• Afghanistan;
  • aid effectiveness;
  • ownership;
  • peacebuilding;
  • state-building

It is unclear how international donors' stated commitment to ownership and partnership ‘translates’ in fragile state or ‘post-conflict’ settings. The very notion of ownership is violently contested in Afghanistan and donors have to negotiate with, and choose between, multiple state and non-state interlocutors. The developmentalist principles outlined in the 2005 Paris Declaration may carry little meaning in such contexts and their application can have paradoxical effects that impede the emergence of broad-based ownership. The limitations of, and alternatives to, developmentalist approaches in fragile states, are explored here with reference to donor policies and practices in Afghanistan, focusing on the period following the 2001 Bonn Agreement. This paper examines how aid policies and programmes have become part of a complex bargaining game involving international actors, domestic elites, and societal groups. It argues that international donors' failure to appreciate or engage sensitively and strategically with these bargaining processes, when combined with contradictory intervention objectives, has contributed to the steady unravelling of a fragile war-to-peace transition in Afghanistan.