Small Wars Journal

Implementing COIN Doctrine in the Absence of a Legitimate State

Wed, 10/13/2010 - 3:39pm
Implementing COIN Doctrine in the Absence of a Legitimate State

by David C. Ellis and James Sisco

Download the Full Article: Implementing COIN Doctrine in the Absence of a Legitimate State

The failure of ISAF's COIN strategy to achieve its political objectives is the result of a conceptual error in its COIN implementation framework. Though ISAF places meeting the needs of the population at the center of its strategy, attempting to do so through a kleptocratic, illegitimate, and unaccountable Afghan national government (GIRoA) will not succeed. This conceptual error is due to a reading of COIN theory that defines "the counterinsurgent" doctrinally as the national government. Thus, while ISAF strategy now claims to adopt a population centric, district-focused COIN strategy, it still tries with predictable results to reach the population top down through the very kleptocratic government that has precipitated the current political crisis.

Alternatively, COIN implementation has also historically been practiced from a village centric, bottom up framework. This COIN framework is better suited to conflicts where the government is considered to be a threat by the population because it directly builds up village capacity for security and self-governance, negating powerbrokers' malign influence. Defining "the counterinsurgent" in terms of natural political communities, as opposed to the national government, offers ISAF greater flexibility in meeting the needs of population and is supported by COIN successes in Malaya, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

A bottom up, village centric COIN implementation framework is appropriate for Afghanistan because it can begin to redress the socio-political imbalance in Afghan society that continues to empower malign actors through extensive government corruption, patronage networks, and narco-trafficking. Afghanistan's population lacks the basic knowledge, resources, and skills for self-governance, making it subservient to powerbrokers and subject to their predations. International financial and political support of powerbrokers working directly for or with GIRoA only serves to reinforce the utility of the Taliban to oppressed villages since it represents the only organized resistance to what threatens them.

ISAF's political objectives in Afghanistan can be best achieved by initiating a dual COIN implementation framework designed to increase the political space necessary to grow functioning village level governance and civil society organizations. This can be achieved by building up traditional, village level security, justice, and agricultural development structures to nurture district stability while pushing good governance and anti-corruption reforms through national and provincial level GIRoA. Such a framework requires directing all diplomatic, development, governance, and military assets toward the goal of rebalancing Afghan society. By creating local governance structures based around existing political communities, ISAF can restore political legitimacy and relative stability in Afghanistan in a short period of time.

This is the first of two papers that explain how to implement COIN doctrine in the absence of a legitimate state. It establishes the conceptual context of COIN doctrine in Afghanistan, illustrates why ISAF's political objectives have eluded it so far, and briefly describes the blueprint for a village centric COIN framework. The forthcoming second paper lays out in detail the operational and tactical guidelines for implementing a dual COIN implementation framework.

Download the Full Article: Implementing COIN Doctrine in the Absence of a Legitimate State

LCDR James Sisco is an Afghan Hand currently serving in Afghanistan. His previous tours include the Navy Irregular Warfare Office, Deep Blue, and service in Afghanistan in 2005-2006 as the military liaison for President Karzai.

Dr. David C. Ellis is a SOCOM human terrain analyst currently deployed to Afghanistan. His research covers peacekeeping, ethnic conflict, democratization, and economic development.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

About the Author(s)


John Green (not verified)

Thu, 01/13/2011 - 1:41pm

Mac wrote: "Instead, we template the social system IAW what ought to be and impose our own rules of play... then when the locals refuse to play because the rules do not resonate or make sense within the target audiences cultural frame of reference... we lament the corruption..."

Agreed wholeheartedly. I had one BCT-DCO who, when told we should shape our operations IOT leverage cultural resonance, stated "we're not playing the great game here...just tell me who their decision makers are..." In the end, we ended up crafting a COA, reasoned from typical western incentives, and dropped that into an afghan space with the predicatable result of failure. Then, we highlited all the afghans failings using a western rationale as a basis for thinking: corruption, lack of transparency, lack of human capacity...


In re your 'neutrality' statement about intervention...I wonder. Maybe you're correct if your practicing COIN purely. However, if that's the case then our continued intervention in Iraq isn't, and come to think of it many say it's not, because we certainly were not neutral regarding who we supported.

So, is COIN just becoming a politically correct term to mask intervention in civil wars where we pick one side rather than the other.

In Afghanistan, for example, many have argued what's going on there isn't an's a full blown civil what point do the two differ? Or, is it just a question of methods?

Bob's World

Mon, 01/10/2011 - 2:09pm


As you have deduced, FM 3-24 really isn't a manual about COIN at all. It is rather a manual about how an intervening power sustains in power a government that is supportive of the interests of the intervening power in that region against an uprising emerging from their own populace. This is a derivative of Colonial opertations, and is really much more about counter-guerrilla operations coupled with populace-baseded efforts aimed at suppressing the symptoms of the insurgency within that state where one is intervening.

True COIN is a domestic operation designed to resolve the conditions that give rise to insurgnecy, while at the same time enforcing the rule of law with a sense of justice that protects the populace from the government as much as it does from the insurgent.

An intervention can be implemented in support of a true COIN operation, but it would have to be much more neutral than any of our historic efforts, and would focus on the changes of govnernance that must occur to bring stability to the troubled state, while working to mitigate the violence. More of an arbitration role. This is probably a degree of difficulty beyound what we are capable of. Imagine how some foreign country could have intervened in the US Civil rights movement and somehow remained neutral as it directed and guided the types of changes of governance ultimately put in place by the Johnson administration. I can't imagine us appreciating such efforts on either side of the problem.

We call it a COIN manual because that sounds a lot better than "Colonial intervention, Illegitimate government preservation, and counter-gurrilla operations." (Though I guess that COlonial INtervention and COunter INsurgency both round out to "COIN."

John Green (not verified)

Mon, 01/10/2011 - 12:46pm

Spot on... A fundamental error in 3-24 is that while it expressly states a legitimate COIN aim is to aid the government in resolving local level grievances, thereby both connecting the population to, and legitimizing, the government, it only implicitly alludes to the fact that when the very government you are attempting to legitimize and assist deliberately undermines your attempts to aid it in its COIN struggle, that government doesn't deserve to survive.

Because this is left implied, Soldiers will discount it or refuse to accord it its due. We can bury our heads in the sand regarding why we are not winning.

"MAC" McCallister (not verified)

Fri, 11/05/2010 - 4:42pm


Much cover for action embedded in "renaming the landscape" especially when done to serve ideological and political purposes.

It was my understanding that the Human Terrain System (HTS) was envisioned to research and discover the rules (tacit knowledge) for the Iraqi and Afghan social systems... and to share these rules with the military so that they could play with the locals. Very much like hiring a lawyer... you don't hire a lawyer to tell you what you can't do... you hire a lawyer to tell you how to do it legally.

Simple rules determine complex behaviors... The "emergence" meme has captured me hook, line and sinker... same with the "contagion" meme. An appreciation for some simple cultural operating codes such as shame and honor (not hearts and minds), segmentation, patronage and territory... allows for some predictive analysis (without the detailed tacit knowledge for how the social system works)... Predicting future behavior in detail is no more possible than predicting the weather in detail... details tend to be controlled by divergent phenomena. Dominant forces and trends tend to be convergent phenomena (this group changes its patronage relationship for another and expands its territorial dominance) that allow for the creation of a few "most likely" outcome scenarios with indicators (segmentation... Group A challenged by C... A allies with B to counter C) that can point towards which outcome is more likely...

