By Arjun Chowdhury and Ronald R. Krebs

Can Afghan State Builders Learn From Louis XIV?

Sheri Berman identifies important parallels between the circumstances confronting state builders in Afghanistan today and those their counterparts faced in seventeenth-century France ("From the Sun King to Karzai"). But the differences between the two cases are as instructive as the similarities -- and point to rather different conclusions.

Berman's argument is plausible at first blush: just as French kings employed a combination of coercion and inducements to subdue and disarm the nobles while enmeshing them in court pomp and intrigue, Afghan state builders can (with assistance from the United States and its partners) use force, aid, and patronage to bring warlords to heel while giving them a stake in the new order.

But Berman is wrong that "state building . . . can be accomplished almost anywhere" as long as the state builders are sufficiently patient and committed. Why? Because structure -- international and domestic -- matters, and the roots of France's seventeenth-century state-building success lie in three structural factors that distinguish the case from that of contemporary Afghanistan.

First, Berman ignores the crucial relationship between a country's external environment and its internal state-building imperative. Seventeenth-century France was almost constantly at war -- in the Thirty Years' War, then with the Hapsburgs, and, finally, with the Dutch. French nobles were reluctant to relinquish their autonomy, but the threat posed by external enemies and the resulting need to consolidate defenses made them more ready to accept centralized rule. By contrast, Afghanistan faces little threat of war from abroad. Although Taliban forces originating in Pakistan are responsible for some Afghan insecurity and instability, Afghans do not universally see them as foreign elements, since ethnic Pashtun and tribal affiliations cross state boundaries and often take priority over national citizenship. The warlords thus have little incentive to make common cause with the central government, and the benefits that the government can offer local power brokers pale next to what the French kings offered their nobles. In fact, with no external threat, the warlords perceive the government's centralizing efforts as the primary threat to their interests. Under such circumstances, the Afghan government will have to rely more heavily on coercion, which will only end up increasing instability.

The two cases also differ with respect to where the impetus for state building originates. In seventeenth-century France, it came from the French monarchs themselves: external threats led them to negotiate with their populations for resources and develop the extractive and administrative capacities needed to wage war. The burgeoning French state, better able to mobilize resources and coordinate action, in turn posed a threat to its neighbors, which would have been happy to retard the process. They feared a strong French state more than they feared a weak one. The opposite is true with respect to Afghanistan today, where it is outside forces that are pushing for a centralized state, fearing its current weakness more than its potential strength. These external parties are providing the resources needed to bring recalcitrant warlords to heel; to date, Afghans have not been heavily taxed, nor have they been responsible for much of the fighting. Because it benefits from foreign troops, money, and materiel, the Afghan government has had little reason to develop the strong institutions it needs to extract resources and project power.

Third, Berman also understates the differences between the populations of seventeenth-century France and twenty-first-century Afghanistan. Although both are mostly rural, the similarities end there. France's rural masses were largely disconnected from, and ignorant of, politics. Conflicts between the king and nobles did not concern them (at least until the revolution), and by some accounts they remained oblivious of the national entity until the latter half of the nineteenth century. In Afghanistan, on the other hand, the rural population is politically aware and politically committed along existing ethnic lines. To be sure, state building can occur even when the public does not define itself as a single nation, as Berman correctly notes. But state building is significantly harder when there are substate political communities that command mass loyalty and define politically salient lines of division. Under these circumstances, ethnic communities see the central government as a party to, not above, communal conflict, and they view the state's coercion not as serving the common good but as furthering a particular agenda. Rather than snuffing out communal conflict, aggressive state building fuels it.

These are not merely historical quibbles: the differences between the French and the Afghan circumstances suggest that both current U.S. strategy and Berman's proposed revision are unsound. Aiming to build a capable centralized state in Afghanistan is a more modest, and seemingly more achievable, goal than seeking to establish a stable democracy or a cohesive nation. But it is not modest enough, given that Afghanistan faces no external threats, that the impetus and resources for state building come from outside the country, and that the ethnic and tribal lines that divide the Afghan population are politically salient. These factors present severe structural hurdles to state building in Afghanistan, and they make the Western coalition appear to local elites and rural publics as an imperial force allied with a dangerous foe -- in this case, an ambitious, centralizing state.

