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Bad Medicine

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Diagnosing the Failure of State-Building Efforts in Afghanistan

image of Central Asian Affairs

By all accounts, the post-2001 state-building effort in Afghanistan failed to deliver on its promise. Rather than blame politicians, insurgency, or obdurate customary authority, this article suggests the constitutional principles upon which the state was constructed ultimately undermined the state itself. In an attempt to address the enormous human suffering in Afghanistan, the 2004 Constitution proclaimed a vast array of positive rights to be implemented by an extremely centralized state apparatus. Yet this vision, in which individuals should look to the state as a source of individual and community well-being, is dramatically out of step with a reality in which individuals neither trusts the centralized state, nor relies on it for many public goods. For many Afghans, the notion of well-being is tied to independence from the state. An alternative state-building vision, one that appreciates a constitutional order stressing negative rights and recognizes the virtues of self-governance, would have resonated much more deeply with a society that has been served by chronically weak governments. This article uses evidence from an original nationally-representative survey and field interviews to illustrate the disjuncture between a self-governing society in which individuals strive for limited government and a state-building ‘antidote’ that offers up a very different medicine. The essay concludes by explaining why a more limited and politically bounded state-building approach, especially in rural areas, may be an important alternative to promote citizen well-being.

Affiliations: 1: Graduate School of Public and International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh,


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