Instead, we template the social system IAW what ought to be and impose our own rules of play... then when the locals refuse to play because the rules do not resonate or make sense within the target audiences cultural frame of reference... we lament the corruption...

There are mechanism in place when the locals break the rules of play... those damn vendetta obligations are just one example...

Enough for now...


ADTS (not verified)

Fri, 11/05/2010 - 3:49pm


First, don't know how much of an exegesis on "Seeing Like a State" you want this to turn into, so feel free to shove me aside (so to speak :)) anytime.

Disclaimer stated:

First, "Seeing Like a State" is one of the best books I've ever read. That said, I read it a while ago. Hence, if misinterpretation occurs, I blame it on a decent interval. :)

Second, to me the takeaways are two, if related. The first is the amount of tacit knowledge (metis) required to make a social system work. Imposition of rules onto a social system (techne) might merely be counterproductive.

Third, relatedly, is the skill by which members of a social system evade rules, especially perhaps when they are imposed from on high (techne, once again. Rules imposed rather than evolved that do not take into account local knowledge are, if not bound to fail, than more likely to.


"MAC" McCallister (not verified)

Fri, 11/05/2010 - 3:35pm


I've read James Scott's "Seeing Like a State"...

IMO state naming practices not only seek to guide officials or NGO activists in unambiguously identifying persons, places, conditions... but may also seek to deny what actually exists...

"(r)enaming much of the landscape therefore is an essential step of imperial rule."



ADTS (not verified)

Fri, 11/05/2010 - 3:20pm


Your anecdote makes me think you might enjoy all, or at least parts, of James Scott, "Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed."


"MAC" McCallister (not verified)

Fri, 11/05/2010 - 3:03pm

... what amazes most of all is that the more things change.. the more they stay the same.

In the end.. it always boils down to local governments of less powerful states competing with governments of more powerful states... Nothing much has changed since Athenian representatives explained to the Melians ..."right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must."

It matters not if the motive is good or bad... whether fostering legitimacy for a new hegemon or a healthy "civil society" in which voluntary and empowered social and community organizations, civic movements and advocacy groups are sources of power and uncoerced collective action... Bottom line... We seek to impose change and continue to be surprised at the push-back.

IMO what might be worse is that we can't seem to stop our social theorists from seeking to prove this or that pet theory of new age social organization. WTH? Iraq and Afghanistan are not some large petri dish for our social scientists to experiment with new age approaches to creating a better social system or better man or woman? I would think that ten years of social experimentation in both Iraq and Afghanistan would prove the noble experiment a failure.

I sat in a meeting at the presidential palace in which a CA officer attempted to impose the Maryland traffic code on the good citizens of Baghdad... as if the locals had never heard of such a thing or didn't already have a traffic code in place... The Iraqi police officers in attendance were dumbstruck.

Apologize for the outburst... there must be a full moon.


Bill C. (not verified)

Fri, 11/05/2010 - 1:14pm

My question above stated somewhat differently:

Often, in these matters, it is the goal of a foreign entity to have less-powerful states/societies undergo immediate, massive and comprehensive governmental and societal change.

This, so that the wants, needs and desires of the foreign society might be better met.

For example: One might suggest that the significant governmental and societal changes that the West wishes to see take place in Afghanistan (and elsewhere) are motivated by the desire to have Afghanistan (et. al.) become (1) less of problem for Western society and (2) more of a vehicle by which Western society might better pursue its interests (ex: global trade).

Likewise, it is often the case that the majority population of these less-powerful states and societies have no similar motivation or desire to undergo such immediate, massive and comprehensive governmental and societal change.

In circumstances such as these, how can the local governments of the less-powerful states and societies be seen as "legitimate," if they do not:

a. Stand against the foreign entity and its more-radical agenda and

b. Stand with and honor the (more-limited and, therefore, more-realistic?) wants, needs and desires of the local populations?

Bob's World

Fri, 11/05/2010 - 8:00am

Final post on this.

Summary: "We lack the moral courage to do the right thing at the national level, so instead we have a really good bandaid that will create some local pockets of goodness that we can show to visiting policy makers, buying more time to extend operations here that will likely ultimately fail because we lack the moral courage to do the right thing at the national level."

Please don't miss my point, I understand yours, and have as much time invested in working VSO as you likely do; with 2 SOTFs, 3 CJSOTF CDRS; 2 CFSOCC CDRs, 1 RC CDR; and the Emassy in Kabul. It is the best program going, but no program, regardless of how good is apt to prevail so long as we are enabling the very bad behavior of the national government that you describe. As BG Miller regularly cautioned the team, "don't over-sell the missions."

This is where we need to not take counsel of our fears. We are better off packing up entirely and simply leaving, with the commitment to target all actionable targets as they appear, than we are staying and tying our national influence to the protection and sustainment of such a government.

We cannot ignore the most critical lesson of Vietnam: Great efforts in support of illegitimate governments may succeed at the tactical level, but still equal failure at the operational/strategic level.

I'm weary of "too big to fail" arguments for sustaining failure. Be it Wall Street, Detroit, or Afghanistan. Some things just need to either stand or fall of their own accord, and then start fresh with what emerges from that. If we are either unable or unwilling to do the hard things that must be done at the top to win, then we have no right to continue to send young troops out at the tactical level to do the hard things that have little hope of overcoming that lack of action at the top.

Yes, this is a rural insurgencny, but causation eminates out from Karzai's government; not from Taliban leaders in Pakistan. The Taliban leadership is a response to how the government affects a large segment of the populace. The rural insurgnecy is encouraged by these Insurgent leaders, but also by our very presence. It does little good to attack the flames if one is unwilling to turn off the fuel source. Instead we guard the fuel source and argue "too big to fail." Don't over-sell VSO in a way that enables that flawed thinking at the top.

Good Luck.

Dr. Ellis and … (not verified)

Thu, 11/04/2010 - 11:43pm


Again, you assume that we view VSO as the strategic game changer. We do believe it heads in the right direction, but it is insufficient by itself. We would appreciate it if you would cease representing our statements otherwise. I repeat, DUAL COIN implementation framework with GIRoA reform being a co-equal, but insufficient, part of the overall design.

We even agree with you that the Afghan Constitution is dysfunctional and creates counterproductive incentives given Afghan political culture and history. We would agree that it needs to be amended. However, our interpretation of the politics of the country lead us to believe that if an amendment to the constitution is passed, it will be to erase the presidential term limit, not any broader restructuring of power in the system.

We would also question whether or not momentum for constitutional change could occur in the time remaining. There is enough wiggle room under the existing constitution, legislation, and IDLG mandates to expand more functional government if dedicated diplomatic pressure is applied. For us, it's not an issue of whether constitutional change is appropriate, just how it could proceed under the existing power distribution.

This is why we advocate policies that diminish the gap in resources, organization, and, therefore, political influence. We're actually working much more in alignment than I think you've recognized. We simply believe that empowering families/villages is the first step in moving toward your desired end state.