The implication of this is not pretty: the United States should abandon its state-building dream in Afghanistan. Not only can Washington secure its limited interests in Afghanistan without establishing a capable Afghan state, but the process of trying to build such a state compromises those very interests. The United States seeks to box in al Qaeda and, secondarily, the Taliban; this means that regional warlords, local tribal leaders, and rural Afghans are crucial and necessary allies. State building risks alienating them.

Instead, the United States should embrace a balancing strategy that provides resources to those willing to fight al Qaeda and the Taliban. This would likely require subordinating both state building (since a balancing strategy would necessarily strengthen the warlords relative to the central government) and drug enforcement (since cracking down on opium production alienates farmers). Berman suggests that such an approach is nothing more than appeasement, but one man's appeasement is another's realistic and carefully calibrated diplomacy.

So confined a vision may be hard to swallow after years of grand and unfulfilled promises about the future of Afghanistan. But a balancing strategy holds out three notable benefits. First, unlike state building, balancing would bring local actors to the coalition's side, against the Taliban. Second, it would reduce the likelihood that coalition forces would be identified with ambitious -- and, to local elites, odious -- centralization efforts. And third, by working around the Afghan state and channeling resources to its local rivals, a balancing strategy would avoid reinforcing state corruption.

Although Berman rightly cautions that state building is always "a long, hard slog," she ultimately concludes that it can succeed in Afghanistan and at a tolerable expense. But the costs of state building are prohibitive, and its promise illusory. The United States' interests lie in limiting al Qaeda's reach and minimizing instability in Pakistan. A capable and effective Afghan state might be helpful in both regards, but it is not necessary. Moreover, the process of state building threatens to harm the United States' limited interests. State building in Afghanistan is a luxury that the United States cannot afford.

By James A. Nathan

Louis' Approach Would Ruin Kabul

In her comparison of French and Afghan state building, Berman makes various compelling points, including that "state building . . . is not a fantasy. . . . Nor is it a job for the impatient." But by focusing on the process of winning over domestic opposition by bribing power brokers, peddling offices, and collecting taxes, she offers an incorrect impression of how state building worked in seventeenth-century France -- and of how it could work in Afghanistan today. Berman suggests that the process of state building can be managed only if the state oversees a judicious system of controlled corruption. But Louis XIV's 72-year reign was made and nearly unmade by relentless force -- first against Louis' domestic Fronde opponents, then in ceaseless war against his neighbors and rival potentates.

The truth of Louis' reign was that, as the political scientist Charles Tilly observed, "war made the state, and the state made war." From the outset of his rule, Louis was intent on ensuring France's military primacy. In a reign of unremitting war, he commanded a colossal army (of some 450,000 troops at its height) and a Treasury with huge sums to subsidize war abroad and promote the advance of the state at home. To Louis, a state without competence at arms lacked "gloire" and was contemptible.

As Louis aged, reform of the antiquated and ultimately ruinous tax system languished. The problem, complained his powerful finance minister, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, was that Louis thought "of war ten times more than he [thought] of finances." In the end, although revenues decreased radically, it was easier to sell tax privileges and immunities than to change the complicated and corrupt collection process. Such tax farming and corruption weakened the state, as Berman implies, and was necessitated by Louis' costly, militarized policy. For Louis, as for Frederick the Great a century later, real power could come only from big battalions and big guns.

This view led Louis, only one day after taking power, to "request and order" that state officials not "sign anything, not even a passport . . . without my command." No Afghan president could even dream of such a decree.

The experience of seventeenth-century France leaves many other questions unanswered. Nothing Louis ever posited would help the United States decide, for example, whether to stop destroying poppy fields and begin buying the crop in order to keep money in the Afghan economy and away from warlords and the Taliban. This is but one sign that Louis' reign and the completion of the French state hold few lessons for solving Afghanistan's endemic problems. Relentless, unending war -- Louis' central methodology of rule -- would undo the Afghan state, not consolidate, strengthen, or secure it.


