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The Moral Thought of Mahatma Gandhi in State-Building Context:
Case of Afghanistan After 20011

By Kinga Rodkiewicz


There is no doubt that nowadays one of the most important issue is how to conduct state-building process effectively? International community, as well as local governments and non-governmental organizations conduct many different actions in different fields to strengthen or rebuild the state-institutions. In many cases, including Afghanistan, with no success. The reason for this, among others, is lack of ethical theory of state-building. The moral thought of Mahatma Gandhi can be crucial for creating the broader theory.


The one of the most important issues in the contemporary international relations is the question: how to conduct state-building process effectively, meaning rebuild the state institutions and stop the process of failing the states. The state collapse and weakness creates the most dangerous problems of our times: from poverty, constant violation of human rights, AIDS, civil wars, migration, drugs to terrorism. Francis Fukuyama defines the state-building as: “the establishment, re-establishment, and strengthening of a public structure in a given territory capable of delivering public goods”. International community, as well as the national actors, have been taking many actions on political, social and economical spheres to recreate the state with its attributions (population, government, territory) - in this context the crucial element is power. However, as we can observe on latest example of Afghanistan, the state-building processes there and in other countries are extremely ineffective.
In 2001, after the collapse of Taliban regime, Afghanistan was a failed state thanks to almost three decades of conflict, public institutions’ weakness, intervention of USRR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics), Taliban regime and drought in 1999- 2001.The public institutions didn’t work and there was no central power with social legitimacy to rule. For “stateless people” in Afghanistan, international and national actors began long-lasting, complex process of state-building which has been started from Bonn conference in 2001. Billions of dollars, hundreds’ projects of governmental (GO) and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), presence of ISAF troops and military commitment of over 30 countries didn’t lead to success. Afghanistan, after withdrawal of international troops in 2016, remains the failed state as well as the most dangerous state in the world with suicide attack almost every single day. There are many different causes of the failure of state-building process, which are: lack of knowledge, rush reforms, implementing the Western institutions. However, from my point of view the important issue in case of state-building process should be the ethical dimension of this process. Many political experts, including Brian Orend or Jordy Rochelau, stress out that the theory of justice after war is substantial for the process of state-building. In the creation of ethical theory which will constitute the process of state-building, the crucial role can have the political and moral thought of Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi who believes that politics and ethics are inseparable. Anthony Parell in his book “Pax Gandhiana” proves that Gandhi, had the greatest achievements in the field of political philosophy, although “he did political philosophy in his own way”. His moral beliefs shifted into all areas of life brought him to the victory. As Dhiraj Kr. Das writes: “Gandhi has exercised the most powerful influence on modern world. Mahatma Gandhi is not merely a political philosopher, it is a message and philosophy of life”. This unique philosophy can be used in modern international relations, in the field of state-building. Three points from Gandhian thought should be taking into consideration: the role of ethics in politics, ahimsa (nonviolence) and satya (truth).
Gandhi position on the issue of moral dimension of politics was clear and repeatedly communicated. For him there were no contradictions between morality and politics. There is no good politics without moral principles. Gandhi stands in opposition to the statement “the ends justify the means”. Without just means there is no possibility to have satisfied ends. Translating into politics: ruling without moral principles like: justice, honesty, truth and peace leads to weak governance and quasi-democracy. “Unless the moral and spiritual qualities of the people are appropriate, the best of political system and constitutions will not work”. In the context of state-building there is therefore the urgent need to put into the centre of the process the ethical principles which will be followed by national and international actors. That is why the moral values inspired by ahimsa, satya and citizenship should be the base for legitimacy thanks to which the created and recreated institutions will have the social acceptance and which in long-lasting perspective will lead to civil society and finally to democracy. “Need of the hour is to revolutionize politics by ethics” as Das claims, otherwise we have to deal with state-building failure as we see in Afghanistan. In 2001 international community with national actors began the process, in extremely difficult and complex country, with no knowledge of its just beginning, continuing and ending.