And we certainly stand by our statement that enough political legitimacy can be restored to the system (broadly interpreted) to buy us valuable time. National level politics does not by itself achieve local stability; there must be local buy in to the national project. But local politics dedicated to local stability can achieve national stability. This is what happened in Iraq. Political communities became more interested in eliminating violence in their own areas, they were allowed to mature with coalition support, their organizing institutions strengthened, and they started negotiating their relationships with the Iraqi state. Violence dropped precipitously, and relative stability was restored. This does not mean that the politics are not problematic, just that the viability of the state and integrity of the country was secured. In Iraq this took about 18 months from peak violence. We would wager a similar timeframe (plus or minus 6 months) in Afghanistan if a national effort to build local capacity is undertaken...while national reforms are pressed in Kabul (just want to be clear).

Bill C., we would agree under the assumption that the foreign power is unwanted. We do not believe that this is the majority sentiment in Afghanistan (though it quickly could arrive at that point). Afghans gave us years of political capital to bring positive change. They have every right to be skeptical about our abilities and intentions as a result. This makes our task harder. But the empirics of us helping with governance, meaningful development, and security can regenerate the goodwill we threw away. This is what we're experiencing in the field, though we don't always get it right. Indeed, our comments are directed at building Afghan capacity to achieve their economic and political objectives by relying on their own socio-political conventions.

It must be remembered that the process of elections and representative institutions are not foreign to Afghanistan. They existed even back during the monarchy. What's been lost is the mechanisms of accountability that used to undergird the system. This is why powerbrokers currently run wild and why we focusing on working with them at the expense o the population. This is what we're arguing needs to be redressed while we help Afghans eliminate the corruption in their government.

Thanks again for great comments and questions!

Dave and Jim

Bob's World

Thu, 11/04/2010 - 9:26pm


I agree completely. I do not contend that we can "install" a legitimate government; by very definition any government so installed is illegitimate.

I only contend that the development of a government that is perceived as legitimate by the majority of all segments of the Afghan populace (not just the Northern Alliance) is the Decisive Point, is the Center of Gravity, is the essential task, etc, etc, etc, to ever transitioning to some form of (relative) stability in Afghanistan.

My point is only that this should be our focus if we stay, and if we deem it impossible or are not willing to make it our focus we should leave. Ultimately "legitimacy" as important for insurgency/counterinsurgency must come from the bottom up (thus why VSO is important), and must come in a form that the people recognize. Afghans don't recognize our Western voting, and everyone knows it is a corrupted process. We need to enforce Afghan processes. This is why the Constitution is such a problem. It hides behind western constructs to abuse Afghan constructs. We need to make as our contingent precedent to any additional support, the focused effort by GIROA to develop a constitution that leverages Afghan constructs in a manner that is laced with checks and balances on governmental abuses; and that identifies and protects those rights dear to this populace. Capture the American spirit, not copy its form.

Or go home. I am an idealist in a real world. I believe the Government of America owes more to the poeple of America than it does to the people of any other land. Sometimes we forget that.

Bill C. (not verified)

Thu, 11/04/2010 - 7:09pm

A question:

If the changes WE (or any foreign entity) wish to see occur within a subject society,

If these changes are contrary to the will of the people within this society,

Then could ANY local government (actively and strongly supported by us or not; "good" or not) achieve legitimacy without -- first and foremost --

a. Strongly standing against the foreign entity that is pressing so hard for these unwanted changes and

b. Strongly standing against the changes that the foreign entity (but not the local population) desire?

Thus, "legitimacy" only being able to be achieved by honoring local -- rather than foreign -- wants, needs and desires?

"MAC" McCallister (not verified)

Thu, 11/04/2010 - 10:45am

Dear Dave and Jim...

... and you've definitely addressed issues worth discussing...

Appreciate you taking the time to converse...




Do you believe that we can fix the "legitimacy and "goodness" of the Afghan national government? If so, how? Isn't the perception of our influence over the government a leading contributor to the perception of illegitimacy? If that's the case, won't any fix proposed or implemented by us be considered illegitimate by virtue of its source?

For me the greatest example of American hubris in the last few decades lies in our assumption that we had the capacity to "install" viable governments in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan. Such assumptions, acted upon, can lead us to corners with no fully acceptable exit.

Bob's World

Thu, 11/04/2010 - 7:27am


Some stains don't wash out.

"By creating local governance structures based around existing political communities, ISAF can restore political legitimacy and relative stability in Afghanistan in a short period of time." (from your initial intro)

VSO is a great program, but it's tactical success could foster our strategic demise as other such great tactical programs have in the past. It becomes the shiny thing that is within the military's lane to do, so all eyes shift to it, leaving the decisive point unaddressed.

The decisive point is not in the Arghandab, nor in Helmand, and certainly not at Mah Ruf. The decisive point is the Illegitimacy of the Karzai government itself, and their constitution that codifies and drives the very problems that you are identifying at the local level. Work the local programs, they are a critical supporting effort, but when you see everyone staring at you don't gloat in your success, instead chastise them for taking their eye off the ball. SOF has this, be a quiet professional and get it done. Then never stop reminding the big guys of the supporting nature of your actions and keep them focused on the decisive point.

We don't need a replay of some SF Colonel returning to Afghanistan 20 years from now, long retired, and having a conversation with a former Taliban Commander. One where he says "you know, we repaired local structures and built pockets of goodness in 20 distinct communities." To which the old Talbani replys "True, but it is also irrelevant."

Start and end every sales pitch with "we are a supporting effort and fixing the legitimacy and "goodness" (not effectiveness) of the Afghan national government is the decisive point. We support that effort, but cannot create that effect from the bottom up." and your message will seem less, well, dipped in Hubris. (and better grounded in a sound understanding of insurgency and the history of efforts to counter the same).

Good Luck!


Dr. Ellis & LC… (not verified)

Wed, 11/03/2010 - 11:31pm

"degree of social-political degradation" should have been typed as "degree of degradation of social and political institutions"

Don't want anyone to misinterpret... :-)

Dr. Ellis and … (not verified)

Wed, 11/03/2010 - 10:37pm


We were surprised at the degree of social-political degradation as well. In fact, early planning never envisioned shura capacity building, but it makes sense in retrospect.

The aristocrats that served as the link between the villages and the monarchy were targeted both by the communists and the powerbrokers/Taliban. They were killed or forced to flee. The maliks (individuals chosen to interface with government) met the same fate. In many cases where we operate, the remaining elders and maliks don't live in their villages due to intimidation. The remaining villagers either don't know how to interface with government or are scared to do so.

There is another logical solution aside from taking over their institutions...bring in cultural advisors who can build village capacity. We try to do this where possible. An Afghan teaching an Afghan is the best way to go. When we use the "we" in this context, it is often short hand for using our logistics to bring in the appropriate assistance.

We will apologize for not utilizing "in many cases" or "often" in front of some of our statements. In the haste of posting, generalizations are often made. We hope you will interpret future posts to include these phrases when we convey experiences from the field.

