Since the end of the Cold War, foreign policy in the west has undergone a shift from using state-building practices to create loyal puppet states, to an emphasis on the building of legitimate and viable states. However, despite this desire to create legitimate, viable states, the theoretical consensus that this legitimacy could only come from the institutionalization of a liberal democracy has led to the entrenchment, an inflexibility, of that framework in practice. This is not to say that democratization is not a desired or viable outcome; rather, the tendency of foreign intervention since the end of the Cold War has been to ‘get in and get out’ as quickly as possible. The intervention in Afghanistan represents one of the longer state-building exercises, and still the efforts of the international community have not produced a viable state.
In order to create a viable state, the institutions of that state must be able to support themselves after the state-builders have left.
Additionally, since the end of the Cold War there has been a shift in the international community to put humanitarian concerns ahead of the absolute sovereignty of a nation. The United Nations initially intervened in Somalia because of widespread famine, and their mandate only became military when the political situation in-country made it impossible to distribute humanitarian aid. State-building practices in Somalia were initiated because at the time, there was no real state to speak of. However, despite the good intentions of the interveners, those involved were not prepared to make a long-term commitment to ensure the building of a viable state in Somalia. Oftentimes in humanitarian operations, the intervening parties do not have the logistical resources or domestic support to run a long-term state-building exercise. For example, in the aftermath of the September 2001 terrorist attacks, the United States had the domestic support required to engage in an intervention in Afghanistan, at least initially. A decade later, that support has waned in favour of domestic issues and the United States and its NATO allies have announced that they are withdrawing from Afghanistan without having built a viable state, despite the installation of a democratically elected leader.
In addition to the commitment of resources, intervening nations have to be willing to commit the lives of their military personnel to a conflict that may not threaten domestic interests. The Americans had no real strategic interest in Somalia since the end of the Cold War, and when the Somali warlords began to mount a violent resistance against the intervention and American soldiers were killed, the United States withdrew all their personnel and most of their resources. While only a small number of American soldiers were killed compared to previous conflicts, it was difficult for the American government to justify the loss of any American life in a conflict in which the Americans were not directly threatened, politically or economically.
In contrast, the intervention in Afghanistan was initially a response to a direct threat on the United States and its allies. The perception of a direct threat to the interveners has led to a longer engagement in Afghanistan, with the two-fold purpose of eliminating the threat of the Taliban and the building of a legitimate, viable state. While this perception gave the campaign the initial support required, the international nature of organizations such as Al-Qaeda and the inability of the NATO force to decisively defeat the Taliban has led to a decline in domestic support for the campaign, in all countries involved.
In order to create a viable state, the institutions of that state must be able to support themselves after the state-builders have left; there must be some self-generated domestic acceptance of the legitimacy of the state. Interventions since the end of the Cold War have emphasised liberalisation and democratisation over the deepening of the state’s competency. The creation of liberal state institutions is not the difficult part of state-building; it is the socialization of the local populace and the creation of local support for those institutions that requires long term presence and strategy. The organization of a presidential election in Afghanistan was not the roadblock for state-building. Rather, it is the lack of capacity and competence of the government that causes the problem for the building of a viable state. The Afghan government currently cannot function without being propped up by international assistance, and the future of the government when the NATO forces withdraw is highly uncertain. It is unlikely that a government with so little domestic support or self-functioning capability will be able to sustain itself in a post-intervention Afghanistan.