The Transnational Government in Afghanistan and its Predictable Defeat. Interview with Gilles Dorronsoro

03/02/2021
US Marines in Afghanisan Enduring Peace Copyright Shutterstock

Political scientist Gilles Dorronsoro is the author of Le Gouvernement transnational en Afghanistan. Une si prévisible défaite (The transnational government in Afghanistan. A Predictable Defeat) with Karthala. In his book, Dorronsoro offers a critical analysis of the foreign—and American in particular—intervention in Afghanistan. He answers our questions in an interview.

Where did the idea of this book come from?

Gilles Dorronsoro: This book is the result of an experience: three years working for a think tank, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, during Barack Obama’s first term. In practice, I spent my time attending conferences, participating in panels, meeting with politicians—among them Joe Biden, who was vice-president at the time—and military officers. Initially, my perspective on Afghanistan (the choice of a controlled retreat to enable the consolidation of the Afghan regime) was not shared by many, because we were in the middle of the so-called surge (a quick increase of military and civilian resources). Nothing worked in the American strategy. I witnessed this during each of my stays in Afghanistan, and yet the civilian-military machine was accelerating its race toward failure. This is the time when I wrote an article entitled “ L’OTAN en Afghanistan ou l’avenir incertain du Titanic” (NATO in Afghanistan or the uncertain future of the Titanic). This book is the distant and filtered product of the initial anger born from witnessing inefficiency and cynicism on a daily basis.

The war in Afghanistan is the longest ever waged by the United States—it has been ongoing for twenty years. However, the public has lost interest in this conflict, as we have been able to observe during the recent US presidential election campaign, during which the conflict was barely mentioned in debates.

The US retreat in Afghanistan is more or less complete (in early 2021), which puts an end to a war that has indeed lasted a very long time (but with minor losses since 2014). What is fascinating in this process is that the United States has suffered a major defeat, the consequences of which are, as I see it, as massive as those of the war in Vietnam. Al-Qaeda has emerged stronger from this war, the Taliban have become the privileged interlocutors of regional governments, and the Islamic State in Khorassan (in Pakistan and Afghanistan) remains a serious threat. However, there is an almost total silence on these issues from governments and public opinion (and the media aren’t the ones to be blamed here). How can this conflict, which was presented as such a vital one (with several thousand billion dollars invested in it) have vanished in this way? Has the war in Afghanistan even occurred? Sometimes I wonder, and maybe this book will help answer this question.

You write in your book that “In Afghanistan international resources destroy the state more than they help build it”. Would you mind developing this idea?

Historically, the formation of the Afghan state has been brought about from the outside, in particular in terms of the establishment of borders and of the necessary military and financial resources. The situation changed in 2001 when the Western powers began to intervene directly, bypassing the Afghan state and impeding the emergence of a political space. The primary cause of the defeat of Western powers in Afghanistan is that they made it possible for the Taliban to answer the popular demand for the return of the state by building, for example, a more efficient judicial system than that of the government.

Your conclusion is entitled “An Exotic War or a Distorting Mirror?”. Indeed, it appears that Afghanistan constitutes some form of area of experimentation for the organisation of Western societies and practices of government. Can you develop this idea?

What I call the “transnational government” of Afghanistan, the decisive weight of non-Afghan organisations in all aspects of public life (public policies, security, legislation, etc.), may be considered as a caricature of some of the processes that are already known to us: increasing heteronomia of social fields, plundering of public resources by private actors, shrinking of the political space to the benefit of a neo-liberal bureaucratic rationale, etc. These processes have reached such an extent that the social crisis is tearing the society apart and fostering civil war.

How have you undertaken this research? And what sort of difficulties have you encountered during fieldwork?

My first fieldwork in Afghanistan dates back to 1988, hence I had no particular trouble moving around within Afghan society after 2001 (following the usual precautions). But deep transformations in the society—in particular the emergence of a rather different attitude toward Westerners—have introduced some changes compared to my initial experiences. Not being able to travel freely in rural areas (in particular in the South and in the East) represented a clear break in the way I work. There have been times when I have been obliged to work on the basis of other people’s accounts rather than being able to go and see for myself. This increasing distance from Afghan society was of course a reflection of the ongoing political transformations.

But for me, the real difficulty was more with internationals. Interacting with the increasingly isolated community of Westerners in Kabul was sometimes psychologically unbearable. Collusion, corruption, and voluntary obliviousness were the rules of the game. And even looking back, that level of cynicism still seems to me to be unacceptable.

How would you explain that Western actors have not learnt from their failures in Afghanistan?

There has been no debate: the silence of Western armies and governments is fascinating. On the one hand, the military rejected the responsibility of defeat on civil power, even though the American army was the one to essentially define the strategy. One the other hand, the massive dysfunctioning of NATO implies that an analysis of the causes of failure would have embarrassing political consequences, which may explain the strategy of silence and forgetting.

Interview by Corinne Deloy, CERI.

Cover image: Kajaki, Afghanistan - April 22, 2012: US Marines patrol as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. Copyright: Shuttertock

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