Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Losing Kandahar, one land dispute at a time

In discussing COIN and stability ops in general, a lot of references are made to reestablishing effective governance without defining what that means except in the vaguest terms. Although just one among many over the last several years, this article in the Christian Science Monitor illustrates the dynamics particularly clearly.

Land disputes are the starting point for a lot of violence in Afghanistan - and Congo, and Sudan, and the rest of the developing world, for that matter. And those disputes provide opportunities that the Taliban have proven adept at exploiting, either by resolving or manipulating the resulting divisions.

Despite knowing this, and nearly a decade into the effort, we still struggle to set up even the simplest credible dispute resolution mechanisms. I don't mean an elaborate and fully developed national justice system: I mean local adjudicative bodies that have local legitimacy that need to be backed by our (or where, possible, GIRoA) firepower to enforce their decisions and protect them from being assassinated.

This isn't to suggest that military control of territory and population, building effective local security forces, or tackling corruption aren't just as important (or more, depending phase of operations in a given area). But it seems that as we've come to realize that development assistance is of limited utility in winning Afghans over to our side, we're a bit stymied as to what 'effective governance' means in concrete terms. Seems like solving local land disputes would be an excellent place to start.


  1. I got into a long debate over at SWJ with Mac McCallister about why setting tribes loose was a bad idea; in its place I described an imaginary policy where local dispute resolution was the focus. Got nowhere with it.

    Also, this is the one social service that the TB tend to focus on when they take over territory (and not, say, hospitals and schools), and the locals appreciate it.

  2. Good post MK. Land disputes or the promise of land reform drive almost every insurgency that I've ever studied.

    Ian- I have no idea a good answer on that one. The Taliban is very good at it. The central gov't is not. My only caution is to not have US soldiers doing the land dispute resolution. I had to do it when we were relocating displaced people back into their homes in Iraq. It was nearly impossible to effectively determine who's home was who's and where the land boundaries were. That was probably the most frustrating thing that I've ever done.

  3. A large part of the reconciliation process in Bosnia involved sorting out the mess of who owned what property, evicting the squatters, and returning the owners. This was often delayed due to misplaced, inaccurate, or non-existent paperwork, property which was no longer inhabitable due to the home being destroyed, and people unwilling to move (from their squatting location or to their home or both). But the locals handled it in conjunction with various Civil-Military units and NGOs who would rebuild destroyed homes and arrange for local police to evict squatters and escort returning families to their pre-war homes. Not sure to what degree US or other NATO forces were involved in other aspects of this, but they might have some lessons to share.

  4. Not to mention, this is one of the main factors for Taliban support--they serve as an honest, impartial jury for many local disputes.

  5. While I generally agree with what's been written, let me play devil's advocate for a second. Isn't this a bit chicken-and-egg? Or even more accurately, isn't all of this other stuff really secondary to territorial and population control? After all, how can you even institute any mechanisms of government until you take and secure terrain? I agree that there ought to be attention paid to those functions in which the Taliban shows a definite advantage over the coalition and the Afghan government, and certainly attention needs to be paid to developing the necessary expertise within the GIRoA for such time as it has the opportunity to exercise its writ. But as for right now, how can we even begin to worry about settling land disputes if we can't enforce the will of the government, or if -- worse yet -- the government doesn't even have a presence?

    Further, MK referenced corruption as a sort of separate problem. It seems to me that they're inextricably tied. After all, as the article states, "the Taliban have something to offer that the government of Afghanistan so far does not: Fast, generally impartial justice from a court that doesn’t demand bribes for its services" [emphasis mine].

    This is where it might prove useful to have government personnel and functions pre-developed for delpoyment to areas that are newly cleared and held. You know, if someone could come up with something like a "government in a box" or something...

  6. Gulliver,

    That's not devil's advocate, you're spot on in identifying a central question in our field.

    Is the build phase (governance, nation-building, civil affairs, land rights, reparations, etc) sequential or simultaneous in a small war?

    Obviously, each case is unique, but I would tend to believe that most cannot be done efficiently and effectively unless violence has diminished to an culturally acceptable lower level.

    And just as obviously, my views are based off my own experience and study for better or worse.


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