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Why has post-war reconstruction in Afghanistan not succeeded?

In this paper it is demonstrated that the reconstruction of Afghanistan has failed. The author illustrates this point by a number of examples and argues that the cause of this failure can be identified as framing that applies prefabricated and universal recipes to particular cases and situations. It is argued that not reflecting particular needs of post-war areas inevitably leads to reconstruction failures. In the last section some particular frames are outlined which can be seen in the reconstruction work in Afghanistan.


In this paper I address the question why the reconstruction of Afghanistan did not succeed. For the purpose of this text I will understand reconstruction as a complex transition from a state of war to a state of peace with concurrent security, economic and social aspects, manifested through an assurance of the rule of law, building of economic institutions, construction of primary infrastructure and respect of human rights. I start by arguing that the situation of the country ten years after the launch of the Operation Enduring Freedom is in a very unsatisfactory state, even though an immense amount of human and financial capital has been invested to its reconstruction. In the next part of the paper I argue that the failure to reconstruct Afghanistan is a result of framing, which caused the fact that the needs, conditions and specifics of the country weren’t reflected in the strategies for reconstruction. This was further enforced by not bringing the locals and their elites into the reconstruction process and as a result application of universal recipes to the particular case of Afghanistan. The framing argument which I depart from has a significant backing in literature and along with the data and particular examples of failure which I present offers a plausible explanation of the enduring failure in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. In the third part of the paper I illustrate the argument by presenting some specific frames and how they contributed to the failure of the reconstruction. I conclude with stating that to be successful in reconstructing Afghanistan we need to get rid of frames, take into account the country’s special needs and renew the flow of communication.

Failure of reconstruction

More than a decade has passed since the launch of the Operation Enduring Freedom. Although this operation is not restricted solely to Afghanistan, it is its main area of implementation. In this operation and the sequential reconstruction of Afghanistan, tens of billions of dollars were detached to be spent for the country’s reno­vation. For example between the years 2002 and 2011 the United States have assigned more than $88,5 billion for Afghanistan’s re­construction (SIGAR 2012, p. 61) and the numbers get even higher when we consider the contributions of other countries. Yet even now, more than ten years after the start of the reconstruction, the country is far from what it was intended at the launch of the Bonn Agreement on December 2001 (Suhrke 2007, p. 1298). With its GDP of $576 per capita Afghanistan belongs to the world’s 15 poorest countries (World Bank 2012).

The economic situation is not the only indicator of the failure of the country’s recon­struction. The state of security is alarming as well. The Human rights watch report documented deaths of 2,135 civilians in the first three quarters of 2010, which is an increase of over 10 percent when compared to the same period in 2009 (HRW 2011, p. 1–2). In the most recent report which mapped the situation in 2011 the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) recorded “1,462 conflict-related civilian deaths in the first six months of the year, a 15 percent increase since 2010 (HRW 2012).” Overall “UNAMA documented 3.021 civilian deaths, an increase of 8 percent compared to 2010, with anti-Government elements being responsible for 77 percent of the deaths, an increase of 14 percent compared to the same period in 2010 (UN Secretary-General 2012, p. 6),” which means “an increase in civilian casualties for the fifth consecutive year (UN Secretary-General 2012, p. 6).” As of the most recent available data, “in the months of December 2011 and January 2012, UNAMA documented 383 civilian deaths and 820 civilian injuries, an increase of 39 per cent in civilian casualties (deaths and injuries) compared to the same two-month period in 2010–2011 (UN Secretary-General 2012, p. 7).” Analogically “a total of 124 civilians were killed and 442 injured, representing a large increase in deaths and injuries caused by suicide attacks, compared to the same two month period in 2010–2011 (UN Secretary-General 2012, p. 7).” The UNAMA report also mentions among other than rising civilian casualties the use of ‚night raids‘ by ISAF, abuses performed by insurgents and militias backed by the government as well as instability proceeding from a post-parliamentary election political crisis and a near collapse of the biggest private bank in the country as primary burdens for Afghanistan's ci­tizens (HRW 2012).

The amount of attacks has been steadily rising as well. According to the Afghan NGO Security Office 40 attacks per day took place in the first half of 2011, which is more than double than in 2009 (119 %) and 42 percent more than in 2010. Aid workers have been exposed to more frequent attacks as well – by 73 percent (HRW 2012). The rising trend in civil casualties is constant throughout the past years. According to the report of the Congressional Research Service “11,864 civilians have been killed in the conflict since 2007, when the United Nations began reporting statistics, to the end of 2011 (CRS 2012, p. 3).”