“Need of the hour is to revolutionize politics by ethics” as Das claims, otherwise we have to deal with state-building failure as we see in Afghanistan. In 2001 international community with national actors began the process, in this extremely difficult and complex country, with no knowledge of its just beginning, continuing and ending. As a result, from initial enthusiasm of Afgans after defeating the Taliban and promises of the new order, the proud citizens of this landlocked country started to identify the international involvement as occupation.
From year to year passing, the support of NATO troops presence decreased and the Taliban, Al-Qaida, warlords, drug gangs involvement raised. Rapidly imposed idea of human rights in Western version was badly criticized and remain incomprehensible for the greatest part of society. The biggest mistake we -as international community - made was trying to implement ready set of institutions without thinking of local perspective, history, institutional order before the state collapse.11 Freeing Afghan people from war fear didn't allow to impose on them the new, Western concept of ruling, citizens' rights and obligations as well as human rights. The great involvement of international actors (financial, technical, military) on such big scale as we observed in Afghanistan undermined the legitimizations of political, legal, economic and social system which were under construction after 2001.
Afghan society, with no knowledge about the basic principles of the international involvement and its time of lasting, felt helpless and useless. That is why it was reluctant to implement reforms recognizing them as unnecessary. As a result - excluding ethical values from state-building process - international community in the same time was building the state and destroying it. External actors believed that pumping billions of dollars and continuing the traditions of Afghanistan as the rentier state would guarantee not only citizens’ safety but also good governance. Nothing more wrong. With today’s knowledge the obvious thing is that the core of state-building process and leading role should have the citizens of failed state with the right to making mistakes and searching the best solutions for their own sake. The international community understood it during the Conference held in 2010 in Kabul where the Kabul Process was initiated. “To achieve success in Afghanistan, the partnership between the Afghan Government and the international community should be based on the leadership and ownership of the Afghan Government, underpinned by its unique and irreplaceable knowledge of its own culture and people”.12 Thanks to such attitude the local actors can rebuild the state with the moral values that are common and accepted in a society. As a result the political settlement based on moral values leads to effective changes in political, economical and social zones. However, The Agreement on Provisional Arrangements in Afghanistan Pending the Reestablishment of Permanent Government Institutions from 2001 although was a big achievement with its road map of establishing the Interim Authority, legal framework and judicial system, the compositions and functions of the Interim Administration13, it wasn’t accepted and obeyed by the whole Afghan society. Lakhdar Brahimi - the United Nations special representative for Afghanistan - referred that lack of Taliban representation in Bonn was an “original sin” although Taliban presence would have prevent making the agreement in such shape as it was.14 The moral values - considered valuable by Afghans as honour, justice, equality, solidarity in their sense of understanding- weren’t in the foreground. The Constitution of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan from 2004 introduces the strong presidential system, which was criticized by many political experts as unsuitable for multiethnic state. William Maley claims that for the United States the presidential system is obvious but for Afghanistan means one winner and too many loosers which leads to ethnic tensions. Similarly, the centralization in political, fiscal and administration sphere, hasn’t been rooted in Afghan institutional history.15 The more suitable system for Afghanistan would be symmetric federation system16 which would taking into account power local structures, first of all these with long tradition and authority as loja jirga17.

