Don’t lose faith in state-building

The implosion of the Afghan government and the rapid capture of Kabul by the Taliban forces lead policymakers to similar conclusions about a “more realistic” approach to international engagements in armed conflicts—not least in Mali where Europeans are engaged in a similar mission.

This text appeared in IP Quarterly on 7 September 2021.

On the day the German evacuations from Kabul started, Chancellor Angela Merkel said that it was already apparent that the “objectives of such deployments need to be smaller.” Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, Germany’s minister of defense, called for countries to “face the concrete threat for Europe realistically” in the Sahel. Heiko Maas, the foreign minister, said during a press conference in Pakistan that military interventions were not the appropriate means to “export our preferred political order.” Finally, French President Emmanuel Macron told Journal du Dimanche, “I don’t believe in state-building. It is not up to the West to build a state in Mali, but it is for the Malians to do that in the zones that were liberated from the terrorist enterprise.”

Statements like these are an expression of an understandable frustration with the apparent lack of sustainable success of anything more ambitious than denying a transnational jihadist network space for training grounds (and even that doesn’t look promising). Didn’t President Ashraf Ghani flee Afghanistan without so much as a formal resignation? Could there be a more symbolic failure of state-building than the hasty departure of the co-author of the book “Fixing Failed States”?

Problematic Assumptions

A proper lessons learned process should start with the right assumptions. For many years in Afghanistan, democracy promotion and building functioning state institutions were not the focus of the US-led engagement, as long-time analysts of Afghanistan have noted. It is true though that programs to improve the governance sector “were rarely effective in the Afghan context,” a meta-review of development cooperation led by political scientist Christoph Zürcher found last year. According to Zürcher, hampering factors were “entrenched patronage-based practices within the government, a lack of buy-in from the government, donor-driven top-down project design with little regard for the core institutional requirements and demands of the partner institutions, and lack of political will of the government especially for decentralization.”

The other problematic assumption is that democracy, rule of law, and fundamental human rights were somehow inappropriate in a tribal society such as Afghanistan. They may look and work differently than in Western countries, but accountability of officials, public participation in policy-making, and basic protection of life and property are important for any society. Simply put, just because outsiders have a hard time understanding the norms, traditions, and tensions of a local society they should not assume people are happy living in a repressive system—nor that outsiders have all the answers for a better life.

Finally, reducing international engagement in a conflict-affected country to a counterterrorism mission, as postulated by US President Joe Biden at the end of the airlift from Kabul, is not likely to be effective and could even be counterproductive. Attempting to destroy a jihadist armed group only with drone strikes or special forces is unlikely to lead to success.

This is even more the case for groups such as the al-Qaeda affiliate JNIM coalition in the Sahel that are well connected in parts of the local population. A narrow security focus risks empowering the very elites whose corruption, negligence, and abuses provide recruitment grounds for armed groups. A major study of jihadist recruitment in Africa by the UN Development Programme found that the experience of government abuses among family and friends provided the tipping point for more than two thirds of respondents to join extremist groups when others in similar situations did not. Thus, trying to neutralize jihadist groups by military means alone risks the very entrenchment of foreign forces that leaders like Biden and Macron say they want to avoid.

Questioning Western Roles

One of the most important lessons that foreign interveners should learn from the Afghanistan fiasco, therefore, is to take the politics and the political economy of an international engagement seriously. This means constantly analyzing the prevailing power relations in a country and the many ways in which international interventions—military, development, diplomatic—shape these power relations. This requires sufficient intelligence and diplomatic analysis capacities. Both in Afghanistan and in Mali, Western governments have supported deeply corrupt governments with little popular support, continuing lavish disbursements of aid and security forces training after disputed elections and military coups, for example. The minimum standard for international engagement should remain not to exacerbate a conflict or enable grave violations of human rights.

Any security assistance, be it training, equipment, or the direct use of force against armed groups, needs to rely on a vetting and human rights risk assessment, like the due diligence policy already practiced by the United Nations. Furthermore, international partners should base their support on guarantees of accountability of security forces. Amnesty provisions such as in a provision of the newly created Special Forces in Burkina Faso should be a red line.

