Peacebuilding in Afghanistan: a Human Security Lens

Khushmita Dhabhai
6th September 2021

Picture Courtesy: Reuters

The Taliban seizure of Kabul and the consequent collapse of Afghanistan has marked the termination, or rather defeat, of the liberal peacebuilding experiment in the region. Pictures revealing the plight of Afghan citizens and the ongoing immigrant exodus raise questions on what exactly went wrong. Why did this experiment fail? What happened to the country that the whole world, had once, embraced in the bid to democratise?

This article will, thus, seek to evaluate the prime reasons for the failure of the international state-building initiative in Afghanistan through the prism of the Human Security Paradigm. Via focusing on the nature of international assistance and the impact of corruption on state legitimacy, it will argue that international efforts failed to holistically emancipate the Afghan citizens’ insecurities and construct a sustainable state.

What is Human Security?

The Human Security approach to post-intervention state-building envisages a people-centric system, wherein the definition of security spans beyond safeguarding merely the state’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Therefore, it encompasses the promotion of human and political development, i.e., ensuring the general masses’ freedom from fear, want and indignity. Implementing this shift from the traditional security narrative, to that proposed by the Human Security paradigm, is integral to establishing the foundation of sustainable peace within a state. In the Afghan context, in particular, it means “identifying the everyday insecurities of the Afghan people as opposed to the threats posed to the international community by a failed Afghan state.”

For these reasons, instead of focusing on the use of force and the coercive capacity of the region, this article will critique a mélange of other factors that were crucial to the state-building endeavours in Afghanistan.

Challenges to International Assistance and Aid 

  • International assistance in reconstructing the economic nuances of the Afghan Society was severely marred by the absence of Human Security’s people-centrism.

Hasty, and more specifically detached, state-building processes punctuated the non-inclusive, top-down governance systems in Afghanistan. This tendency explicitly manifested itself in state builders’ approach to counter the Afghan narcotics network. Post the accurate realisation that winning the war on drugs was critical to winning the war on terror, coalition forces worked towards eradicating opium production since 2001. However, in a quick attempt to solve this problem, external actors failed to acknowledge that this ‘criminal’ activity accounted for 40% of the Afghan economy. International assistance should have been contoured to suit, if not uplift, the situational realities of each engagement. In numerous rural communities, local Afghan citizens were increasingly dependent on income generated by the trade and cultivation of opium poppies. Therefore, these attempts at eradication programmes triggered negative impacts on the food security of resource-poor groups. Left with no means to generate a livelihood, the Afghan population were forced to join criminal bands and militia groups to sustain themselves.

Moreover, even after international attempts at introducing the alternative-livelihoods program in 2009, there were no substantial changes to the course of events. This could be owed to the program’s ill-conceived injection of large sums of money into short-term, observable projects. Meaning that, the primary focus of external state builders lay in achieving output targets rather than contributing to actual value-added development.

This instance reveals one of the fundamental underlying problems with state-building endeavours in Afghanistan: the absence of public involvement. The Afghan people were not involved as active agents of change; instead, they were positioned as mere passive recipients of programmes driven by others. There were hardly any attempts at generating Afghan ownership over these state-building endeavours. Therefore, for the human security agenda to have succeeded, it would have been essential to include measures designed to promote a fair and inclusive society. This would have meant going beyond mere consultations with the Afghan population and considering them the driving force in designing reforms. State builders should have supported indigenous institutions at the national, local and provincial levels, such as the Shuras, to best achieve this. This is because by sharing power and responsibility, systems that involve the people can better provide security, reduce the burden of all actors involved and consequently accelerate development.

  • On a similar accord, the provision of international aid to Afghanistan was tainted by a myopic trajectory and a lack of public sensitivity.

International aid to Afghanistan, quite simply put, had short-term agendas. With a focus on camps and urban environments, aid provision failed to build Afghanistan’s long-term state capacities holistically. Therefore, instead of directing external aid to balance itself, both independently and sustainably, Afghanistan was left hollow, dependent and hanging on the strings of external financial assistance. Due to this reason, while it was possible to note some local development, there were no substantial modifications to Afghanistan’s regionalised political war economy. There were no drastic structural changes that could strengthen Afghanistan’s weak economic scaffolding. Local leaders, in due consequence, became more attuned and responsive to external actors (in bids for more financial assistance) instead of their own people. It can be understood, accordingly, that international aid facilitated the development of a rentier elite and a state that failed in upholding its social contract with its citizens.

Additionally, donors considerably weakened the Afghan state’s authority and capacities by bypassing the state and channelling aid through sub-national societal units of the population (i.e. Warlords). For instance, in Afghanistan’s 2005 budget, less than 30% of all expenditures were channelled through the state. Such tendencies gravely hindered the provision of human security in the long run. This is because, when aid in Afghanistan forwent the central government and directly operated under regional administrations, it led to increased tensions between the centre and periphery. A viable example of this being President Karzai’s constant skirmishes with local Warlords.

State Legitimacy- Ignoring the Potential and Consequences of Rampant Corruption

International state-building activities most commonly begin in situations wherein nations lack not only the capacity to provide security and services, but also the legitimacy to do so. Attempts at winning over the Afghan population and reconstructing Afghanistan’s legitimacy were considerably tarnished by widespread institutional corruption in the state.

By alienating the common man from a clientele elite, corruption in the Afghan state, its judicial sector and its police gravely damaged public legitimacy. Reports claiming that Afghan officials had systematically stolen $300 million from a UNDP trust fund —created to pay the police— reveal information of a poorly paid, and consequently disinterested, police corps. The “expanding dossier of unresolved police violence and corruption cases” that followed undermined widespread public faith in the international reconstruction effort and created a judicial vacuum. A vacuum that the Taliban then exploited and attempted to fill, most notably through the creation of a Code of Conduct in 2006, aimed at eliminating police corruption.

From the Human Security perspective, these instances of corruption morphed into a systemic and endemic complex phenomenon- one linked to organised crime and correlated to weak institutions. Such situations only increased the vulnerability of a population already afflicted by violence, disaster, poverty and inequality. This drastically undermined their faith, belief, and legitimacy in any new structured form of governance that emerged.

External state builders, in particular, were slow to discern the entrenched nature of corruption in Afghanistan. Another implicit, yet equally disastrous, weakness was their failure to integrate anti-corruption strategies into their security and stability goals for the region. Anti-corruption strategies should not have been viewed as imposing trade-offs to those goals. This is because the Human Security Paradigm champions state-building strategies as an interlinked web of goals. Meaning that, no one goal is ever mutually exclusive of the other. The failure to recognise this corroborated a rampant and perpetual cycle of corruption-linked scandals.


No plan is absolute. It must be attuned to the situational realities of its implementation to succeed. Understanding these situational realities is a direct by-product of understanding, following and cooperating with the desires of the local population. State-building, therefore, is about giving the people what they want, not what we think they want. The absence of this maxim, and the deficit of the Human Security Paradigm in the Afghan state-building endeavour, paved the way to a detached institution- one with which the local Afghan population could just not resonate. This tendency facilitated the resurgence of the Taliban, and it is solely this tendency that spurred crisis after crisis in the country that the whole world had once ambitiously embraced.

*The Author is a Research Intern at the Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies


Disclaimer: The Views in the Article are of the Author