We would also quibble about "teaching them for the last ten years..." We've been building GIRoA institutions for the last ten years, not getting out and helping the villages. That was GIRoA's job. GIRoA didn't do it. It's only been within the last 2 years that we've actually been in the villages on a persistent basis to identify many of these problems.

If you sense hubris, it's because you're imputing motives. Dave has been through far too many post-modern and development texts to not to be sensitive to this issue. Jim has been in the villages at length and has experienced the reality. We would ask that you give us a little benefit of the doubt. We're not being arrogant. We're just trying to address issues that are unexpected, yet critical to COIN implementation.

Dave and Jim

"MAC" McCallister (not verified)

Wed, 11/03/2010 - 8:20pm

Dear Dave and Jim,

Not questioning your motives... but I challenge the tone... especially the "(t)hey can't even form local institutions without outside help" comment... with exclamation mark for emphasis... If unable to form their local institutions the only logical conclusion is to assume that responsibility for them... because we've been trying to teach these "savages" how to do it right for the last ten years... Sounds arrogant to me... hence the hubris moniker.

I am all for introducing appropriate and sustainable technologies... Actually majored in Environmental Studies/Ecology w/concentration in urban planning and all that goes with it... Dumb question... fertilizers and pesticides... imported? I am familiar with the fact that many Western fertilizer and pesticide products are misused in the developing world... not to mention counterfeit and bootleg medicines (up to 15% of all medicines around the world are counterfeit... can only imagine the percentage of pesticides and fertilizers) and therefore locals require assistance (as does our ever increasing green customer base in the U.S.) in choosing and employing appropriate poisons, techniques and sustainable technologies, etc, etc...

I am a big VSO fan...


Dr. Ellis and … (not verified)

Wed, 11/03/2010 - 2:57pm

Robert and MAC,

Hubris? No. Actually, very much the opposite. Our analysis is not based on a know-it-all Westerner telling the savage how to live. We are quite surprised that you have not detected our sensitivity to Afghan culture and politics coursing throughout our paper and comments.

There are some basic facts that must be understood. In general, Afghans (1) water their wheat too much, (2) cast the seed instead of planting it (less germination=lower yield and waste), (3) do not understand how to correctly apply fertilizer and pesticide, (4) do not efficiently prune their fruit trees if at all, (5) often damage grape skins while harvesting, (6) have little knowledge about check dams or basic irrigation, (7) fail to make the most of their flocks (sheering, food products), and (8) do not know how to preserve the crops they do grow (jarring, drying, silos, etc).

This is not hyperbole. This is fact. This is not isolated. This is countrywide. And, no, this is not blinded Westerner insensitive to coping strategies.

Our recommendations for how to build family and village wealth are based on appropriate technologies for rural, subsistence farmers. For example, we suggest non-electric crop preservations technologies (see above), rudimentary manufacturing (fuel brickette presses, silos, solar ovens, etc.), and helping farmers identify markets and off-season premiums. This is not hubris. It is a realistic assessment of the types of techniques (vice technology) that Afghans can immediately employ and sustain.

The reason we have to work with powerbrokers is because they are the only social actors with wealth, power, and influence. In a dependent state, villages have no checks and balances over the powerbrokers, which means no accountability. If this situation persists, our COIN strategy will fail.

It is our contention, though, that we can change the number and range of social actors with wealth, power, and influence. Even the rudimentary techniques listed above can increase family - and therefore village - wealth. Over time, increasingly productive, market sustained technologies can be introduced to make villager labor more profitable. With greater resources, the villages can begin to restore the governance institutions that historically secured them.

We want to be clear: never do we say that powerbrokers will be irrelevant to the politics of the country. What we do say is that their relative power and influence in society can be reduced to the benefit of the villager. This will require persistent international support while families and villages coalesce institutionally, but it is certainly possible.

We accept that villages exist in a network of power relationships. We also accept that Afghanistan's zero-sum tribal politics make cooperation exceedingly difficult. However, It is possible to help villages and tribes identify common interests and to faciliate cooperation. This is empirical, not theoretical.

We completely agree that national reform is essential. Indeed, our paper argues for a DUAL COIN implementation framework that empowers the villages WHILE pressing National GIRoA reforms. Yet focusing solely on the national government does NOTHING to redress the fundamental power imbalance in Afghan society. It was not our intention to diminish the importance of National GIRoA reform. Rather, we hoped to draw attention to the fact that ignoring the village governance component is a fatal flaw in the COIN implementation framework.

We also never asserted that VSO is the answer to the conflict. At best we suggested that it is a good model for engaging villages. The key to winning the war is winning the rural areas, and we must ultimately move more forces to where the population is found. If we focus our efforts on reform in Kabul and securing the urban areas, we will have reproduced the Soviet strategy. This is not our ideal course of action.

In this lengthy message (sorry, everyone!) we hope that we have clarified our position sufficiently to warrant a retraction of the "hubris" stain.

To reiterate: Our paper argues that a COIN implementation framework focused only on National GIRoA and GIRoA reform will fail. We assert that it is ncessary to implement a DUAL COIN framework that incorporates the reform element but that also builds up more accountable and legitimate village governance capacity to buy time for national reforms to take hold. Resources must be directed to the village level to properly implement COIN in Afghanistan given the government's pervasive corruption and inability to address village needs.

As always, we appreciate the dialogue. Sincerely,
Dave and Jim

I concur with all here who complimented the authors on a great paper.

As for the follow-on discussion, I fall squarely into Mac's camp of 'realists' and believe that by definition power-brokers (malign or otherwise) cannot be excluded from the 'local political community'. On the contrary, including these individuals in that local political community is vital to establishing a FUNCTIONAL balance of power which will lend the required 'political-space' to develop effective governance (as defined by the populace, not the Int'l community). This cannot be accomplished without considering all participants - even if consideration given said named power-broker is kinetic operations.

By no means does this entail ISAF allowing the early 1990's model of governance in Afghanistan to return. What it should mean is ISAF rolling up its sleeves in order to understand the environment to correctly empower local Cdrs (not just SOF) to help establish the necessary checks and balances that are reasonable and resonate with the local political community.

This is an art not science and will vary by area. The proper scale of these efforts remains a challenge (as pointed out above by another poster). See LtCol Bill McCullough, local Nawa STABAD, and subsequent Bn Cdr's effective efforts from Jul 09 to present to empower the local political community in Nawa District, Helmand Province and the fruit it is bearing - 1 Nov Washington Post front page.….

"MAC" McCallister (not verified)

Wed, 11/03/2010 - 10:16am

Dear Dave and Jim...

This is a first for me... I am actually speechless... and therefore defer to COL Jones who has succinctly captured my sentiments in one word... hubris.


Bob's World

Wed, 11/03/2010 - 8:03am

Dave and Jim,

VSO is a great program. VSO is arguably the best program currently going in Afghanistan. By targeting villages in critical locations, with critical populaces we also achieve effects much more significant than what happens in that one small village. But:

We conducted similar great programs in Vietnam and still lost the war because we did not appreciate that the essential task was repairing legitimacy of governance at the top first. Security capacity is nice, but a supporting task. Local improvement programs are nice, but a supporting effort. Counter Guerrilla Operations (now typically call CT) were very effective in both locations as well, but again, a supporting operation. IMO, it was the failure to seriously address legitimacy at the top that drove the inevitable defeat of the US effort. The reason we never took this on in Nam are the same reasons we are not taking it on here: Because it requires the US to give up control of the outcome. It was the success of these supporting programs that we used to rationalize away the requirement to take on the main issue. Do not make that same mistake again.