Ahimsa and its connection to state-building process

The one of the most important part of Gandhi philosophy was ahimsa simply understood as non- injury however over the years the concept has evolved. “The word ahimsa literally means non-injury, or, more narrowly, non-killing, and more widely, harmlessness, the renunciation of the will to kill and of the intention to hurt any living thing, the abstention from hostile though, word and act”18. Gandhi distinguishes two dimensions of ahimsa: negative and positive. The first one means not to injure any living being while in positive sense its refers to charity. Practice of nonviolence requires from people patience and strong moral values - it is reserved for those who are ready to suffer. From Gandhi perspective ahimsa should be implemented in political life because the state can be based to some extend on nonviolence. At the moment, it is impossible to eliminate some forms of state coercion. Iyer writes about four fields on which ahimsa as nonviolence should be practiced in political zone:

  1. actions against constituted authority
  2. internal operations
  3. external invasion
  4. local communities19

How current seems to sound the Gandhi thought that democracy can’t be implemented or built by violence. He strongly condemned violent means which for his perspective are “weapon of weak” and in the long perspective they always lead to mass protests in which the key role plays the individual freedom. Each single action of state coercion against individual freedom would have consequences in the form of protests, riots, walkouts and violent actions against the government and state institutions. That is why “individual freedom can have the fullest play only under a regime of unadulterated ahimsa”20.
There are a few interesting links referring Gandhi theory of nonviolence to the practice of state-building in Afghanistan after 2001. However, the most important is to find the answer to the fundamental question: to whom the theory of just state-building should be addressed: to the national actors and the “stateless society” or to the international community. If we accept the assumption that in case of state-building the international community starts the process of rebuilding, designates the aims, supervises progress and finances the reforms with the local support, then it is obvious that ethical values should be obeyed by international actors. John Rawls in “The Law of People” claims that there is a duty to assist in the international case. The aim of the intervention is to help burdened societies to become well-ordered. Once the burdened societies cross the threshold, the duty to assist ceases21. According to Stefano Recchia the burden societies are failing states, so for Rawls in this case the international involvement is not only needed but also justified. However, there is a common agreement that in case of mass violation of human rights the external involvement is justified, there is a big discrepancy what means should be used: military or not. Recchia believes that the military intervention should be limited only for those situations which would stop sudden and mass threat to human life. Other assistance should have nonviolent character otherwise there is a risk of re-colonization22. For the use of non-violence methods in the state-building process also speaks the necessity of preserving the sovereignty. The presence of foreign military forces and taking over the most important state functions by international actors cause the widespread social belief of state failure and its further decline. In 2014 many Afghans were convinced that international troops occupy their country in their own interest23. In order to avoid the accusation of occupation the territory there is a need to use non-violent methods. In context of state-building they should especially cover the training, infrastructure, procedures and know-how. A question to ask here is: what in case of constant internal war inside the country? In such situation should we also resign from military involvement? There is no simple answer for that. In my opinion, the state-building process should be conducted in accordance to ahimsa, however in some cases of peace-building processes the military interventions can’t be excluded. Although “peace-building and state-building share a fundamental concern towards fostering more inclusive, representative, and responsive arrangements and institutions”24, the both processes are differ and have distinct core. While the state-building put in the centre the political institutions, the peace-building process emphasizes the stabilization and the end of conflict. Therefore priorities for peace-building are: conflict prevention, setting up the institutions responsible for peaceful resolution of conflicts and creating the frameworks for political and social reform while for state-building the most important challenges are: restitution and fasten the institutional system, political settlement and building the rule of law25.

