Afghanistan was the first major test for US nation-building efforts in the twenty-first century. Previous analyses have identified many of the barriers that prevented the USA from engaging in effective infrastructure development, governance, security, counterinsurgency and counter-narcotics. Drawing upon interviews with senior US officials, this article offers an alternative account of the nation-building experience that highlights problems within the US government. Building on the assertions of Graham Allison, it focuses on the behaviour of the agencies and individuals within the US bureaucracy. It is argued that a lack of effective leadership permitted bureaucratic disorder between and within the military establishment, the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). The conflict that was precipitated by this dissonance prevented the emergence of a cohesive nation-building strategy.