VSO proponents MUST stop claiming that they have a program that is strategic and can overcome the lack of legitimacy at the top. Such statements are Hubris, but like life rings thrown to a drowning man, official desperate for success will cling to these statements to our detriment.

Similarly such statements as "The truth is, MAC, villagers don't even know how to water their wheat, prune their pomegranate trees, or pluck their grapes correctly." are Hubris. If you mean, "they don't know how to do it the way we teach it at Texas A&M," fine. I got the same brief by the same USAID agriculture officer standing on the rooftop of the District Center in the Arghandab as we looked out over the valley. This is like saying that Native Americans didn't understand forestry, or farming, or wildlife management. I guess we showed them, and now we're going to "fix" the Afghans as well?? Just make sure YOU understand why they water their wheat the way they do, or pluck their grapes the way they do, or prune (or don't prune - great concealment is found in these groves during the growing season) their pomegranate trees the way they do before you show them how we do it in Kansas.

I know you know this, but sometimes it's worth the reminder, "You aren't in Kansas anymore, Toto."

Dr. Ellis & LC… (not verified)

Wed, 11/03/2010 - 2:32am


We understand your concern. However, once you have been out to the villages and see how the majority of Afghans live in abject poverty you begin to understand how raising them above subsistence level farming can have a dramatic impact on their overall situation. They can't even form local institutions without outside help!

30 years of conflict destroyed the basic village governance, knowledge base, and justice structures that used to exist. Shuras, expert farmers and water managers, and village mediators used to be the first line of government with National GIRoA there for higher level issues. Yes, patronage was the key to the system, but the king's bureaucracy wasn't involved in every element of governance at the local level.

The biggest impediment to the villages is their state of dependence. They are so resource deprived that they must rely on GIRoA, the Taliban, or us for support. The truth is, MAC, villagers don't even know how to water their wheat, prune their pomegranate trees, or pluck their grapes correctly. They've in many cases even lost the subtle politics of holding shuras! This is something our teams see daily and are having to adjust policy as a result.

You're absolutely right that as things now stand, villages have to negotiate their relationships with powerbrokers. If we continue to play on these terms, we will lose because the powerbrokers can manipulate the tribal politics due to the dependencies and scarcity. Microsoft was nothing compared to IBM in 1980, but look how the balance of resources and influence shifted based on good planning and policy. We can change the village sitation and we must. It's not as impossible as it sounds, and it doesn't require massive development money.

Dave and Jim

"MAC" McCallister (not verified)

Tue, 11/02/2010 - 12:26pm

Dr. Ellis and LCDR Sisco,

I very much respect your work...and while I may learn in time to embrace phrases such as "building village level capacity" I presently, for the life of me, can't imagine what this enhanced village capacity would actually look like, or how once achieved, be sustained and protected without a local defense force wielding guns (and maybe a rudimentary level of tactical training)... Warlords and bandits don't need no stinking badges... they impose themselves and take what they want. God forbid that we create a security capacity... the next thing you know the locals are marching on Kabul...

Secondly, do the villagers actually rely on warlords or corrupt GIRoA for governance... or do villagers instead enter into relationships with warlords or what we consider to be corrupt GIRoa administrators based on ties of kinship or patronage-security relationships due to very real balance of power considerations... Bandits, warlords, or religious bands are not the only bad men in the valley... Villagers may seek protection from the hostility of their neighbors; or territorial challenge lest their neighbors become too powerful. I just can't bring myself to believe that the Afghans lack the "basic knowledge, resources, and skills for self-governance, making it subservient to power-brokers and subject to their predations"... I actually believe that the locals are smarter than we give them credit for, make do more with less, and are quite adapt at political and military strategery... The locals, it appears don't like to be governed by outsiders...

The realist in me just can't imagine how we are going to separate (and by default isolate) the village from its web of relationships, vendetta obligations, or patronage-security alliances so that the village might govern itself without the assistance of bandits, warlords, religious bands or government administrators. No village is an island.

... but I like your thinking...


Dr. Ellis & LC… (not verified)

Tue, 11/02/2010 - 11:25am


Sorry for the long absence. We've been working on a few papers that we hope appear here soon.

We've very much enjoyed the conversation, and thank you for the interest in the article. There's too much to address at this point, but we did want to add a bit to the discussion in the meantime.

We advocate building up village level capacity so villagers can govern themselves. This provides an alternative to relying on warloads and corrupt GIRoA for governance. Empowered villages then have ability to negotiate their relationship with GIRoA and resist the influence of Taliban Shadow Government or local malign actors.

Warlords and Taliban are able to influence the population because the villages no longer have the resources or institutional knowledge/capacity for self-governance. If we adopt programs that focus on village institutions, we can prevent warlords from dominating their areas. ISAF forces must offer the nascent village institutions to space to grow. Over time Afghan society can be re-balanced so they don't have to rely on individuals. They can look toward governing institutions.

By building up local economies with better agriculture techniques (vice technology) and rudimentary industry, we can positively change the villages' economic position. With more resources, they do not need to look to GIRoA for sustaining their security forces. They will be able to afford it themselves, much like they used to before the Soviet invasion.

There's much more and nuance, of cuorse, but we hope much of what's left out will be explained by the second paper. Thank you again for all the nice comments, and we look forward to a continued dialogue.

LtCol Adam Str… (not verified)

Tue, 11/02/2010 - 7:06am

Mac - you are correct. I am one of your former students

"MAC" McCallister (not verified)

Mon, 11/01/2010 - 1:58pm

We continue to build... because population-centric COIN and its handmaidens of modernization, political - economic development theories and notion of indirect rule upon which it is based has brand name recognition and is therefore easier to peddle in the market place of ideas than the notion that the locals have their own methods of governance. Although high sales are no proof of quality, bad ideas, like bad products, may be sold for a long time before the pol-mil-media pundit customer base recognizes its toxic contents and the product disappears from the shelf.

Adam... did we serve together in Anbar?


Adam Strickland (not verified)

Mon, 11/01/2010 - 12:31pm

Many years ago, I was taught that a government must be able to do three things:

1. Pass and enforce legislation
2. Manage the flow of resources
3. Mantain a monopoly on violence

The GIROA is not likely to be able to do ANY of these in the near future; thus, while a bottom-up COIN approach may be appropriate and may even work while NATO maitains a large force contingent in country - who do we transition these efforts to? Why build security institutions that will NEVER be able to be funded or supported by GIROA?

slapout9 (not verified)

Sun, 10/31/2010 - 1:49pm

Sorry folks for posting the you tube video here that was done by mistake, it belongs on another thread.