Taking that into consideration, we should clearly stress that international military involvement should be permissible just in case of peace-building when a top priority is ending the bloodshed and mass violation of human rights. In case of state-building the military engagement has much more disadvantages than advantages. Military intervention is associated with imposing Western concept of institutions, procedures and political systems which raise the social demur and lead to undermining the government legitimacy and the informal centers of power take control over the territory which in consequence leads to further failing of state. In contrast to that, there is a state-building process conducted by national actors only with international non-military support, which brings positive effects in the form of setting up the political settlement based on local institutions with taking into account the statehood traditions. This was clearly proved in Afghanistan - in the initial phases of peace-building the presence of international military forces was indispensable and accepted while in state-building process was seen as occupation and real threat to sovereignty. The key issues is therefore determining the transition phase between peace building and state-building. In the second one the leading role of creating and strengthening the institutions should be conducted without the international/national coercion or violence. We should also keep in mind that all the institutional reforms conducted in the process with “support” of international troops will not survey the trial of time as we observed in Afghan provinces, which almost each had the Taliban “shadow governor”26. Enormity of the defeat was clearly seen in justice sector. Despite of big governmental reform and creating the system of formal justice based on courts and secular law, people chose the informal justice system offered by local jirga or Talibans claiming that they are more just, quicker and cheapest than the governmental. From my point of view, there are additional two reasons of that situation. First, the informal justice system is based on islam and/or local traditions and customs passed on from the generation to the generation, that is why the rules are known and accepted. Even if some Afghans don’t agree with some of principles imposed by the Talibans, still they understand the roots of them, philosophy and consequences. They can predict the end of the case. Differently than in the case of public courts - for the great amount of Afghans, the civil law was imposed by international community and they don’t exactly know what provisions of law will be taken into consideration in their case. Not without meaning are also the costs of travelling to the court and time. Secondly, all the great reforms, including justice system, were conducted under auspices of the foreign country. In this case - Italy. For Afghans, imposed top-down reform including rules of law written by external experts was no acceptable. As a result, we see a spectacular disaster of justice system in Afghanistan.
It won’t be possible to achieve success in state-building process if certain conditions aren’t fulfilled. One of them is ahimsa widely understood as the lack of international military forces, coercive apparatus or other types of military interventions on the territory of state in state-building process. Thanks to such international community’s attitude the society of failed state would have the warranty that decisions of the authority are exclusively dedicated with raison d'état of their own state.

Satya and its connection to state-building process

The second foundation of Gandhian philosophy is satya which means truth. Mahatma believes that life without truth is worthless and the political life without truth is fallacious. “Not only was truth the most important and an-inclusive principle to Gandhi, but it was also logically prior to all the other human virtues and excellences.”27 Although undoubtedly the call to the vow of truth is interesting, it’s vital to go to the point of political and social life. Gandhi believes that good governance and well organized state should be based on truthful parties and truthful programme. This means for political parties that in shaping their political programme, based on a doctrine, they should think about the common good and state interest rather than cynical desire to get into the power. Such political programme allows to recognize the party as truthful or, in other words, worthy of social trust. There is one more important aspect of satya - a man with his views believes in truthful programme will be loyal to the party being an advocate of change. “Social institutions obscure and subvert the truth insofar as they exact conformity, and political obligation that is not derived from our ultimate loyalty to truth produces compromises that are degrading to men.”28 Considering Afghanistan after 2001 it should be noted that there is a dissonance between understanding political parties and local structures by the society. From the Afghans’ perspective the political parties serve the interests of their founders - often warlords while the local jirgas and shuras put the good of people in the centre. After 35 years of break, 18th of August 2005, people of Afghanistan chose their representatives. The great element of state-building success is simplicity of electoral rules, just electoral law and implementing the system which will guarantee the high representative character of parliament. Meeting these conditions allows getting the legitimization which is fundamental in the process. None of these conditions was fulfilled. Out of 73 parties taking part in elections, 33 entered House of People (Wolesi Jirga). Most of them didn’t have any political programme, but they concentrated on the leader of ethnic minority. The personalization of political parties in Afghanistan causes that Afghan citizens vote for a particular personality, not for political programme. Therefore, people identify the parties with communists, jihadists, warlords, or those who are securing the interests of foreign states. As a result, not the programme but the popularity of politicians decided about the results. The widespread distrust of political parties is also connected with a high scale of corruption and frauds during the next elections in 2010 and each successive. All these reasons lead to the situation where Afghan citizens chose the informal institutional system rather than the governmental institutions. There is no state-building process without strong political parties and just programmes. For the stateless society, especially one after violent conflict and war crimes like in Afghanstan, the political programmes based on moral values as truth are extremely important and should play the leading role in state-building process.

