Small Wars Journal

The Legitimacy Matrix

Thu, 02/02/2012 - 9:03pm

Editor's Note: Too often, we evaluate situations, problems, and people through lenses of our own culture and norms.  This mirror-imaging leads to tragic misunderstanding and dramatic miscalculations.  Brad Fultz argues for a qualitative matrix that tries to see actors through an Afghan lens.

Executive Summary: Executing COIN through altruistic lenses leads to failed policies at all levels of warfare in Afghanistan, from the tactical environment, to decisions made vis-à-vis President Karzai. Ignoring local definitions of legitimacy and failing to measure why and how legitimate actors intermix in Afghan society both isolates western forces and is counterproductive to our efforts to reinforce the current government in Kabul. The Legitimacy Matrix is an effort to develop a qualitative tool that will assist leaders in understanding the environment in which they are operating, and simplify the challenges of understanding the often mystical ‘human terrain.’   


The practice of Counterinsurgency (COIN) theory in execution leads intelligence analysts to track updated activities along so-called Lines of Operation (LOOs). Unprepared staffs and shops scurry about measuring abstract and ill-defined concepts such as governance, development, rule of law, and counter-narcotics with no local, historical, baseline to compare to.  The Obama administration has even established 45 metrics of progress in building Afghan Governance and Security.[1]  Although the efforts (and costs) are notable the results are unsurprisingly limited. The underlying cause for this failure is the inability to track the vital variable in state development, and one could effectively argue, the only important variable, which is legitimacy. The fundamental question that should be asked is if the Afghan government figures we are partnering with are legitimate power brokers in the areas we are operating in?  While Intelligence shops and SOICs (Stability Operations Information Cells) are busily analyzing governmental structures and whether full ‘tashkeels’[2] (governmental staff at the district and provincial levels) exist or not, these organizations and others should be focusing on the legitimacy of various actors within a given area of operations. Ultimate success equates to having the most legitimate actor within an area loyal to GIRoA (Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) and the Afghan Constitution. If the legitimate actor is not a supporter of GIRoA than a plan needs to be developed to how to change that reality, either through kinetic actions, or more diplomatic coercion.

Both Intel and Civil Affairs Units have used the ASCOPE (Areas, Structures, Capabilities, Organizations, People, and Events) and PMESSII (Political, Military, Economic, Social, Infrastructure, and Information) matrices to better explain and identify human terrain. Both are fine products that can assist a commander frame the environment more completely. Such products however, only provide information of peripheral importance. This article purports that another matrix should be adopted and used by units from the Company to the Regional Command level as well as Special Operations Command (SOCOM) units executing Village Stability Operations (VSO) to best identify the most legitimate local actors in various districts and provinces of Afghanistan. This spreadsheet is simply called the legitimacy matrix. For the purposes of this article we will simplify the definition of legitimacy as it pertains to Afghanistan as the ability of an individual or group of individuals to coerce, co-opt or manipulate a population to fulfill a leader’s or group of leaders’ desires.[3]  

It is overstated that Afghanistan is a complex environment that requires a deeper understanding of “wicked problems” in order to best shape and execute operations on the battlefield. Although there are many moving parts and conflicting interests in Afghanistan, grasping the human terrain of any given AO is not as difficult as it may seem to be. It is simply a matter of getting the inputs right. The key input in Afghanistan is asking the questions surrounding legitimacy of actors. Who has it? Why do they have it? How do they maintain it? What are they doing with it? Based on an individual’s use of coercive power is their relative power versus other competing legitimate actors increasing or decreasing? How are foreign forces affecting their legitimacy? The legitimacy matrix assists the analysts and the command in better understanding the roots of legitimacy in an AO, and ultimately could lead to assisting in reintegration of fighters by understanding why they are resisting GIRoA. In Afghanistan much to the chagrin of NGOs and USAID partners building girls schools, and promoting equality amongst various ethnicities is not a measure of legitimacy. However military prowess, creation of stable environments and execution of justice certainly are.