"MAC" McCallister (not verified)

Sun, 10/31/2010 - 1:23pm


The very same unelected governors and ANP chiefs (appointed... as have all administrators since the days of the monarchy)are unable to govern and administer without local allies. There exists no government template in Afghanistan. The governor and local administrators are charged with encouraging the good and punishing the bad. They then tailor the administration/security apparatus to fit the local condition and the population's temperament. Governors and administrators engage in coalition building and management (patronage-security networks) strategies. The line ministers, who hang on every possible USAID, PRT project exploit and apply the resources to build coalitions and to manage them... The locals (local commanders) have a choice to either join the administration's, local strongman or the Taliban's patronage-security network... The system contains within itself an inherent checks and balance mechanism. I understand that we seek to change this system... but I am just not sure that we can do so... and why should we ... moral arguments aside?

Join me on the edge... the view is magnificent... Lunatics unite, we have nothing to lose but the chains of convention... :-)


MAC" McCallister

Your idea is not so no more lunatic than having unelected, corrupt Governors and ANP cheifs currently in place. They have almost zero local support, except from their line ministers who hang on every possible USAID, PRT project they can potentially scam.

If the local Taliban commander (glad you have used local as opposed to just Taliban) has the village or district support, continues to meet certain requirements, i.e eliminate warlords and foreign insurgents as well as AQ, then that has to be better than the current situation in many districts.

Given many local Taliban are people fighting for reasons (mainly Afghan nationals dissatisfied or angry at the Afghan government for obvious reasons)and we take away that reason for them to be so frustrated they lay an IED or pick up a weapon, then isnt that a local solution for a local problem and in the end this conflict, which is really policing with random acts of violence, is going to be potentially solved by more local solutions and deals like yours.

Either that or I am a member of your lunatic fringe!

"MAC" McCallister (not verified)

Thu, 10/28/2010 - 4:23pm


IMO, survival strategies in Afghanistan are opportunistic... interesting to note that all the players in the social system accept Abdul Rashid Dostum as a side-switcher par excellence but that has not stopped any of them from allying themselves with him if the situation warrants nor will they think twice in the future. It appears that we are the only ones that just can't wrap our brains around the reality that today's local Taliban commander will be in all likelihood tomorrow's government appointed police chief.

Makes total sense to me that the Karzai administration would insist on controlling the creation and management of a robust patronage alliance network under control of the Ministry of Interior. Not sure that our facilitating/establishing patronage relationships between governmental district or provincial administrators and the locals, regardless what the program is called, undercuts the whole idea of bottom-up empowerment.

What exactly empowers the locals? The government appointed provincial or district police chief recruits the former local Taliban commander and appoints him the local police chief. Why? Because the former local Taliban commander already has a ready made following. No need to conduct these U.S. sponsored recruitment drives. The district police chief enters into a security-patronage relationship with the local security chief and pays based on the following: If he is loyal; he gets paid. If his loyalty is questionable; he is paid for services rendered. If disloyal; no payment.

This relationship has a built in checks and balances mechanism and empowers both the government and local leadership. The government must treat the locals with respect or they lose an ally and the locals must remain loyal or they don't get paid. That is why we call him a former local Taliban commander, or a former local government police chief.

Bottom-up empowerment, whether conducted by the Karzai administration or a switched on A-team is all about coalition building and coalition management.

Just some musings from the lunatic fringe :-)


Gary Thomas, VOA (not verified)

Thu, 10/28/2010 - 3:23pm

Your point is well taken. There is of course the reality of the extreme fluidity of loyalties in Afghanistan. Granted, it may be a bit of hyperbole to phrase it so, but yesterday's mujahedin is today's Taliban commander and is tomorrow's government-appointed village chief. The extreme example, of course, is Abdul Rashid Dostum. How many times has he switched sides? Moreover, Karzai nixed the Village Stabilization Program as proposed, and that it evolved into the "Afghan Local Police," under control of the Ministry of Interior, which seems to undercut the whole idea of bottom-up empowerment outlined by Dr Ellis and LCDR Sisco.

"MAC" McCallister (not verified)

Thu, 10/28/2010 - 2:26pm


The term "re-empowering" implies that local warlords, strongmen or jang salar had lost power. This leads me to ask follow up questions such as why did they lose power, how did they lose power, who stepped into the power vacuum left behind by their departure and why would we now reach out to these same warlords, strongmen, or jang salar and re-empower them?

I submit that the "re-empowering" warlordism narrative template is incorrect and does not address actual politico-military realities.


Gary Thomas, VOA (not verified)

Thu, 10/28/2010 - 1:50pm

Dr. Ellis & LCDR Sisco: Thanks for a terrific paper. As a longtime journalist Afghan hand, I find your insights refreshing and thought-provoking for my coverage.
The population is caught between malign actors on opposite sides, the GoIRA and the Taliban. But I do wonder about security empowerment at the local level. Don't programs like the new "Village Stabilization Program" risk re-empowering local warlords, thus putting a THIRD malign actor into the mix? Under this, SOF are to equip, organize, and train local militias to be then placed under the command of local police chiefs. But the police are notoriously corrupt in Afghanistan. So I ask, how, under this bottom-up COIN, do you safeguard from resurrecting yet more unpleasant and predatory forces in Afghan society? (And I'd love to talk to you guys for a story on your paper if you're willing.


Thu, 10/21/2010 - 5:28pm

Should have said that my comment is targeted at Almanach...


Thu, 10/21/2010 - 5:23pm

I think a lot of the aid NGO crowd (especially those on the frontlines) will be turned off by your straightforward use of the words Capitalism and Victory. If you are interested in short-term cunning, you might want to try the same strategy using different words (I am sure the people in charge of everyday lying in the Pentagon can supply you with alternatives). Most humans are trying to do good. Make them feel good about doing whatever you are proposing by avoiding words that trigger painful neurological circuits (true or false is not the issue) ....What you are proposing actually happens to be good for most people in Afghanistan and Pakistan...far better than a victory for the holy warriors and the hundred year war that will follow.

Speaking of funding-- the NGOs get funded mostly by agencies like USAID and CIDA. From what I have seen, those agencies are the ones setting the tone. They have long-term economic growth in mind even though Afghanistan at the moment has no knowable long-term prospects. (We should be working toward short-term political gain instead. After the war is won will be the time for long-term economic growth.) The NGOs tend to follow USAID's lead because, quite naturally, they want to keep their client happy.

USAID is funded by the State Department, but this is pure happenstance. By design, USAID is an independent agency. It seems to me that a lot of good could be done by putting USAID's funding under the DoD (at least here in Afghanistan). This would influence the culture at USAID, which would in turn influence the culture at the NGOs, which would influence how things play out on the ground. And it's the how-- the method of implementation-- that makes the difference. There are plenty of good aid ideas out there and ample resources, but it's in the implementation that we constantly fall on our faces.

As for the needs/empowerment/experts conundrum, those are all issues of implementation. As Dayuhan described, there is a lot of central planning going on around here, sincere talk of community needs and demand-driven approaches not withstanding. Central planning didn't work for the Soviet Union, and it isn't working in Afghanistan. If you ever want to figure out what a community really needs, don't ask, sell. Market forces can allocate resources more efficiently than anything else known to man. (Most people attracted to aid and development work don't think this way, for the resons Chikering described.) ADRP worked because it delivered projects important enough to communities that villages were willing to pay something-- security, in that case-- to get them.