Notes and References:

  1. The article is based on the project financed with the funds of National Science Centre granted under decision no. DEC- 2011/03/N/HS5/02796.
  2. Fukuyama, Â Francis 2004. State - Building: Governance and World Order in 21 Century, Cornell University Press, May 2004.
  3. See: Third World Quarterly, 2009. Taylor and Francis Ltd, vol. 30.
  4. In 2016 the civilian casualties were the highest in the history: 3498 civilians were killed and 7920 wounded. See more:
  5. Orend and Rocheleau believe that there should be theory connected to justice after war. However, there is the difference of opinion according to the subject and the range of it. Orend claims that state building process should be consistent with the just war theory (Latin: Jus bellum iustum), Rocheleau believes that there is the urgent need to create completely new theory of just state-building including the aims of state-building, just criteria of starting and carry on the process, as well as the principles of the reconstruction. See more: Rocheleau, Jordy 2008. Ethical Principles for State-Building, in: Kaufmann, Greg (ed.) 2008. Â Stability Operations and State-Building: Continuities and Contingencies, Washington and Orend, Brian 2002. “Justice after War”, Ethics and International Affairs, Vol. 16, nr 1.
  6. Parel Anthony J. 2016, Â Pax Gandhiana. Introdution, p. 1, Oxford. EC- 2011/03/N/HS5/02796.
  7. Das, Dhiraj K. Relevance of Gandhian Philosophy in Contemporary Period,
  8. Narayan, Jayaprakash 1959. A plea for reconstruction of Indian Politics, Rajghat, Kashi, p.3.
  9. Das, Dhiraj K. op. cit.
  10. Ibidem.
  11. Benjamin Barber writes that foreign laws, as well as the constitutions - even perfect - can't be implemented in state-building process. The success of it is rooted - according to him - to recreate the institutions and legal system in pursuance of local traditions and values - even in those countries which have only undemocratic history. See more: Barber, Benjamin 2003. Fear's Empire: War, Terrorism, and Democracy, New York.
  12. Communique, Kabul International Conference on Afghanistan, A Renewed Commitment by the Afghan Government to the Afghan People. A Renewed Commitment by the International Community to Afghanistan, 20 July 2010, content/uploads/2014/06/FINAL_Kabul_Conference_Communique.pdf.
  13. See more on:
  14. See more in: Fields, Mike. Ahmed, Ramsha 2011.“A Rewiev of the 2001 Bonn Conference and Application to the Road Ahead in Afghanistan”, Strategic Perspectives, vol. 8, Washington. Different opinion has Idrees Zaman - Managing Director at Cooperation for Peace and Unity. He claims that thesis that Taliban presence in Bonn would have positive influence on Afghanistan stabilization, doesn’t have the confirmation in reality.” In 2001 - according to Zaman - there was no one Taliban group unified in political, ideological or military aspect. It is simplification that Taliban representation in the government would have brought our country to peace. In my perspective, if Taliban would have the power they would try to spread it in Central Asia, Iran etc. So, the fact that they were absent during Bonn conference, wasn’t a mistake”. The interview with Idrees Zaman, CPAU Centre, Kabul 19.11. 2012.
  15. More: Maley, Wiliam 2008. Stablizing Afghanistan, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
  16. This point of view represents among others Larry Goodson. See more in: Â Goodson, Larry 2003. “Afghanistan’s Long Road to Reconstruction”, Journal of Democracy, vol. 14.
  17. The Loja Jirga (grand assembly) has long history in Afghanistan. There are historical proofs that first Great Assembly took place about 250 years before Christ when Persian elderly chose their king. The next Great Assembly took place in Kandahar about 72 years before Christ. See more: Salim, Ahmad 2006. Â Loja Jirga. The Afghan Great Aseembly, Lahore.
  18. Monier - Williams, Sanskrit - English Dictionary, Oxford 1899 by: Iyer, Raghavan N. 1973. The moral and political thought of Mahatma Gandhi, Oxford.
  19. Ibidem, p. 187.
  20. Harijan, May 1939, in: R.N. Iyer, The moral, p. 185.
  21. Rawls, John 1993. The Law of Peoples, Chicago.
  22. See more: Recchia, Stefano 2009. Â “Just and Unjust Postwar Reconstruction: How much external interference can be morally justified?”, Ethics and International Affairs 23:2.
  23. America doesn’t want strong, independent Afghanistan. Who are the Talibans? I am asking where they are coming from? They were created by Americans, trained in Pakistan, financed by Americans and send to Afghanistan. The United States support in the same time the government, Talibans and warlords”. The interview with Latifa Ahmady - the Chief of OPAWC (Organization of Promoting Afghan Women Capabilities), Kabul 20.11. 2012.
  24. Menocal, Alina R. 2010. State-building for Peace - A New Paradigm for International Engagement in Post-Conflict Fragile States?, EUI Working Papers, RSCAS 2010/34, p. 7.
  25. See more: OECD, 2010. Â Peacebuilding and Statebuilding Priorities and Challenges. A Synthesis of Findings from Seven Multi- Stakeholders Consultations, Dili.
  26. See more: Mount, Mike 2010. Â Analysis: Taliban governs Afghanistan from the shadows, CNN,
  27. Iyer R., op. cit, p. 151.
  28. Ibidem, p. 176.


