On Dec. 9, The Washington Post released a trove of documents on U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. These documents, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, include over 2,000 pages of notes from more than 400 interviews with people directly involved in the war. Interviews were conducted between 2014 and 2018 by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), the U.S. government body overseeing Afghanistan reconstruction — as part of its Lessons Learned program.

The Afghanistan Papers reveal breathtaking ignorance of Afghanistan’s politics and society, and a profound misunderstanding of what military intervention can achieve in places where personal relationships and patronage networks often trump state institutions.

The interview notes show an overly ambitious attempt to build Western-like institutions, one that was doomed to fail and that led to massive corruption. Former president Hamid Karzai, who served from 2002 to 2014, reacted to the papers’ publication by blaming this corruption on the United States. He told the Associated Press that, throughout his presidency, the CIA regularly delivered him bags of cash to pay off political elites — including those vilified as warlords.

My recently published book, “Warlord Survival: The Delusion of State Building in Afghanistan,” reveals that the U.S. policy of trying to build a functioning bureaucratic state in Afghanistan, where political authority is deeply fragmented, was based on a delusion.

Warlords rule

The U.S. military did not go into Afghanistan to build a functioning government, but because it was the base for al-Qaeda, which had planned and launched the 9/11 attacks. The goal was to hunt al-Qaeda fighters, to remove the extremist Taliban regime that had provided them sanctuary since the mid-1990s and to instead install a friendly regime — all with minimum political involvement. The effort to build a functioning state came later.

The initial military campaign was swift. A small number of CIA operatives and Special Operations forces worked on the ground with Afghan warlords while U.S. air power was used against Taliban positions. The United States wasn’t willing to get further involved politically and militarily in Afghan domestic affairs. Nor was it willing to include the Taliban in the new political order. That left the United States undertaking what has since been denounced as a warlord strategy — relying on and empowering some of the warlords described as “evil” in the Afghanistan Papers.

To be sure, most Afghan warlords have been implicated in a range of human rights abuses. But describing them as “evil” is both reductive and counterproductive, obscuring the many roles they play socially and politically. Warlords often connect people to political and economic opportunities; they bring in jobs, lucrative contracts and political appointments. They supply public goods, provide security, adjudicate disputes and govern their communities. Some of these men (they are almost always men) are even willing to back the creation of a national government, so long as that will preserve or even extend their authority.

Most Westerners who work to rebuild war-torn countries — including many of the people interviewed for the Lessons Learned program — would like warlords to quietly disappear as a rule-based bureaucratic state develops. That’s not possible. In Afghanistan and elsewhere, warlords shape the political landscape, during and after war. They can’t be tamed by dressing them in suits and ties and “bringing them into Kabul and giving them a fancy title,” as former national security adviser Stephen Hadley put it. Nor can outsiders easily disempower warlords by cutting financial and political support or defeat them militarily.

Warlords are remarkably resilient. And that’s not just because they’re financially independent or militarily strong. They’re also shrewd political actors. They develop subtle strategies to appear indispensable to whoever needs what they can provide, whether that’s protection, trust, security, votes or information. Foreign powers — the United States, Iran, Pakistan or Turkey — have used warlords to help them extend their influence in Afghan politics and society. Elites in Kabul rely on them to deliver votes and political muscle. Many Afghans will support warlords if they believe that they can protect them and connect them to patronage networks. Warlords do not need to be loved. All they require is for people to believe in their power.

In many respects, Afghan warlords are part of the state. They are pivotal links between the state bureaucracy and their own local patronage networks. In Afghanistan, corruption results from a lack of clear boundaries between state institutions and those patronage networks. In fact, many of the warlords mentioned in the Afghanistan Papers have held high government positions — from governor to minister to vice president.

What this means for the future of U.S.-led nation-building

All this suggests that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to bringing peace, rebuilding a nation or helping to establish a democratic political order. More often than not, outside political forces can’t do it — so long as local authorities hold local power, whether Western countries believe that power is legitimate. Most intervening forces find they have to work with warlords. And that almost always has unanticipated long-term consequences.

Warlords are integral to the way countries like Afghanistan actually work. Instead of repeatedly attempting highly ambitious and intrusive social engineering projects, policymakers may wish to consider that military intervention might not always result in a more stable political order.

Romain Malejacq (@afghanopoly) is an assistant professor at the Centre for International Conflict Analysis and Management of Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands and author of “Warlord Survival: The Delusion of State Building in Afghanistan” (Cornell University Press, 2019).