The authors of these responses and I agree that there are both similarities and differences between the challenges of state building in seventeenth-century France and the challenges in Afghanistan today. Unlike them, however, I do not believe that the differences are so significant as to render lessons from the former case inapplicable to the latter.

James Nathan argues that my emphasis on central governments' need to gain the cooperation of warlords is misguided because state building in France was primarily the result of "relentless force." He notes that Louis XIV "commanded a colossal army (of some 450,000 troops at its height) and a Treasury with huge sums to subsidize war abroad and promote the advance of the state at home." But this puts the cart before the horse. When Louis came to power, he commanded probably no more than 20,000 men, and his Treasury was in dire straits; the larger army and wealthier Treasury Nathan cite were the result of his and his ministers' successful state-building efforts, not the cause.

Similarly, the seemingly telling quote he cites -- that on coming to power, Louis declared that state officials should not "sign anything, not even a passport . . . without my command" -- is taken out of context. Louis certainly aspired to such power, but at the time of that declaration, he knew full well that neither he nor any previous French king possessed it. Coercion is a necessary part of state building, and there was plenty of it in the French case. But by itself, it is not an efficient or sufficient mechanism for creating a durable political order -- as even the French state builders tacitly conceded by supplementing their use of sticks with the offering of expensive and bothersome carrots.

Arjun Chowdhury and Ronald Krebs, meanwhile, argue that three differences between the French and the Afghan cases obviate my conclusions. The first is that whereas "seventeenth-century France was almost constantly at war," contemporary Afghanistan "faces little threat of war from abroad." This supposed difference is overblown. Afghanistan has suffered through almost constant warfare since 1979, and the result has been to generate a popular desire for stability and order above all else. This is why so many Afghans were willing to accept the despotism of the Taliban -- just as so many people in early modern France put their faith in centralizing monarchs. French nobles, moreover, often made alliances with foreign powers to secure their own spheres of autonomy, viewing the centralizing tendencies of their central government as the main threat to their power, just as many of their contemporary Afghan counterparts do.

Chowdhury and Krebs also argue that the French and Afghan populations are dramatically different. It may be true that the average rural Afghan today is more politically aware than his seventeenth-century French counterpart. But the localism of France at the time should not be underestimated. Traditions of local autonomy and identity were strong in early modern France and were embedded in diverse languages, legal systems, social mores, and, in some cases, even religions. It would be foolish to deny the difficulties of state building in such contexts, but it would also be inaccurate to argue that such challenges cannot be overcome.

French state builders, in any case, recognized them forthrightly, paying particular attention to the need to woo diverse local, regional, and provincial elites, who historically had been the furthest from central control. What is critical in such cases, as such scholars as Michael Hechter and Nika Kabiri have argued, is that state builders commit themselves to evenhandedness, offering all communities and elites incentives to accept (or at least acquiesce in) the building of a new political order.

Finally, Chowdhury and Krebs stress the difference between what one might call internal and external state-building capacities. It is true that much of the coercive power behind the state-building project in Afghanistan today comes from outside actors rather than from the Kabul regime. This does not change the fact, however, that the main challenge is centralizing political authority and overcoming the resistance of local power holders, who have much to lose from the process.

What the French case shows is that centralizers need enough power and shrewdness to make a significant number of their domestic opponents consider cooperation and integration attractive. Chowdhury and Krebs are skeptical about the ability of the Afghan regime to pull off such a feat, even with outside help, and their skepticism may be justified. But their proposed alternative course is hardly promising or appealing. Abandoning centralization efforts and shifting to ad hoc counterterrorism collaboration with a coalition of various willing subnational actors is unlikely to advance U.S. interests in the long run. If Washington is committed to ensuring that neither the Taliban nor al Qaeda find a home in Afghanistan down the road, then state building will, unfortunately, be necessary.


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