Calls for a change in the Afghanistan war are making the rounds in the U.S. House of Representatives, where a 31 May push to mandate a political settlement and accelerated exit strategy failed by only a handful of votes. According to Representative Lois Capps (D-CA), having provided the Afghan people with a historic opportunity to build a future for a new Afghanistan, it’s time for the United States to fully turn over that effort to them.
But for America to maintain any claim to a desired outcome in the decade-long Afghanistan effort, an accelerated exit strategy will require a change in the present criteria as to what constitutes success there. But how do you proclaim success if it isn’t defined by having established rule of law, good governance, reconciliation of rival factions, and political stability? Proclaiming victory or defeat in Afghanistan is more than just declaring that we’ve achieved our operational objectives and deliverables in accordance with established metrics. The existing success-criteria—based on monies spent or numbers of economic and public-policy advisers, health experts, and civil engineers deployed to train the Afghans in public administration—do little to establish whether the norms and values on which the metrics are based have been successfully transferred to a less than receptive culture. In actuality, all we do is measure effort rather than effectiveness. As the old infantry adage says, you can do everything right and still draw the third eye.
It’s instructive to look at how the last great power to venture into the Afghan morass—the Soviet Union—attempted to impose a sense of political stability there before ultimately, inevitably exiting. As with the later U.S.-led effort, Soviet strategy in Afghanistan also included initiatives aimed at combating insurgents while persuading the Afghan population to support the central government’s modernization efforts. The Soviet Union also invested significant funds in Afghan infrastructure and education, and building modern and accountable institutions. Soviet diplomats consistently attempted to influence the Kabul government to support reforms and to improve social conditions in Afghan society.1 The Soviet Union also attempted to instill a common set of norms and values. All of this, ten years into a protracted Afghanistan struggle, sounds eerily familiar to American ears. How will our efforts to instill our own set of norms and values compare to those of the Soviet Union? When we depart Afghanistan for good, will our reforms stick any better than those of the Soviets did?
‘Not a Blank Slate’
Anthropologists distinguish between “pristine” and “competitive” state formation. Pristine state formation is the initial emergence of state institutions out of tribal-level societies, followed by competition as tribal-level societies respond to conquest or attempts of assimilation or absorption. Seen in this light, Afghanistan is not a pristine environment in which to plan and build modern political institutions. It is not a blank slate, but a place where past and present Afghan political institutions are superimposed on existing communal associations and local power struggles.
Afghan communal associations are resilient and tend to push back against a rigid system of top-down control. We understand this and have had to work within the constraints and restraints of those communal associations and local power struggles since the beginning. Case in point: the decision in early 2002 to enter into an alliance with numerous regional strongmen and factional military leaders so as to administer, rebuild, and modernize. Unable to occupy and administer the country directly, coalition leaders and civilian administrators sought the cooperation and co-option of a number of local power-holders. Such an early co-option policy was a pragmatic choice and a matter of expediency. Co-opting key regional strongmen would buy time for power to be consolidated in Kabul and would build grass-roots governmental capacity while recruiting, training, and deploying new and loyal security forces. Once power was centralized in Kabul by a legitimate government with authority that comes from a citizenry willingly abiding by the rules, the modernized state would expand into the countryside and replace the regional strongmen and factional military leaders with civil administration, administrators, and security-force commanders loyal to the central government. That, anyway, was the intent.
It is interesting to note that the Soviet-sponsored government of 1980–1992 often dealt with local bosses but always would attempt to keep them removed from administrative functions and posts. As a rule, regional leaders were appointed as district military commanders or given honorific titles and ceremonial positions. The U.S.-led coalition’s pacification and rebuilding efforts, on the other hand, relied on the assistance of regional chiefs eager to gain access to the levers of state power right from the start.2
How might these local power brokers with access to the levers of state power mobilize dwindling resources in preparation for the U.S. drawdown and eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan? Much of the focus for empowering the central government and the regime of President Hamid Karzai has been placed on creating jobs and facilitating the delivery of public services. Those emphases, serving as a means of building legitimacy for the state and its leadership, have created a form of patronage politics all their own. The following events provide an example of the dynamics in play.