Dynamics in Afghanistan between provinces, districts, and even sub-districts (naheeas) can vary drastically. Because of this unique dynamic what is considered legitimate in Kunduz Province in the north is different from legitimacy in Helmand and why someone is legitimate in northern Helmand, will also differ greatly from central and southern Helmand Province. The legitimacy matrix identifies the key tenets of legitimacy in Afghanistan based on historical norms of behavior and not on western ideology or altruistic goodwill that has little if any local precedence. The tenets of legitimacy are crosschecked against the variables, which are the historically powerful actors in Afghan society. Some groups will be strong in some measures of legitimacy, while weak in others. Identifying legitimate actors that do not have a voice in GIRoA is likely a starting point to understanding reintegration and reconciliation.  

The legitimacy matrix is not intended to produce a final legitimacy score where groups can be matched and compared, but instead provides a word picture of each individual or group that is an influencer in local dynamics and describes why they are important. The word picture created further develops the situation for the commander as to how to best engage, counter, or co-opt each individual actor or group of actors ultimately attempting to shift local dynamics making GIRoA the primary legitimate force in each area. Below is a generic example of a sample matrix that could be applicable in many areas in Afghanistan:


How the Matrix Works: In the Vertical column the various variables of legitimacy are identified. The horizontal list on top identifies the groupings of Afghan society. Again the list provided for the purposes of this article is a generic one and can be expanded or reduced according to the specific district, province or region. Sticking with the basic tentents of Afghan society, which are tribal leadership, religious leadership and government representation is a good launch point. This list can be expanded to include various leaders of local former Mujahedeen groups, current leaders of social networks, and leaders of the various ethnicities. Additionally there will be political opponents to the current Karzai regime, as well as the Taliban shadow government. Dependent on the location of the operating unit, there will be and very well should be great flexibility in the creation of the matrix. The analyst cannot rule out Taliban leadership, narcotics traffickers and other nefarious characters as well. The truth is that many of these undesirables hold a certain degree of local popularity and support for one reason or another. The analyst must consider why, and how this has occurred.

Below is an example of how the legitimacy matrix could be filled out. Understanding that dynamics and leadership between districts and provinces varies greatly, this simplified example matrix is designed based purely on my own personal experiences in Helmand Province.

Using the Product: Each cell provides its own word picture regarding the various groups of a given area and why they are important in society and what they represent. If the above matrix was being filled out completely it would include other actors and broken down to greater detail to include leadership of individual tribes, Mullahs in specific geographic locations, those resolving disputes, trusted community leaders such as Mirabs (control irrigation) and key shopkeepers operating in the bazaar. All of these dynamics intermix with one another to paint a fuller picture allowing for the command to make informed decisions regarding CERP (Commanders Emergency Response Program) projects, ALP (Afghan Local Police) appointments, and individuals they should be coordinating through for sustainable progress. The above matrix does not provide any definitive answers, but it shows that in January of 2009 GIRoA lacked legitimacy in Marjah for understandable reasons. The Tribal elders had been weakened, religious leadership had been usurped, and the Taliban had ultimate legitimate use of force and ability to establish a secure environment. It also displays certain tribal support for the Taliban for justifiable reasons. The ultimate purpose of the matrix though should not be lost, and that is to identify legitimacy, and find ways to link powerful local actors to GIRoA. This is not a one step process, and the matrix is designed to display the complexities of an Afghan village and the competing political dynamics at work. It is not with brute force that GIRoA will gain monopoly of force and legitimacy throughout its borders; it is through the coercion of other legitimate actors and an understanding of the population. Only in this way will GIRoA be able to expand its influence into the districts peacefully.

The legitimacy matrix certainly does not tell a commander what to do, but it frames the environment more completely and intermixes history, culture, current events, and current realities together in a concise and understandable manner that is locally focused. The legitimacy matrix is an additional tool that can be used by operators conducting VSO, intelligence shops, and civil affairs units in rural areas throughout Afghanistan.   

[1] Katzman, Kenneth. “Afghanistan: Politics, Elections, and Government Performance.”  Congressional Research Service Report. 12 Dec. 2011. p. 33

[2] A Tashkeel translated from Arabic as to “give shape of form” it is the term used for a staff of government employees at both the Provincial and District level in Afghanistan. A Tashkeel will include a District Governor, Deputy, Police Chief and other representatives of the central government at the local level.