The attempt to train soldiers and policemen, which are to replace foreign forces when they retract, is also facing serious difficulties and so far is thus not promising in terms of future security of the country. Other than illiteracy and abuse, desertion is a rising problem. 24,000 soldiers, that is roughly 15 percent, deserted in the first half of the year, which is twice as much as in 2010 (HRW 2012). Moreover, ‚green-on-blue‘ incidents, when ANSF attempted to kill coalition members, and often succeeded, have been increasing (Report on Progress 2012, p. 68; SIGAR 2012, p. 79; HRW 2012).

The rise of insecurity has had a dramatic impact on emigration from the country. While shortly after the defeat of Taliban 2.3 million emigrants returned to Afghanistan (CMI 2008, p. 3), after the rise of insurgencies in the second half of the decade the trend has turned so dramatically that a UN official remarked that “so many people have left the country recently that the government has run out of passports (Rubin 2007, p. 60).” But emigration is not the only location problem in relation to Afghans. Afghanistan suffers from a severe displacement crisis as well, which is moreover continually escalated. Roughly 19,300 Afghans were displaced between December 2011 and January 2012, rounding the amount of internally displaced people to half a million, which is an increase by 45 percent in comparison to 2010 (UN Secretary-General 2012, p. 12).

The country copes with a low growth of food production and employment, fails in attracting new investments and suffers from a fall in construction. The level of crime is rising and money is leaving the country due to capital flight. Economic growth is not based on a market economy and investments, but on donors and ISAF spending. Improvement in the economic sector is crucial for a long-term stability, but this improvement is held back because of “fiscal gaps, the immaturity of most Afghan economic sectors, widespread corruption, and underdeveloped infrastructure (Report on Progress 2012, p. 88).” With 80 percent of Afghans working in agriculture (SIGAR 2012, p. 135) and a destroyed infrastructure, mainly communications and roads, the economic outlook of the country is not looking bright. The access to electricity is low and the outlooks of improvement are not promising. In some parts of the country access to electricity has even declined (Rubin 2007, p. 67). Confidence in the government and the services it provides is extremely low as well (Report on Progress 2012, p. 88).

Healthcare, although this area is slowly improving, is in an alarming state as well. “Afghanistan continues to have some of the poorest health indicators in the world. (…) Two in three women give birth at home without skilled birth attendants and in unsafe conditions, one in 10 Afghan children dies before the age of 5, one Afghan woman dies every two hours from pregnancy-related causes, and only 56 percent of the population has access to clean drinking water (Report on Progress 2012, p. 85).”

Likewise, the reconstruction is failing in building functioning and trustworthy governmental structures and legitimate state institutions which inhabitants of Afghanistan would have confidence in. Afghans lack the availability of a formal justice system as these structures are not available in even mildly remote areas. Although the Afghan constitution recognizes human rights, their protection is not enforced (Report on Progress 2012, p. 74). Corruption remains to be a very strong issue as well (SIGAR 2012, p. 121–122).

As the presented data shows, the reconstruction of Afghanistan is failing and the country remains to have “significant development deficits and shortfalls exacerbated by protracted conflict (UN Secretary-General 2012, p. 15).” The reason for this can clearly not be that of lack of effort, time or financial resources. Over the last decade many agencies, states, NGOs, PRTs, etc. have invested an immense amount of financial resources to reconstruct the country. For now we will leave aside the military aspect of the problem. Although it is by far not a marginal one (Collier 2009, p.101), mainly because it is very difficult to reconstruct a country where a conflict hasn’t ended yet and as Suhrke remarks, “by early 2007 the conflict (…) had spread well beyond the eastern and southern provinces (Suhrke 2007, p. 1300)”, this paper doesn’t aim to address the military side of the conflict, but the reconstruction one. In the following section, I will argue that the reconstruction of Afghanistan has failed due to the framing.

Framing as a cause of reconstruction failure

Frames are “collective, intersubjective understandings that “people ‘draw on’ to construct roles and interpret objects (Autesserre 2009, p. 250–251).” They are a way how we understand things and interpret them and how we use them to make decisions. As concept originally formulated by Goffmann they are a collection of paradigms, understandings, ideologies and ideas which help us form conclusions and strategies but at the same time can seriously bias our way of understanding reality (Autesserre 2009, p. 252) and prevent us from changing. “Two mechanisms explain such resistance: First, people usually tend to interpret new information as a confirmation of existing belief. Second, large-scale bureaucracies (…) are notoriously resistant to change because they rely on routines and stability to function and because change usually threatens entrenched organizational culture and interests (Autesserre 2009, p. 255).” Framing is extremely dangerous at the case of Afghanistan’s re­construction, as we will show. Not only does it prevent us from interpreting the reality correctly and thus forming adequate solutions, it can also easily worsen the situation if we due to them lack the sensitivity needed to resolve the conflict or overcome a problem. As Goodhand notes, “where aid agencies have lacked conflict sensitivity they have inadvertently increased tensions or fuelled open conflict (Goodhand 2002, p. 852).”

