Monday, January 18, 2010

The Politics of Horse Betting

With all the hullabaloo about tribes these days (mainly with regard to our not likely being able to leverage them as much as we’d like) and the rampant corruption and subsequent illegitimacy of the Afghan government, it begs the question of how does ISAF build stability in the country if there doesn’t seem to be any sort of mechanism to adequately govern the people?

Here is another way to pose this conundrum: The Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan cannot provide governance to its people in almost any area: security, health, education, courts. The reasons for this are many and well known to our readers here. And the root causes for their inability to govern seem unlikely to change anytime soon. On the other side of the equation, there has been quite a bit of discussion on using local governance systems to achieve the same results because local leaders would be more receptive their constituency’s issues and would decrease corruption because these leaders wouldn’t screw their own people. It sure makes a lot of sense at face value, which is why MAJ Gant’s paper made a lot of sense to him and apparently a whole lot of other people.

There is, of course, a “but” at the end of that last sentence. The U.S. Government could not possibly support such an idea without significant systematic changes to the way we understand governance. Here is the ISAF mission statement:

ISAF, in support of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, conducts operations in Afghanistan to reduce the capability and will of the insurgency, support the growth in capacity and capability of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), and facilitate improvements in governance and socio-economic development, in order to provide a secure environment for sustainable stability that is observable to the population.

We’ll come back to this in a second, but just keep it in mind. Let’s take the hypothetical that we’ll start to support the tribal structure, whatever that means. If, and that’s a big if, we manage to actually figure out how social structures actually work, then we begin arming, fighting with, and just generally supporting “tribes” all over Afghanistan. Local political powers would be given huge increases in their clout (to say nothing of the fact that many would have their clout taken away) at the whim after serious consideration by U.S. analysts commanders. In theory, this should all go as swimmingly as the Sons of Iraq program did, but with more non-security power given to local leaders.

I’m not going to belabor the many secondary, tertiary, and so on effects of this. Let’s look back at that ISAF mission statement. [I]n support of the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. Well, shucks, that’s going to be hard to do if we tell that Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan that they can’t find their fourth point of contact from their elbow so we’re going to empower all these other people. Promoting the power of local leaders would certainly decrease the power of the central government and vice versa (while I believe this to be fairly common sense, I’m sure that the Sons of Iraq program certainly supports this conjecture). By supporting local leaders in the ways that MAJ Gant suggests we would be undermining the mission of ISAF. Seems sort of silly to do that.

And don’t go expecting ISAF to change its mission any time soon. State-building is what the U.S. does and it’s just that. Building states. States that look like Western states from a governance perspective. Areas that are governed by local leaders are generally considered “ungoverned spaces” because of the lack of a Western-style governance structure. The government of the United States would never permit one of its military organizations to subvert that policy. So it seems pretty obvious to me which horse we'll really back and why. Even if we back the other for the short term, they better know that they're going to get screwed in the end if their interests collide with the national government's. If you do want to bet on this, the Trifecta is a sure thing: a bundle on GoIRA, Local Leaders, and ISAF in that order (ISAF comes in third because they can't help but shoot themselves in the foot).

I’ll be the first to admit that I am not a political scientist and that these are rough ideas at the present. Hopefully (operative word) I’ll be able to draw them out in future posts, but I can’t make any promises. As always, I’d love input from the vast grey matter possessed by our readers.


  1. Promoting the power of local leaders would certainly decrease the power of the central government and vice versa

    I don't think this is accurate, actually. For obvious reasons it's not like the authority of the central government extends down to the district level in those areas most affected by the insurgency. Strengthening local governance structures at that level and below wouldn't involve displacing power structures from Kabul, because few exist, and even fewer function.

    Moreover, it isn't clear that zero-sum competition between national and local governance structures is the only or even the most likely outcome. First off, there seems to be a durable consensus among Afghans in favor of a strong central authority to curb local power brokers.