[3] Giustozzi, Antonio. Empires of Mud. Columbia Press. 2009. Although this definition is not directly given, throughout his book the role of legitimacy and rulership is referred to frequently. This is simply a quick definition taken from a study of Giustozzi’s work. This article is heavily influenced from the ideas presented in this book. Specific pages of interest include pp.12-14, pp 187-203, pp 267-278. This definition can be expanded and/or challenged, but for the purpose of this article, I find it sufficient and welcome differences of opinion.


Categories: legitimacy - COIN - Afghanistan

About the Author(s)

Brad Fultz is a Marine Major currently stationed at Marine Corps University and member of the AF/PAK Hands Program



Sun, 02/05/2012 - 6:07am


It would be interesting if an Afghan or more could complete the same matrix. Or perhaps the Kandahar pair, Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn.

Would Afghans agree with the matrix's format?

Bill C.

Wed, 02/08/2012 - 6:11pm

In reply to by Toran


The problem seems to lie in the fact that, whereas:

a. Certain populations consider as legitimate only those individuals who champion a less-modern/pro-status quo way of life. (The population which approves of the "drug lord" you note above seems to fit this bill),

b. The United States/the modern world considers to be legitimate only those individuals who eschew this less-modern/status quo position and embrace -- and actively promote instead -- the idea of modernization along western lines.

This providing that, in these instances:

a. The legitimate leader of these populations (those who desire a less modern/status quo way of life) can become the sworn enemy of the United States/the modern world. And

b. The United States/the modern world can become the sworn enemy of these populations and their leader.

Thus, "legitimacy" would seem to be in the eye of the beholder, and depend primarily on his or her position -- and his or her agenda -- regarding the issues noted above.


Sun, 02/05/2012 - 3:37am

In reply to by Bill C.

You draw a very dangerous dichotomy when you describe the problem as legitimate actors are those that are modern and western, and those that are illegitimate are "anti-modern/anti western and our sworn enemies." We need to look at the history of an area and remember that all truths are based in local context. "Modern and western supported" GIRoA is not legitimate in many parts of Afghanistan and the local drug lord is. Why? Because the drug lord while maybe moving opium to the market, he provides patronage to his local community. He is Legitimate in the eyes of those that matter, the people. There is nothing anti-modern about this, it is a natural part of state building. What has Kabul done for the people in the districts. If you are a 45 year old Afghan man living in district (xyz), do you have positive or negative recollections of the central government? This is the lens we need to view legitimacy from. Not the Afghans living in the west, or the NGO/USAID community. Newsflash: the Islamic Republic is not "Evil" to people living in Iran.

Bill C.

Mon, 02/06/2012 - 5:48pm

In reply to by Scott Kinner


We believe that the modernization/westernization of outlier states and societies is required so that these states and societies might come to adequately provide for themselves and for their populations and, thereby, come to:

a. Offer the modern world fewer problems (to include less conflict)

b. And greater usefulness/utility instead.

Thus, we believe that leaving things alone/as they are is a formula for achieving greater -- not less -- problems and more -- rather than less --confict; today and in the future.

Scott Kinner

Sat, 02/04/2012 - 12:17pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill - I would say that more fundamentally, the source of our "wicked" problem is that, as you state, we have this broad assumption that we are right, that we know best, and that our vision of perfection is correct and that our self-righteousness in its imposition is correct.

I don't think that is an assumption that will be granted readily by many, to include many in the West itself.

However, it is certainly an assumption that promises a world of continued conflict, don't you think? Certainly we don't have to fall into the void of relativism to take time to examine our motivations, perceptions, and the validity of what we "require?"

In looking at legitimacy -- as with other such things -- we must constantly be reminded of our goal; which is, to transform states and societies such that they might come to offer the modern world fewer problems and come to provide the modern world with greater usefulness/utility instead. Thus, in virtually all our endeavours, we seek to modernize, along western lines, outlier states and societies.