To explain the presence of frames in the reconstruction of Afghanistan, we have to mention one significant problem which has occurred in its case. As Collier argues in his text, there has to be a different approach to every country regarding their economic policy following a conflict. He names two main reasons: the increased risk of conflict in post-conflict societies and the distinctive constraints and opportunities that conflicts create (Collier 2009, p.100). But approaches adapted to the needs of a specific country, area or issue are not needed only in the economic area, but in most others as well. Every post-conflict country has different needs. No successful reconstruction effort can depend on universal guidelines, either formed in an office or in the terrain. As Paris remarks, “improving the effectiveness of state- building as a method of post-war peace consolidation requires more than simply identifying “lessons learned” from previous missions (Paris 2007, p. 1).” Simultaneously what is important is that every reconstruction is done harmoniously and progressively. Unfortunately this was not the case in Afghanistan. A plurality of actors participated in the reconstruction process but their actions weren’t united under one common strategy created for Afghanistan on which all would participate. Instead every reconstructing body came with its own frames and ideas how to reconstruct the country in a specific area or issue. Individual countries had many different interests which weren’t often compatible. And individual agencies and NGO’s or PRTs were often competing among each other with different approaches, rather than cooperating. As Suhrke notes, “for instance, the USA, EU, Japan and UNAMA were openly at loggerheads over the decision to build up local militias (Suhrke 2007, p. 1300).” It has to be said that the failure to create a specific rather than a universal approach carried out cooperatively between the different actors participating in the reconstruction was not a surprising one. The country is not a homogenous entity. It comprises of many tribes and religious groups, Tajiks, Pashtuns or Hazars being only some of them. It has many tribal leaders and little centralisation, not to mention the ongoing conflict. Moreover, different reconstruction groups operated in different territories and there was rarely an unified approach and agenda to specific questions over the whole country (Collier 2009, p. 106–116).

But another reason why such cooperation didn’t happen was because every actor came with his own vision of how to reconstruct the country or a specific area or issue. What was even worse, these visions didn’t emerge from studying the needs of the country but came as frames instead. Framing in Afghanistan has lead to two severe consequences. One was that the reconstruction entities didn’t explore the specific needs of the area and tried to implement their idea of reconstruction and its outcomes which were inherently western. The second consequence, linked with the first one, was that reconstruction groups didn’t cooperate with the local population and its elites in researching their needs and thus their actions didn’t correlate with the needs of Afghanistan. Efforts, such as the National Solidarity Programme put into practice in 2003, have made an attempt in this direction, although with limited success. The failure to cooperate with local elites such as tribal leaders and intelligence as well as often not permitting locals to participate in the reconstruction projects were a result of “insufficient knowledge and analysis of the intrinsic tensions and contradictions of externally-assisted state-building (Paris 2007, p. 1)”. As a consequence the never colonised Afghan people felt that their country is being taken away from them, which in a number of cases led to renewed cooperation with the Taliban to whom people turned in seek of order. The fact that the Taliban was also seen as a protector of Islam didn’t play a minor role in this process.

As a consequence of this failure in discovering the true needs of the people and the country due to framing, which’s epiphe­nomenon was none or very little cooperation with the locals, the reconstruction effort was in many aspects fruitless or even counterproductive. This is what Zyck criticizes when he comments that “we have framed our understanding of their needs according to our society. For example by promoting individual businesses, something great for Western civilisation but not understood and detested by Afghan communitarian society (Zyck 2009, p. 119).” He argues that while we understood the opportunity to run own businesses as a positive, locals felt quite the contrary. Not only did they not want to spend days alone in shops, something quite understandable in an extremely communitarian society, mainly former officers also saw such an option as highly undignified and disrespectful. Moreover, a massive rise of new businesses caused an imbalance in the market and angered the already functioning companies in the area (Zyck 2009, p. 121–122).

Examples of frames and their malign impact

In this third section of the paper I will now show some more of these frames that were applied in Afghanistan and how they caused the reconstruction of the country to be a failure.

One typical frame was the alleged need to motorise the country. This effort has preceded the building of roads. Thus it could be no surprise that with no roads and many cars, chaos and traffic jams and accidents happened on a regular basis. A similar case often happens during the implementation of democratic procedures. If elections are hastily organised without a proper education of the population concerning their meaning, the turnout will either be low or won’t meet its goal. It is often the case in African countries that local tribe leaders order members of their tribe to vote for a specific candidate and the people without understanding the concept of elections vote or understanding of the importance and significance of such an act. A similar situation occurred in Afghanistan, where people didn’t understand the concept of elections. Although it is not the aim of this paper to suggest alternatives, the well known debate about the priority of economy or polity offers a possible approach in addressing this question.

