is much more likely to happen in other places where things are less black and white, but where the principle of not trying to impose something from outside still holds.

I do not often find myself agreeing with Russian President Vladimir Putin but I agree with the core message, even if not the nuance in what he was trying to say, when speaking next to German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the Kremlin on 20 August. Putin said:

It is necessary to stop the irresponsible policy of imposing someone's outside values ​​from outside, the desire to build democracies in other countries according to other people's "patterns", not taking into account either historical, national or religious characteristics, completely ignoring the traditions by which other peoples live. We know Afghanistan, we know it well, we are convinced of how this country is organized and how counterproductive it is to try to impose on it unusual forms of government and public life. Any such socio-political "experiments" have never been crowned with success and only lead to the destruction of states, the degradation of their political and social systems.

What Putin stopped short of saying was that the Soviet Union – the entity for which he is so often nostalgic about – had invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and tried to impose on it something that was much more extraneous and repulsive to Afghan society – an atheist communist state. It's good to remember that Afghanistan’s problems did not start on 16 August 2021.

Grey areas will remain challenging to address

Those who support external interventions in support of state-building often cite examples where state-building has worked. Perhaps the most extreme examples of such success – on the other side of the spectrum from Afghanistan – are within the European Union itself. The entry of the Baltic States and the countries of Central Europe into the EU did indeed entail a process of state-building, or at least state-rebuilding. But any comparisons with Afghanistan are otherwise shallow. The challenge here was to implement a transition from a totalitarian communist system that had overwhelmed state institutions, and implement reforms to bring these countries to the level where they could benefit from EU membership. But there was also one important, crucial difference: the populations and the political elites in these countries were, by and large, committed and enthusiastic about EU membership and ready to accept the process through which it could be achieved. This was not something that was shoved down their throat. On the contrary they clamoured for it, making the EU itself appearing sometimes seem as the reluctant partner. That is an important distinction when we start looking at other situations were a degree of state-building is necessary. For example, EU engagement with Georgia cannot be dismissed as an external exercise in state-building. It is responding to a genuine, popular and non-partisan wish of the Georgian people for closer relations, including membership.

These are far from being abstract debates. As the European Union poises itself to play a bigger role as a geopolitical actor on the world stage its judgement on these issues are going to become increasingly under scrutiny: To what extent should the EU interfere in Belarus? What should be the remit of the new EU mission in the Sahel, and how to avoid mission creep? The EU now has dozens of operational missions, costing hundreds of millions of Euros, whose mandates are often not clear enough, or followed scrupulously enough. As a player in the neighbourhood and beyond the noises coming out of Brussels are often perceived as being patronising, sometimes arrogant.

The EU was never a major player in Afghanistan. The US, NATO, the UK and some of the member states such as Germany had a much bigger role. But it needs to learn lessons from what happened there, and needs to learn them fast.

Some important principles and guidelines need to be recognised, taking into account that the EU has more experience of projecting soft power rather than hard power, and recognising that it is a community of states built on values:

  1. The EU needs to think strategically, act tactically, and deliver in an efficient, timely and humane way. This means there should be no space for knee-jerk decisions taken in response to the latest news story, or fudge decisions based more on the oddities of member states particular interest;
  2. The EU missions must be given clear mandates of what they should do, leaving no ambiguity in terms of what they should not do. There needs to be an awareness of risks of “mission creep”, and how they can be avoided
  3. EU missions should have built-in exit strategies; It’s no use getting in unless you have some idea of how you’re going to get out, and when. This will never be perfect science, but it will create a discipline.
  4. The European Institutions need to avoid being caught in echo chambers. They need to be open to listen to outside views. On paper reviews of EU missions include a certain amount of engagement with outside expertise. In practice their views are largely ignored. Healthy debate on foreign policy with the participation of diverse outside expertise needs to be encouraged.
  5. The EU must spread its values through example and persuasion, not through coercion.  This is a long and laborious process, but it is the only route that is sustainable.
  6. Humanitarian aid should not be entangled with politics. The EU should remain a generous contributor, delivering through credible institutions such as the ICRC, including in Afghanistan.

Solidarity is at the heart of the EU approach to international relations. This needs to remain and be strengthened. Europe should use its soft power tools to respond to the demand for change, for development, and for safety, security and prosperity, from people across the world, and especially in its immediate neighbourhood. But it needs first to understand countries and communities for what they are, not for what it wishes them to be. This means talking less, and listening more.


source: Dennis Sammut is the Director of LINKS Europe and Managing Editor of (
photo: A change of command at the EU Mission in Mali as Brigadier General Enrique Millan from Spain assumed command as Mission Force Commander EUTM Mali from Brigadier General Bart Laurent of Belgium. 


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Borrell underlined that the European Union will make every effort to support the peace process and to remain a committed partner to the Afghan people. "Of course, we will have to take into account the evolving situation, but disengagement is not an option.  We are clear on that: there is no alternative to a negotiated political settlement, through inclusive peace talks.