EIGHT years ago Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart wrote a book called “Fixing Failed States”. Now Mr Ghani is in a position to follow his own advice. He is the president of Afghanistan, a state that failed in the 1990s and could fail again.
State failure causes untold misery (see article). Broadly defined, it is the main reason poor countries are poor. Its chief cause is not geography, climate or culture, but politics. Some countries build benign, efficient institutions that foster economic growth; others build predatory ones that retard it. South Sudan is an extreme example of predation. Its politics consist of warlords fighting over oil money. The warlords also stir up tribal animosity as a tool to recruit more militiamen. The state makes Big Men rich while ordinary folk subsist on food aid. Ashes to assets
Afghanistan must overcome several hurdles to avoid the same fate. Since Barack Obama pulled out most of the NATO troops supporting the government, the Taliban, an Islamist militia, has recaptured parts of the country. In the past year it has been fought to a stalemate. But were Donald Trump to withdraw the remaining American forces, the jihadists would probably take over again. The last time they were in power they banned female education, crushed gay people with bulldozers and hosted Osama bin Laden, so the stakes are high.
As a first step, Mr Trump should maintain at least the current level of air support, training and funding for the Afghan army. He should also ramp up pressure on Pakistan to stop letting the Taliban use its territory as a rear base. (Pakistan insists it is doing all it can; no one believes it.)
Foreign military support can buy time for a fragile state to build the right kind of institutions. This worked in Sierra Leone and Liberia, two war-scorched African nations where UN peacekeepers gave new governments breathing-space to start afresh. It worked in Colombia, too, where American support helped the government drive back the drug-dealing leftist insurgents of the FARC and force them to the negotiating table, producing a historic peace deal in 2016. However—and this is the lesson of Iraq—good government cannot be imposed from outside. National leaders have to want it and work for it, overcoming stiff resistance from the militia bosses and budget-burgling ministers who benefit from its absence.
Mr Ghani has the right priorities. First, establish a degree of physical security. Next, try to entrench the rule of law. Both are hard in a nation where suicide-bombers kill judges and warlords grow rich from the poppy trade. Yet he has made progress. The Afghan army is becoming more capable. Tax collection has improved, despite the economic shock of the American troop drawdown. Corruption, though still vast, is being curbed in some areas.
This is not a side issue. If ordinary Afghans see the state as predatory, they will not defend it against the Taliban. Right now the jury is out: most Afghans are terrified of the Taliban, but trust in the government is low, too. Mr Ghani needs time to implement his reforms; donors must be patient.
After a civil war ends somewhere, Western donors often pour in more money than the damaged state can absorb, and pull back when results disappoint. NGOs parachute in, poach the best staff with higher wages and form a costly parallel state that will one day pack up and go. This undermines national institutions. It would be better if donors scaled up their largesse gradually, channelled it through national coffers where possible and stuck around for the long run.
None of this will succeed if a country’s leaders do not want it to. In South Sudan neither of the two main warlords is interested in nation-building, so donors have no one to work with. But in Kabul they do. They should not cut and run. (economist)