Another imposition of Western standards due to the framing was seen in the pressure to implement women’s rights. The idea of many reconstruction workers was that women had been deeply suffering in Afghanistan and longed for emancipation. While the first part was arguably true, the second part was often not the case. As Suhrke notes, some Afghans “complained about what they considered intrusive and conflict-generating attempts by Western aid agencies to restructure gender relations (Suhrke 2007, p. 1303).” One typical problem was that of education. A significant effort is being carried out so that Afghan women receive education and emancipate themselves. But the historical, cultural, religious and societal constraints are sometimes very strong and difficult to overcome (Maclure 2009, p. 613) and it is not sufficient to build schools, perhaps even single gender ones. Women have to accept the need to be educated. That is not something that comes easily due to different patterns of reasoning which are sometimes inapproachable by foreign reconstruction workers. As a result of this “examples of inappropriate interventions (e.g. schools being built in inappropriate locations and without the benefit of teachers) have proliferated (Barakat 2009, p. 1077).”

Another frame was the alleged need to bring democracy and government to the reconstructed area. But as Collier notes, “neither democracy, in general, nor elections, in particular, appear to reduce post-conflict risks. Indeed, if anything, they appear to increase risks (Collier 2009, p. 102).” Afghanistan showed that an effort to form the country according to western standards in the governing system, through the introduction of democracy (Paris 1997, p. 61) can be counterproductive, because “the adversarial politics of democracy can sharpen confrontations and conflicts in divided societies (Paris 1997, p. 75–76).” Similarly the introduction of capitalism encouraged conflict because it created competition and inequality. While both democracy and capitalism function in the West where they are maintained by other policies which aim to ensure redistribution and the wellbeing of the poor, in the developing countries where such measures are absent, a rapid implementation of these western systems can cause serious conflicts (Paris 1997, p. 76).

Another frame that caused severe problems in the reconstruction of Afghanistan was the idea that all ties and bonds which were formed during the conflict have to be destroyed and people who fought beside each other have to be separated. That was a serious mistake in a country based on family and tribal ties. The destruction of allegedly destabilising ties destroyed the unity (Zyck 2009, p. 118), which was a bad departing point for an effort to bring the different parts and segments of the society back together to unity. The neglect of social bonds in the society without differentiating between those which pose a threat and those which could be helpful in developing the country have caused severe damage to it.

Another frame was the idea that drugs are destructive for Afghanistan and its people and thus their production must be banned, poppy fields seeds destroyed and alternative crops planted. This policy led to the reduction of production, thus to the increase in prices and thus to the increase of opium production, mainly in the poorest areas of Afghanistan. Farmers had no other choice than to grow poppy if they wanted to survive. In the end, the allies had to lighten the fight against poppy because for a successful reconstruction they needed support from the locals and those weren’t keen to help them when they saw that they are destroying their only source of living (Goodhand 2008, p.408–411). It thus became apparent that the initial frame that drugs are bad and must be immediately destroyed proved to be a destructive policy for the reconstruction of the country from an economic, social and security aspect. As Goodhand notes, “whereas other markets in Afghanistan are extremely fragmented, the drug economy represents the closest thing there is to a national market (Goodhand 2008, p.415).” To destroy it would have been similar to the destruction of the social ties and bonds created during the war, as was mentioned in the previous paragraph.

As we showed in this paper, the key reason why reconstruction of Afghanistan failed was framing, which is a result of a failure in communication which Deutsch showed to be a key feature for the sustainability and development of political systems (Deutsch 1963). The frames were caused by the reconstruction bodies which didn’t study the needs of the country. It didn’t occur to them that their methods mayn’t be adequate for its specific conditions. Communication has failed mainly between the reconstructing bodies, states, agencies, NGOs, PRTs and between these and the local elites. Because of this, not only was cooperation not done in a harmonious manner, local needs and specifics weren’t reflected during the implementation of specific policies and projects either.


It is obvious that the reconstruction of Afghanistan has so far been a failure. We have shown this fact on a number of figures spreading across various areas. We have also shown that the main reason for the failure of the reconstruction lies in framing which we identified as a communication problem and illustrated this problem on a number of examples. For successful reconstruction it is thus necessary to reject frames. This will only be possible by renewing the flow of communication among the different reconstructing bodies and between them and the local elites. Firstly though, the flow of communication must be renewed inside these groups, so that they realise that they are using frames and that they have to reject them in order to be successful in their reconstruction effort. Only then will they implement the necessary measures for a successful reconstruction of Afghanistan, which are mainly to cooperate with the local elites, reflect its culture and habits, apply a reasonable timetable for reconstruction, have realistic goals and reconstruct in a way the people of Afghanistan want to, which doesn’t necessarily have to correlate with the intentions of the West. I stipulate that to meet these requirements, the flow of information between the different actors must be renewed so that communication as a condition for a system reformulation can be restored.


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Tomáš Váňa
11th December 2012