In 2010 select elders of the Shinwari, a Pashtun tribe in eastern Nangahar province, approached U.S. military officials and offered to confront militants operating in their territory. They also would punish anyone who cooperated with the militants. In response, U.S. officers decided to allow those local leaders to help determine how the approximately $1 million in U.S.-funded development projects would be spent.3
The idea caused an immediate reaction from rivals and accusations of a provincial power grab with the support of the U.S. military. The governor of Nangahar, Gul Agha Shirzai, accused the U.S. military of turning local elders into “little governors.” Governor Shirzai understood the importance of establishing his own little governors, especially since he and the Karzai administration were pursuing just such a strategy themselves to expand and consolidate their own influence in the province (not that there is anything wrong with this type of consolidation approach).
The “little governor” strategy in Nangahar reflects a pattern deeply embedded in Afghan culture. Empires and dynasties are born through the recruitment, co-option, and consolidation of urban and provincial aristocratic, merchant, and martial networks. In today’s political vernacular, the central government seeks to legitimately dominate the periphery by imposing a central authority or by co-opting the loyalty of appropriate local patronage networks. While conquest is an option, the preferred method is to co-opt the loyalty of the provincial elite by providing access to sources of power and limited resources. Unfortunately, this type of state formation is contrary to U.S.-established success-criteria for building governmental capacity, rule of law, and good governance, and is considered by many engaged in trying to modernize the Afghan state as a sign of failure.
If history is any indication, there is no reason to believe that Afghan politicians and power brokers will change their behavior once the United States departs Afghanistan. Precedents abound. 1880: After being proclaimed the Amir of Kabul, Abdur Rahman Khan extends his authority through the manipulation of factional rivalries. He establishes his regime as the sole source of patronage and, by strategically supporting one strongman against another, alters the existing balance of power in his favor. 1987: Mohammad Najibullah, president of the Soviet-backed Democratic Republic of Afghanistan, announces his national reconciliation program. His intent is to weaken the opposition by instigating and managing factional rivalries and purchasing the services of one or the other of the mujahedin organizations engaged in factional fighting. 1992: Ismail Khan consolidates his power by recruiting a loyal security force and co-opting the local patronage networks by the targeted distribution of supplies to his supporters. He successfully shifts the balance of power in the area away from the local strongmen and assumes the military/political leadership in Herat. 1994: Mullah Omar manipulates regional rivalries and patronage ties to marginalize or co-opt key elites and ethnic rivals. The Taliban retain power through a system of ruling shuras, dedicated followers, and a network of informants. Rival leaders are assassinated, key military commanders weakened or bought outright, and minorities absorbed within regional majorities. 2005: The Karzai administration governs Kandahar province through President Hamid Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai. Ahmed enters into an alliance with local power brokers to gain control over key trade routes and local commercial and security networks. He integrates those brokers with state institutions to manage political and commercial activities and to retain formal control over the province.
Also in 2005: Governor Sherzai of Nangahar province gains control over the local economy by eradicating the poppy industry. Instead of growing opium, local farmers receive subsidies from the provincial government. Governor Sherzai successfully undermines his local rivals by controlling the distribution of resources to his supporters.
While the availability of developmental aid most likely will diminish after the United States departs Afghanistan, competition for limited resources will continue to provide opportunities for negotiations and favors as various groups compete for control.
What might the process of consolidation look like in a post-U.S.-era Afghanistan? The concept of a neutral third party charged with enforcing the rules likely will be replaced outright by an authority system in which checks and balances are imposed by a complex web of kith-and-kin and patronage relationships. Political power ultimately will rest on a leader’s ability to create social cohesion among disparate interest groups. Elders, maliks, local strongmen, or insurgents will seek the “appointment” of their friends and family to government positions, locally or in Kabul, so as to strengthen their own security and patronage networks.
