The post-Taliban state-building process began earnestly and with great optimism at the Bonn conference in 2001. Fifteen years on, Afghanistan is a ‘failed’ state. This paper argues that the perceived failure to establish a legitimate and functional government stems from a fundamental misunderstanding, from the outset of international intervention, of how power is exercised and how access to resources is governed in the country. The authors introduce a networks of access approach to understand political and economic life. This approach differs from much of the literature on patrimonialism, warlordism and informal governance in Afghanistan in that it seeks to move away from the predominant focus on ‘corruption’ and hierarchical notions of patrimonialism towards a more nuanced, actor-based understanding. Policy implications are explored in the conclusion.