International assistance for state-building in conflict-affected societies can certainly become much better. There is already a fruitful debate in academic and practitioner circles that policymakers can draw on. It all starts with taking local contexts and the agency of local populations seriously, investing heavily in conflict analysis, dialogue processes, strengthening resilience, and constantly trying out different options. Outsiders can partner more effectively with grassroots peace initiatives and ensure that their support is at least as accountable to the needs of civilian populations as it is to the demands of donors, including through reporting and project management mechanisms. If those same populations agree on local ceasefires with armed groups for example in the Central Sahel, their international partners should not reign them in, as France, supported by Germany, does when it declares its opposition to any negotiation and dialogue with jihadist groups.

Don’t Give Up, Learn

The age of external regime change, exemplified by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (albeit in different contexts), may be ending. Drawing lessons from the significant mistakes of those interventions is important but should not result in knee-jerk reactions giving up on state-building completely. Instead, the focus needs to be on how to create sustainable peace more effectively.

Photo credits: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Flickr.

Kabul has fallen

16 August 2021

People scrambling for a seat on a flight.

Bearded fighters in gilded halls of power.

Murals of women being painted over.

The President has left the country.

The new map a sea of red.

Public hangings are back in fashion.

Failure is the word of the day.

Blame is being passed around

In tweets and statements on TV.

First, I am numb and struggle for words.

Then heartbreak, sorrow, and rage.

Now, determination.


This is against the cynics

Those that have always known

That Afghanistan won’t be Sweden

That it is a grave of empires

That negotiating with terrorists is futile

That nothing good has come of “us” being “there”.


I do not agree.

Girls know what they have learned in school.

Citizens tasted – a broken – freedom

To speak, to vote, to meet, to organize

They will remember how that feels

And not just bribes and night raids.

Small wins amid colossal mistakes.


Not today, but in the weeks

And months and years to come,

Leaders need to answer

For the mess they made.

But not today. Today, we fly people out

As many as we can

And welcome them with open arms.


When the planes are back

And the tyrants left in control

We need to talk

About interests and the mess we make in their pursuit

About commitment and the hopes we inspire

About the dreams we crush and the bravery we fail.


About strategy and coordination

About planning and assumptions

About preparing for the worst

While working for the best.

About caring for the details and the complexities

About the partners we support

And those we leave in the lurch.


Then, I hope, we’ll realize

(In)actions have consequences

What we do matters

We do not just live for ourselves.


Gerrit Kurtz

(with thanks to Florence Schimmel for comments)

How the New UN Mission in Sudan can succeed

This text first appeared on the Global Observatory of the International Peace Institute on 25 August 2020. It was written by Philipp Jahn, Gerrit Kurtz, and Peter Schumann.

After complex negotiations, the United Nations Security Council established the UN Integrated Transition Assistance Mission in Sudan (UNITAMS) on June 3, 2020, asking Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to start planning the mission so that it can begin operations no later than the beginning of 2021. The special political mission (SPM) has four mandated tasks: supporting the democratic transition, the peace process, peacebuilding, and the mobilization of aid.

The polarized political landscape in Sudan has already affected the planning process. After the Sudanese government (as well as China and Russia) blocked the secretary-general’s initial suggestion for the mission head, and disagreements continued on the future role of the UN-African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID), the existing peace operation in Darfur, UNITAMS has found itself on thin ice before even starting to work.

A Fragile Transition Process

Sudan’s internal competition for power will be an essential challenge for UNITAMS. As with any UN peace operation, the mission will need to work closely with the incumbent government, but also engage with civil society organizations, security forces, and armed groups—including those opposed to the government. However, the power-sharing coalition is polarized, its constituent parts are fragmented, and its legitimacy is thin. The constitutional declaration, which the Transitional Military Council and the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) signed in August 2019, is the binding foundation for the transition process, and includes tasks such as a comprehensive peace agreement with Sudan’s armed groups and wide-ranging economic reforms.