    Secondly, the Community Development Councils (CDCs) created by the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development as part of the National Solidarity Program are an interesting example of a Kabul-based ministry extending its influence into rural areas in a way that also strengthens local governance. The CDCs are locally elected, some narrowly focused on coordinating NSP-funded development projects, others performing wider governance functions. They coexist and, to varying degrees overlap with informal (aka 'tribal') powers structures as well The whole program is linked to the Ministry in Kabul and thus isn't a challenge to centralized power per se, but it does represent a challenge to power of the Ministry of the Interior and the Provincial Governors.

    Given that the Provincial Governors (who are appointed by Kabul, and in turn appoint District Chiefs, thus ensuring no formal accountability to the populations they govern) seem just the latest manifestation of the imperial model that Afghan central governments have followed for ages - a model which many scholars point to as source of recurring conflict and instability - strengthening local governance structures to reshape center-periphery relations away from patrimonialism, personalized rule, and divide and rule tactics seems pretty reasonable.

    Bottom line: bottom-up state-building is not inherently contradictory with, and can actually be complementary to top-down state-building. As usual, the devil is in the details.

  2. Acknowledging what MK has written above, and his fundamental point that bottom-up state-building based on pre-existing power structures or institutions can be successful, I wanted to respond to another section of the original post that I'm not sure is exactly correct (and by extension, sort of challenge MK's implicit suggestion that extant local power structures are an effective building block):

    On the other side of the equation, there has been quite a bit of discussion on using local governance systems to achieve the same results because local leaders would be more receptive their constituency’s issues and would decrease corruption because these leaders wouldn’t screw their own people. It sure makes a lot of sense at face value [...]

    One problem with this interpretation is that local (and even "tribal") leaders have often risen to prominence not through kinship or effective leadership but through their ability to secure more than their share of resources, influence, weapons, and power. You might imagine that a mayor is less likely to screw his people than a governor, but what if that mayor has secured his position through the sort of graft and semi-political skullduggery that so often backstops powerful machine politicians?

    So here you're back to the warlord problem: if you back the existing system just because it's "organic" and "local," you'll often be putting the stamp of approval on a regime and a system of resource- and service-allocation that is inherently unfair and simply recognizes those who were wily or cunning enough to grab at power before you got there.

    The TRADOC HTT Reachback paper that Christian referenced addresses how this happened during the Soviet war, breaking down family-oriented methods of organization and coalescing around strongmen. Here's a quote from Olivier Roy featured in the paper:

    These local petty notables would not have expressed themselves politically before the war, but they now find in political affiliation an access to weapons and a new self-assertion, making it more difficult for the dominant party and leaders to assert themselves as a political alternative above the traditional segmentation. Such petty notables do not necessarily have a territorial base... In some particularly detribalized or depopulated areas, there is a process of transforming a political group which people joined not necessarily out of consideration for qawm affiliation into a qawm network, a ‘communal group,’ whose existence is simply a consequence of the war, but which will try to perpetuate itself by accumulating wealth and political power. This reminds us that qawm and ethnic affiliations are in Afghanistan a dynamic process and not a static taxonomia.

    But back to corruption rather than coercion: this problem of local incentivization isn't that different from the one we have in our own political system: the line between corrupt, pork-barrel politics that divert state resources to political and personal favorites and genuine, authentic constituent services in a representative republic is necessarily quite a fine one.

  3. So here you're back to the warlord problem: if you back the existing system just because it's "organic" and "local," you'll often be putting the stamp of approval on a regime and a system of resource- and service-allocation that is inherently unfair and simply recognizes those who were wily or cunning enough to grab at power before you got there.

    I agree with your fundamental point - organic/local doesn't equal fair, sustainable, or legitimate in the longer term - but I think you're casting this as a dichotomy rather than shifting spectrum. One of the key points of that quote ( of which I know you are keenly cognizant) is the fluidity of qawms in Afghanistan. Given that fluidity, and the pragmatism of Afghan allegiance to power structures, there is a clear opportunity not only to engage with existing ones, but to carefully reshape them in partnership with the constituents.