  • Barber, Benjamin 2003. Fear’s Empire: War, Terrorism, and Democracy, New York.
  • Barfield, Thomas J. 2010. Afghanistan. Oxford: Princeton University Press.
  • Barnes, Catherine 2009. Renegotiating the political settlement in war-to-peace transitions, London.
  • Communique, Kabul International Conference on Afghanistan, A Renewed Commitment by the Afghan Government to the Afghan People. A Renewed Commitment by the International Community to Afghanistan, 20 July 2010.
  • Das, Dhiraj Kr., Relevance of Gandhian Philosophy in Contemporary Period,
  • Fields, Mark, Ahmed, Ramsha 2011. “A Rewiev of the 2001 Bonn Conference and Application to the Road Ahead in Afghanistan”, Strategic Perspectives, vol 8, Washington.
  • Fukuyama, Francis 2004. State - Building: Governance and World Order in 21 Century. Cornell Univeristy Press.
  • Goodson, Larry 2003. “Afghanistan’s Long Road to Reconstruction”, Journal of Democracy, vol. 14, nr 1.
  • Iyer, Raghavan N. 1973. The moral and political thought of Mahatma Gandhi, Oxford.
  • Kaufmann Greg (ed.) 2008, Stability Operations and State-Building: Continuities and Contingencies, Washington.
  • Maley, William 2008. Stablizing Afghanistan, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Carnegie Europe.
  • Menocal, Alina Rocha. 2010. State-building for Peace - A New Paradigm for International Engagement in Post-Conflict Fragile States?, EUI Working Papers, RSCAS 2010/34.
  • Mount, Mike. Analysis: Taliban governs Afghanistan from the shadows. CNN, Â
  • Narayan, Jayaprakash 1959. A plea for reconstruction of Indian Politics, Rajghat, Kashi.
  • OECD, 2010. Peacebuilding and Statebuilding Priorities and Challenges. A Synthesis of Findings from Seven Multi- Stakeholders Consultations, Dili, 2010.
  • Orend, Brian 2002. “Justice after War, Ethics and International Affairs, Vol. 16, nr 1.
  • Parel, Anthony J. 2016, Pax Gandhiana. Oxford.
  • Rawls, John 1993. The Law of Peoples, Chicago.
  • Recchia Stefano. 2009. “Just and Unjust Postwar Reconstruction: How much external interference can be morally justified?”, Ethics and International Affairs 23:2. Salim, Ahmad 2006. Loja Jirga. The Afghan Great Aseembly, Lahore.