In principle, UNITAMS should assist and support the transitional authorities in these tasks. But that is not straightforward. While a fragmented political landscape is nothing unusual for a mission setting, Sudan’s main political forces represent competing political systems, each with their external backing. They range from, first, members of the former Islamist regime, whose adherents have frequently launched protests against the transitional authorities and retain sympathies from Turkey and Qatar. Second, the Sudanese Armed Forces, the Rapid Support Forces, special police, and internal security services, represent a model of military authoritarianism as in Egypt, on which they count as their regional ally together with the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Finally, the civilian cabinet led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) alliance and other political parties are proponents of a democratic system, with support from the European Union, the AU, and Ethiopia.

Hamdok’s cabinet, UNITAMS’ main interlocutor, is increasingly squeezed between internal fragmentation of the parties nominally supporting it, revisionist protests from the Islamist camp, and domestic expectations to improve the dire economic situation. For example, Sadiq al-Mahdi from the National Umma Party, who led Sudan’s last democratic government in the late 1980s and had supported the civilian government before, reached out to the military and security forces to form a “patriotic alliance” against Hamdok. The planned inclusion of representatives of armed groups in the government’s transitional institutions as part of an impending peace agreement is likely to complicate this picture further.

The UN and Local Ownership

Implementing strong local ownership is a structural challenge for UN peace operations, especially for an integrated mission like UNITAMS, which is meant to carry out relevant functions of the UN Country Team. Peace operations, under the overall guidance of the UN Security Council and the UN secretary-general, have more leeway in implementing their mandate than UN agencies, funds, and programs, which rely on the host government’s consent for every project that they devise and implement. The close role of state authorities in planning and reviewing UN development and peacebuilding projects fosters their ownership though, whereas peace operations often remain tied to a top-down approach with national ownership at a much more abstract level, despite their efforts to consult communities and survey local perceptions. In the past, straying from the narrow line dictated by Sudan’s regime has often resulted in the expulsion of UN officials.

In Sudan, the UN cannot count on the government alone. Dominated by external advisors and (former) international officials, Prime Minister Hamdok’s government is hamstrung by the extremely low capacity of public administration. For example, the transitional government struggles to develop project proposals at the level of detail requested by donors and ensure efficient implementation of transition objectives. In early July, Hamdok appointed  a 15-member-committee to manage negotiations with UNITAMS. While the body is largely civilian (except one member representing military intelligence), it does not involve members of the FFC or other civil society organizations.

From countless examples of international interventionism, we know today that external actors cannot impose a framework on a society to resolve a conflict, if the fundamental causes of polarization and conflict remain. That was the experience of the Agreement on the Resolution of the Conflict in South Sudan (ARCSS) in 2015, which collapsed less than a year after the parties signed it under heavy regional and international pressure. UNAMID, for its part, came into being because of such international pressure, and was hampered to implement its mandate effectively by the intransigent government of President Omar al-Bashir, and ended up serving the political objectives of the past regime.

An Adaptive Approach

If UNITAMS is to avoid the fate of those peace efforts, it needs to adopt an adaptive approach. This peacebuilding approach recognizes that, as Cedric de Coning writes, “social systems are highly dynamic, non-linear and emergent.” It chimes well with Prime Minister Hamdok’s frequent insistence that Sudan’s transition process is “messy and non-linear.” An adaptive peacebuilding strategy takes a highly participatory approach, experiments with different options, and pays close attention to feedback from the local political environment, reviewing and adjusting its programming frequently in response to that feedback. Specifically, UNITAMS should heed four considerations.