All of our aid should be delivered in a more cunning, negotiating, "yeah, but what's in it for us?" kind of way. There are two big reasons for this. First, a thing is worth what you can get for it, and if you gave it away, then it's worth nothing, even to its recipient. Second, we're not building Afghanistan because we particularly care about Afghans, we're doing it because we want the war to end. When we come in with a "well, someone blew it up, but we'll just build it again for them anyway" kind of attitude, we might be motivated by an admirable spirit of charity, but we are not helping our cause.

We really need to get over our fear of the free market. Afghans are poor, but not so poor that they can't bargain with us. At ADRP, they traded security for aid. One model I'd like to see tried would be a scheme to deliver, say, livestock to villages in which recipients-- if they are interested-- provide labor on some community project in exchange for (and in proportion to) the livestock we give them. (This would have to be open to anyone, and they are free to do whatever they like with the livestock they earn.) The community project would be something identified by the village khan and/or malek, who also is involved in delivering the livestock. Doing it this way guarantees that livestock will go to the people able to do the most good with it while also strengthening the khan and drawing him closer to us. In this case, we have traded livestock for political stability and allegiance. (I call this model Khan-mediated aid-for-labor.)

If we had enough respect for the Afghans to demand things in return for the aid we offer, we could start getting somewhere. Capitalism won us the Cold War, it can win this one too.

Lawrence Chickering

Thu, 10/21/2010 - 2:35am

Dayuhan highlights important impediments to implementing consistent policies promoting empowerment. The philanthropic and donor financial markets rarely fund recipient priorities merely because the priorities are theirs. Donors, guided by experts, establish "guidelines" based on expert judgments of recipient *needs*. This mechanistic approach to development depreciates empowerment in favor of priorities established by foreign experts. This is the attitude that produces mountains of schools and wells and other facilities built without establishing community ownership, which facilities then, over time, fall into disrepair and disuse. Without empowerment, there is no sustainability.

This pattern is encouraged by the population of people drawn to the "helping" professions. They like helping people, and helping often does not include empowering. Also reinforcing the pattern are larger political considerations as "foreign" aid often ends up funding favored domestic political constitituencies.


Thu, 10/21/2010 - 12:15am

I agree that true empowerment requires us to allow the villages themselves to determine their own priorities and choose where they want aid to go. Mac spoke above of the potential for conflict resulting from efforts to empower one group being perceived as (or actually being) efforts to disempower another. This issue goes beyond local power structures. Empowering villages to identify and set their own priorities directly challenges the power of the aid industry, which is heavily invested in the idea that they should decide what others need.

Rather than looking at any one group, we might want to look at some of the pitfalls inherent in trying to promote development through funding NGOs, particularly single-issue NGOs. Many of these groups focus on important issues, often vital ones. The process by which they are funded, though, requires them to compete for resources with other groups. Their ability to implement their programs depends on their ability to prevail in that competition.

If we take this route, the critical decisions on the direction of development and the priorities of development are completely removed from the communities and addressed at the donor level, often by people who know absolutely nothing about the communities, their desires, or the conditions on the ground. While all of the organizations involved may stress empowerment (they have to, it is the <i>mot du jour</i> in the aid industry), this sort of donor-driven decision making is in fact the opposite of empowerment. Giving communities what we think they need - or assuming that they require activation by some outside <i>deus ex machina</i> - is not empowerment.

I confess that this:

<i>This thing will be won or lost not by the military, but by the aid and development efforts and/or the competence of the GIRoA.</i>

is not an encouraging prospect, but I suspect that it is true. Unfortunately, we may have assigned ourselves objectives in Afghanistan that require commitments we are not prepared to make, if they are achievable at all.

While I whole-heartedly agree with your basic thesis, the blueprint you put forward looks very much like what we are doing already. I work in aid and development in Kandahar. Every NGO I know of boasts about its close work with the district-level governance bodies, its emphasis on rural development, promotion of business, and the like. It isn't working.

The reason it isn't working is that the district level isn't low enough. We have to start at individual villages. The most successful program I ever saw down here was CIDA's Accelerated District Reconstruction Program, from early 2008 until about March 2009. There, they skipped the DDAs (District Development Assemblies) and went straight to the villages, talked to local residents and elders, and identified what the community thought it wanted. (The expats themselves were often the ones doing this-- not just Afghan field workers.) In exchange for the village guaranteeing security, ADRP implemented the village's favored project (some item of light infrastructure). This combination of the village's choice of project with their promise of security created a relationship that was impossible for the Taliban to exploit. 70% of ADRP's projects were in areas that were too hot for the military to enter, and the project completion rate was 100%. At risk of understatement, it was a good model. High rotation rate and lack of institutional memory has prevented it from being tried again.

A ~successful~ development project counts for a lot, because it earns credibility, and builds solid relationships with village elders. Unsuccessful projects-- and most here in the south are unsuccessful-- just make things harder for us. This thing will be won or lost not by the military, but by the aid and development efforts and/or the competence of the GIRoA. Most of the aid and development commnunity does not see it that way; they think "counterinsurgency" and "security" is just stuff for the military to worry about.

(P.S.-- Stay away from karez cleaning. Traditionally, Afghans clean the canals and karezes themselves. We are distorting the market by paying them to do it, and distorting the market, like bolstering the national government, is just moving us further from our goal.)

I look forward to your second article.

"MAC" McCallister (not verified)

Mon, 10/18/2010 - 6:03pm

Dear Lawrence,

No calls for unconditional surrender on my part. Far from it... Zero-sum is such an emotional instrument that it should be reserved for very specific instances. I've heard it said that there exists this thing called fuzzy math where 2 + 2 may not actually add up to 4. Speaking from personal experience, Iraq and Afghanistan are two places where the zero-sum instrument is unlikely to work and where 2 + 2 actually adds up to something other than 4.

Timeshare on the realist crown... all the best right back at you... :-)


Very respectfully,


Lawrence Chickering

Mon, 10/18/2010 - 4:57pm


What you suggest -- assessing the impact of civil society initiatives, including empowerment -- should be a very high priority in assessing how we are doing in Afghanistan because I suspect much of what we are doing is hurting COIN there, at enormous expense. The problem, of course, is that political constituencies form around *whatever* we are doing, good or bad; and make it hard to change.

I have an anecdote you might enjoy that relates to this conversation. The late economist Milton Friedman was one of my closest friends. He believed that public schools are terrible because bureaucrats have all the power; they behave like monopoly capitalists, and they won't share it. My response to him was: ""If they are really monopoly capitalists, why aren't they having more FUN? These are depressed people, and their depression is a public health problem that we can't talk about in the political debate." It was almost the only time I ever saw him go silent.

Are you demanding unconditional surrender on the realism issue? I am willing to go for a tie if you are agreeable. Surrendering would seem too much like a zero-sum game, and that has little to do with many parts of the world I understand.

All best, L

"MAC" McCallister (not verified)

Mon, 10/18/2010 - 3:06pm

Dear Lawrence,

Empowerment changes existing power relationships. Change brought by empowering select individuals or segments of society might be welcomed, sometimes it is not. Bottom line, a power realignment occurs. Regardless whether the power realignment is between men and women in the village or in the political arena in the capital. Allow me to research the specifics and I am pretty sure that I can make the case whether this or that CSO activities threatens this or that powerbroker or whether this or that CSO even empowers the intended or pray tell the unintended.

