While no one really expects Afghanistan to be turned into a “Jeffersonian democracy” or a Weberian state anytime soon, it might still be worthwhile to study the classical literature on European state formation to understand what’s going on in Afghanistan. At least that’s what we did in class this week. We started by looking at Max Weber’s three types of authority: traditional (the “eternal yesterday”), charismatic (the personal “gift of grace”), and legal-rational. We also spent quite some time discussing Charles Tilly’s model of war making by state-making. For those who are not too familiar with Tilly’s work, the starting point is that-power holders need resources to go to war and expand their authority beyond their own fiefdoms. In the short term, they can conquer and loot, but in the long term, they have to tax the population (extraction) and promote capital accumulation by those they can eventually borrow from (protection). In the process, they end up building institutions. At least, said Tilly, that’s the story of European state formation.
While this simplified model is all clear and neat, it becomes a little more complicated when one starts looking at a state’s external relations, which, as Tilly himself acknowledged, shape every national state. It is even harder to ignore in a country like Afghanistan, the so-called “graveyard of empires,” where foreign powers have always been involved. In class, we thus paid particular attention to the role of external powers in the process of state formation in Afghanistan, from 1747 to the end of the 1970s. Today, we looked more specifically at the Soviet-Afghan war. If foreign intervention prevents state making and the development of state institutions (by disincentivizing extraction and protection by the central state) as seems to be the case in Afghanistan, one might wonder if external powers such as the Soviet Union and the U.S. actually have/had the ability to build states and implement modernizing agendas. Are regime change and externally-led state-building doomed to fail?