First, in planning and implementing the mission, UN officials should account for the rapidly evolving situation and relatively short scheduled lifespan of the mission tracking the (now probably four-year) transition period. Instead of rigid budgets and work plans common in a UN peace operation, as much authority for recruitment, coordination, and project design should be delegated to the country-level as possible. Only with enough flexibility and Sudanese participation will the mission be able to respond to evolving dynamics and local needs. Specifically, the mission should institutionalize a regular advisory and monitoring mechanism, not just with the government’s committee, but with the FFC and civil society organizations as well. In doing so, the UN can build on its engagement with those groups since the start of the revolution in 2019. Knowledge management experts should ensure a smooth transition to the UN Country Team, while the mission should employ political and civil affairs officers with relevant regional and country expertise.

Second, UNITAMS should foster resilience, i.e., the ability to withstand and manage shocks to the transition process. There are likely going to be further delays and setbacks in the transition process, even a complete take-over by the security sector cannot be ruled out. UNITAMS has the mandate to support institution-building through providing technical expertise and advise for the constitutional process and independent commissions. As many actors are already present in this field, UNITAMS must avoid contributing to donor competition for attractive lighthouse projects. It should concentrate on strengthening the ability of the civilian authorities to exert control over the security sector and its economic activities, as the transitional government has planned. This will require the mission to put parliamentarians and political parties at the center of their stakeholder engagement. Only they can ensure functional civilian oversight of the security sector. The Sudanese private sector will be needed to restructure the assets of the security sector.

Third, UNITAMS should contribute to ensuring international coherence, in particular regarding the UN’s activities in Sudan and international financing of the transition. Extending basic services and supplies to the whole population is a key element of the transition’s success. More donor funds are expected to flow into Sudan in the wake of the Sudan Berlin Conference, where attendants pledged around 1.8 billion dollars (plus up to a further 400 million dollars in a pre-arrears clearance grant from the World Bank) on June 25, 2020. Ensuring a consistent follow-up process that will see further partnership conferences and coordination of pledges as well as operational activities in a way that considers the nexus between humanitarian and development activities in addition to peacebuilding will be crucial for UNITAMS.

As an integrated mission, some tasks that UNITAMS undertakes will continue after it is scheduled to leave Sudan with the completion of democratic elections, such as the reform of the civil service and public administration. As these developmental tasks will take many years, UNITAMS should leave the building of these vital state capacities to those organizations that are going to stay in Sudan for the long run, and concentrate on overall strategic coordination and ensure peace and stability of the transition process itself. Structurally, the existing donor coordination mechanisms supported by the UN Country Team can ensure Sudanese ownership more effectively than a peace operation. Given the remaining threats to civilians in Darfur and elsewhere, the Security Council may decide to extend UNAMID beyond December 2020. For UNITAMS, this would mean that it would have to revisit its mission plan and even raison d’être.

Finally, the mission should facilitate the flow of information and promote transparency regarding its own activities and those of development partners and government authorities. Sudan is swirling with rumors and speculation, including about the work of international actors. With offices around the country, logistical capacities, and the protection of a status-of-forces agreement, the mission should empower marginalized voices through dialogue processes, local conflict management, and reconciliation, and encourage communication between Sudan’s federal states and Khartoum.

UNITAMS can provide a platform for sharing information and can facilitate communication beyond its regular reporting to the UN Security Council, including public information efforts in Sudan. This includes managing expectations what a political mission can and cannot deliver, especially when it comes to protection of civilians and accountability. Establishing such processes could also help shine a light on the often-unclear support of Sudan’s non-traditional donors, including from the Gulf.

Becoming a Central Focal Point

The success of UNITAMS hinges on the ability and capacity of mission leadership and staff to provide substantive technical professional inputs to the transition process otherwise not available to Sudanese institutions, and to ensure strong Sudanese ownership of the mission. Adopting a flexible, adaptive approach will be difficult for a UN system full of inertia. Given the right policies, resources, leadership, and political backing, the mission still has the chance to become a focal point for the international support to Sudan’s transition.

Philipp Jahn heads the office of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation in Khartoum. Gerrit Kurtz is research fellow for crisis prevention and diplomacy in Africa at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) in Berlin. Peter Schumann is a former UN official, who served as Acting Deputy Joint Special Representative with UNAMID in 2017/18.