    This is what I was trying to get at in my reference to the CDCs - they represent a new power structure created in partnership between Kabul and the relevant district. While they currently exist alongside extant informal power structures, the more effectively they deliver on their promises and provide governance, the more space there is to merge the informal and the formal. There's no question that that is an explicitly political process that has to be managed very, very carefully, and driven as much as possible by Afghans themselves, with the GIRoA and ISAF 1) preventing the veto of the gun by those worried about losing power, and 2) acting as a check against emerging local tyrants, and/or tyranny of the majority (pissed off minorities making excellent entry points for insurgents).

    Of course this holds the potential to alienate those who feel they're losing power at the local level - e.g. create new openings for insurgents to exploit - but it depends in large part on how it's executed, how much popular support it enjoys, and whether it is perceived as zero-sum or not. Obviously better to fold existing leaders into new structures and procedures than to alienate them, and it's all highly variable according to local conditions. But our comparative advantage is in resources, if we mobilize them quickly and apply them in ways that are informed and attentive to local realities rather than preconceived assumptions.

  4. I'm afraid I was using muddled language. Again.

    I was not referring to governors, mayors, whatever when I said "local" - I meant more informal local leaders that are usually called "tribal" leaders. The former are functionaries of the state and their power bases should be symbiotic with that of the national government. The latter though are rarely elected (although sometimes are)and operate outside of the governance system of the state. Like the leaders of the Sons of Iraq who were self-appointed or whatever to make deals with US Army/USMC to stand up forces.

    So my problem (well, really the USG's problem) is that Gant's proposal suggests we support these informal leaders (I'm not sure "informal" is the correct word, but I think you get my meaning). The USG believes and supports a state monopoly on the legitimate use of violence (I'm sure we've all seen that USIP slide...). Supporting the tribes in the way Gant suggests subverts that monopoly of violence and certainly causes many issues with legitimacy of its use by the tribal leaders. Especially if we choose who can use violence and who can't. While there are some people who think that's okay for the short term, it strikes me that the USG can't really support something like that. And this policy would run contrary to the ISAF mission.

    Does that make more sense?

  5. Gunslinger - not so muddled at all: I understood who you were referring to, and I think Gulliver did too. His reference to mayors was more allegorical than literal, I believe.

    Anyhow, I'd go further than you on Gant's proposal: I don't think it would achieve any of ISAF's goals at all in the long run, in large part because it would exacerbate conflicts within Afghan society. I've got no problem with exploiting grievances against the Taliban (which at the local level may well be rooted in rivalries between families, land owners, smuggling networks, authority figures, etc.) to gain entry into Afghan communities, but (like in Iraq) the goal is to bring everyone into the fold, ideally by excluding violence as a viable strategy for everyone else ('be the strongest tribe') and helping develop local conflict resolution mechanisms. How many times have we all read that a big part of the Taliban's appeal is that it adjudicates disputes in a timely and relatively impartial manner?

    Working with and empowering informal power structures below the district level does not necessarily mean asking them to take up arms. By all means, have ANSF and ISAF maintain the monopoly on legit violence. But help develop the societal institutions that can resolve conflicts peacefully at the ground level instead of waiting for centralized institutions in Kabul to be built from the top down. And as you go along, find ways to fold informal power structures into formal ones. Easier said than done, but you get the picture.

    At the end of the day, these informal power structures are a fact of Afghan society, and the central government will have to engage with them politically in order to extend its authority. In theory, that can occur through co-operation and co-optation, or outright coercion. The latter has proven pretty unsuccessful in the South and East (and generally throughout Afghanistan's history). The Taliban took a kind of coercive/co-optive approach that had short-term success, but whose long-term prospects to foster stability were dubious. Seems to me the first option is the only one likely to achieve our goals.

    Setting aside the aspects that are highly specific to Eastern Paktia, I think this article from the Feb '09 issue of Special Warfare presents a pretty good example of the broad approach I'm thinking of.