The result is that everyone, whether in the ruling regime, insurgency, or local leadership, will seek to influence the composition and behavior of state, provincial, district, and local administration. In this complex interplay, everyone seeks to retain his independence while exploiting the resources offered by the regime or others—all the while trying to undermine rivals through strategic affiliations and alliances. Consequently, administrators and government supporters also may support individual members of their kinship group active in local insurgent organizations, in the age-old practice of not placing all your eggs in one basket. This behavior has little to do with Western notions of impersonal and neutral third-party governance and everything to do with personal relationships and the exploitation and co-option of existing patronage networks.
Ruling Based on Kin, Not Concepts
Developing group pathways to power and access to limited resources will grow in importance as the United States draws down in Afghanistan. This entrenched behavior does not bode well for the measurement of American success in terms of protecting the population, building governmental capacity, establishing the rule of law, and good governance. When determining American success or failure, victory or defeat in Afghanistan, the recurrent Afghan patterns of rule by patronage tilt prospects toward the negative column.
The challenge with personality-driven political orders is that organized groups may entrench themselves and, once entrenched, begin to demand privileges from the state. In time they may even challenge the state directly. Afghan governmental leaders are under no illusion that the potential for this type of predatory behavior will cease once the United States departs Afghanistan. The Karzai regime understands that it is engaged in a process to monopolize and control resources and to compel organizational hierarchies on disparate social networks. President Karzai is not the defender of an existing legal order but seeks to impose a new order. To protect the regime against internal threats, security measures are likely to include exploitation of family, ethnic, and religious loyalties for critical administrative positions, balanced with wider participation and less restrictive loyalty criteria for the regime as a whole.4
Witness Karzai’s efforts to clear the field of competitors in Kandahar by appointing the president’s brother to administer the province. Ahmed Karzai enters into relevant patronage relationships with local power brokers to hold and control the territory. The members of Ahmed’s newly established patronage network then build and consolidate control.
We also might witness the creation of an armed capability parallel to the regular security services. President Karzai, through his brother, also is allied with Matiullah Khan in Uruzgan province. Khan controls the northern approaches and trade route into Kandahar City and staging areas into Hazara territory. If past practice is an indication, Khan’s militia eventually may be officially integrated into the central government security forces and, by extension, the Karzai patronage network.
In the final analysis, it has been extremely difficult to introduce Western concepts of governance to Afghan circumstances. While a particular institution’s historical source may matter less than its functionality, it must be able to influence existing patterns of behavior. It appears that we have been unable to influence those patterns of behavior completely, as Afghan civil and military administrators are not so much adopting Western political norms and values, but adapting Western governing institutions to fit the peculiarities of Afghanistan.
It needs to be said. No amount of additional expertise in governance and economic development or bold actions to ramp up the civilian surge to win the peace is going to make a difference. No additional guidance for how to link district and provincial officials to their government in Kabul or instructions for how the governmental budgeting process works are going to make a difference if the norms and values associated with specific metrics are not transferred successfully as well. It might be time to admit publicly that winning a frontier war is less about imposing solutions and more about managing conditions. And if a general perception among theorists and policy planners is that our counterinsurgency strategy has failed to mentor the Karzai government to do what our success criteria, operational objectives, and metrics dictate, then maybe we might do well to change the success criteria to fit the local circumstances instead of lamenting that “this is not how the war is supposed to be going”—or supposed to end.5
1. Andrei A. Doohovskoy, “Soviet Counterinsurgency in the Soviet Afghan War Revisited: Analyzing the Effective Aspects of the Counterinsurgency Effort” (M.A. thesis, Harvard University, September 2009).
2. Francis Fukuyama, The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), p. 42; Antonio Giustozzi, ‘Good’ State vs. ‘Bad’ Warlords? A Critique of State-Building Strategies in Afghanistan (London: Crisis States Program Development Research Centre, 2004), pp. 3, 11.
3. “U.S. military runs into Afghan tribal politics after deal with Pashtuns” The Washington Post, 10 May 2010.
4. James T. Quinlivan, “Coup-proofing: Its Practice and Consequences in the Middle East” International Security, vol. 24, no. 2 (Fall 1999), pp. 131–165.
5. Marc Ambinder, “The Mineral Miracle? Or a Massive Information Operation?” The Atlantic, 14 June 2010, www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2010/06/the-mineral-miracle-or-a-massive-information-operation/58104/.