I very much agree that a leader DOES NOT "maximize his power only by threatening people and pointing guns at them"... Although nKorea under the Kim regime has come the closest to maximizing its power by doing just that... but then nKorea regime is more a cult than a legitimate nation-state... and its staying power seems to be in decline... is it not? I believe the more powerful leader is the one who judiciously wields the carrot and stick. You can't threaten everyone all the time without creating so much fear that someone fearing for his/her life will eventually seize the initiative and kill you first. Fear for one's own life and that of one's primary group is a powerful motivator to preempt the dictator (assassination, coup de etat, invasion)... History is replete with such examples.

You are absolutely correct. Social trust and the narrative are very important... as is perception and perception management. Please know that while I might not share your perception of the world, I encourage you in your endeavors.

Now present me with my realist crown... :-)



Lawrence Chickering

Mon, 10/18/2010 - 1:00pm

Dear Mac,

Sorry, but I am not ready to yield the realist crown to you. While almost everything you say is true, it fails to address some crucial distinctions that will determine outcomes -- e.g., whether CSO activities threaten those in power or do not, and whether they even empower people or not.

My belief that civil society can play a crucial role in COIN refers to particular activities that do, in fact, empower people. It does not refer to CSO activities that disempower people (see my article, posted October 10, "Humanizing 'The Man'"). And "empowerment" can come in different forms, all of which are important. The first, elemental form is in a shift from a preconscious, traditional self, living through roles, to a conscious self that can empathically connect with community girls and support education for them.

The second form of empowerment follows from the first. Individual consciousness then leads to social connection, which empowers people to organize and implement community projects.

It is a large subject which CSO activities will help promote both of these shifts. EGG's model does both -- the first in a single village meeting and the second over time, but very quickly. You can see the change on the men's faces in the first meeting.

Where is the realism in the belief that things can happen in these communities only when people are ordered to do them by threat of a gun? Does a leader maximize his power only by threatening people and pointing guns at them? Who is more powerful, the leader who leads by threats alone or the leader who, while holding in reserve the threat of force, creates spaces for people to do things for themselves? Disempowered people, which is what we have now, are vulnerable to recruitment by radical insurgents; empowered people, with a citizen's stake in the system, are not vulnerable to recruitment. On the contrary, they will resist and fight insurgents; and they will work cooperatively with the government, reducing (I believe) the need for corruption to get things done (again, see my article).

Mine is the more idealistic vision, but I would argue it is also the more realistic. There is no realism in the belief that possibilities are limited by what you can threaten people to do.

You say no one has resisted EGG's work in schools because the program has not "threatened directly" those in power. That is true, and that is the point -- or at least half the point. Here, however, we need a distinction: those in power will respond not if they are "threatened directly", but if they *perceive* that they are threatened directly. Here is where general issues of social trust and the narrative become important
(again, see my article "Humanizing 'The Man'", which is about reducing the perception of threat and expanding the space for empowerment).

Empowerment in my sense is not a zero-sum game: more for local communities does not necessarily mean less for the government. On the contrary, both theory and practice will tell you that many forms of local empowerment will actually *increase* the power of those in power by increasing the consent of the governed.

Of course, I know we are currently "applying the CSO concept in Afghanistan," as you say -- and it is not having much effect. I would say the reason is that we are not really applying the concept -- we are *trying* to apply it with only a crude understanding of the distinctions I mentioned at the beginning here. If you read my article, you will see why I believe many things we are currently doing are actually *disempowering* the Afghans and are playing directly into the hands of the Taliban.

"MAC" McCallister (not verified)

Mon, 10/18/2010 - 10:43am

Dear Lawrence,

I actually know a bit about civil society organizations (CSO) as instruments for "activating traditional communities so they can take control of their own lives and become actively involved in designing and implementing plans for their own self-advancement". My point is that "empowerment" is not a stand alone concept. While it is noble to seek to empower the little people no one wants to address the only truism in political life: empowerment grows out of the barrel of a gun. In other words, no tyrant, warlord, corporation, syndicalist, dictatorship of the proletariat, vanguard of the not-so-enlightened, or family dynasty (Mubarak family), or something as abstract as the State itself willingly relinquishes power. On the contrary, these social entities seek to amass ever more powers.

It is fantastic that your CSO is in more than 2,300 schools; and has not encountered resistance from a single one of them (resistance from whom?). I venture to add that the reason we have not encountered resistance is because the powers that be are not yet threatened directly. When push comes to shove who will be more ruthless to impose its vision of a more enlightened future... those in power or the newly empowered?

Whether we agree ideologically matters not (I am obviously a disciple of the realism school and you are not), suffice it to say, we are currently applying the CSO concept in Afghanistan as we did in Iraq. The village stabilization program, village security forces, sponsoring shuras and jirgas are all CSO based initiatives. These initiatives all seek to empower people; to offer a stake in the franchise/system (coalition building and management) and to organize resistance to forces that are trying to bring the system down and to tyrannize them.

Keep up the good work... :-)


Lawrence Chickering

Mon, 10/18/2010 - 4:01am


When I use the word "empowerment", I am first referring to activating traditional communities so they can take control of their own lives and become actively involved in designing and implementing plans for their own self-advancement. Empowerment is about them, not about us. But in our experience, when girls in our public meetings stand up and appeal to the men for a chance in life, and the men respond, they become free of the roles that limit the right of women and girls actively to participate in all aspects of the community's progress. I would argue that seeing people as human beings is not a "western norm"; it is a *universal norm* that emerges when people engage consciously with each other. It is our experience in every school in which we have worked in a very tribal culture. We are now in more than 2,300 schools; and we have not encountered resistance from a single one of them.

Western "civil society organizations" are effective when they work through indigenous partners. In EGG's program, the only priority we impose on communities is the priority we give to educating girls. Otherwise, everything the communities do reflects what is important to them. Since *ownership* is essential to commitment, it must be that way -- it cannot be any other way. EGG's model does not, as a matter of fact, fund *anything*: empowerment is the only incentive that becomes available from our process. So when, after a two-year program 178 schools out of 500 end up with clean water -- increasing schools with clean water from about 45% to more than 80% -- these empowered communities take all responsibility for getting whatever funding they need to build what they want, which in this case is clean water.

Regarding our ultimate goals, denying Al Qaeda is an important goal; but the role of empowerment as an instrument of COIN is to mobilize and empower citizens to do whatever they value. Empowered people, with a stake in the system, will organize to accomplish many things, including resistance to forces that are trying to bring the system down and to tyrannize them.

When we speak here of "empowerment", are we speaking of enabling Afghan communities to define their lives as they choose, in keeping with their culture and traditions? Or are we speaking of externally generated attempts to realighn local power structures to conform to western norms?

When we refer to "civil society organizations", do we refer to Afghan civil society organizations that reflect Afghan priorities or are we speaking of organizations originating from the west, funded from the west, and reflecting western priorities?

I also have to wonder how all this fits into our so far nebulously defined goals in Afghanistan. Are we there to reshape Afghan society to a form that meets our approval? To deny Al Qaeda a base of operations? Somewhere in between?

Blunt questions, but important ones I'm afraid.