Herein lies the classic "wicked problem" related to our initiative: Certain states and societies -- and/or individuals, groups, etc., therein -- are unwilling and/or unable to make this transition that the western/more-modern world requires.

This is the proverbial rock and the hard place of our situation.

Thus, for a leader to have legitimacy in the eyes of those who are unwilling and/or unable to modernize -- and/or unwilling or unable to modernize along western lines -- they must prove themselves to be a/the champion of that cause (anti-modernization or anti-western modernization).

These such individuals (those who would champion an anti-modern/anti-western modernization cause and who would gain the alliegance, support and approval of their followers accordingly); these "legitimate" leaders are our -- and modern world's -- sworn enemies.

Thus, the requirement becomes: How to overcome this classic and continuing difficulty (the "legitimate" leader is the one who follows the anti-modern/anti-western dictates of his population and not the wants, needs and desires of the modern/more-western world) and achieve modernization of outlier states and societies anyway?

Herein, one gains an understanding of why the older concepts of "sovereignty," "legitimacy" and indeed "legality" have, of late, been so dramatically challenged. Today these concepts (sovereignty, legitimacy and legality) are being re-stated in an attempt to (1) accommodate the wants, needs and desires of the more-modern/more-western world and in an attempt to (2) de-legitimize the wants, needs and desires of states and societies that wish to be organized, oriented and configured along other lines.

Thus, if western modernity is made to be the ultimate sovereign, the ultimate legitimacy and the ultimate legality in the 21st Century, then sovereignty, legitimacy and legality in other forms can be seen as aberrant, subordinate or even illegal and, accordingly, can be subject to being confronted and being "overruled." This, allowing for the breach of the older versions of these concepts to achieve the goals of the newer such versions, to wit: the transformation (toward western modernity) of less-modern/less-western states and societies (for the purposes noted in my first paragraph above).

Stan Wiechnik

Fri, 02/03/2012 - 8:30am

Let me say that I like what you are trying to do. Legitimacy is a "soft" concept that many people are not comfortable with. It is your definition that I have issues with for two reasons. First, it includes external coercive force which means that what you are defining is power, not legitimacy. When a government is legitimate the population obey its directives willingly. No force is required to obtain compliance. By including coercion you create the impression that an external power can create legitimacy at the barrel of a gun. They can certainly obtain compliance this way, but not legitimacy. In that respect I agree with COL Jones' definition of legitimacy.

Second, legitimacy as a concept is not regional. There are regional variations on what a culture believes constitutes a legitimate form of government or how a person legitimately becomes a leader, but in all cases legitimacy is the willingness of the population to comply with the directives of the government without resort to coercion.

On the other hand I like the idea of trying to distinguish what the source of legitimacy is for separate parts of the population. This is where regional variation will play out. There are some generic types of legitimacy out there like traditional, charismatic, or rational/legal, but regional variations will make the tool particularly useful and could achieve what you were trying to do creating an Afghanistan specific definition of legitimacy.

One other thing. A strong leader will try to claim legitimacy from several sources. For example, a person making a claim that he is the next rightful leader may state that he is first born of the last king (Traditional/Ethnic), he is ordained by the local Cardinal (Traditional/Religious), and that he has a history of victory in battle (Charismatic/Prowess). Each one of these have varying influence on the population but combining them make him a strong candidate for the office. Of course, if the population are made up of people who feel that the Rational/Legal form of legitimacy is the one that matters all that does is make him a great candidate for the position. Until he wins an election he will not legitimately be their leader.

Good luck with the project.


Robert C. Jones

Fri, 02/03/2012 - 1:26am

"For the purposes of this article we will simplify the definition of legitimacy as it pertains to Afghanistan as the ability of an individual or group of individuals to coerce, co-opt or manipulate a population to fulfill a leader’s or group of leaders’ desires"

I am comfortable with this definition above from Antonio Giutazzi. I had an opportunity to spend some time with Antonio discussing topics such as this while serving in Kandahar. The definition I use for legitimacy for purposes of internal stability is simply "recognition in the governed of the right of someone to govern them."

I am still processing this article, but what I like about it is the recognition that "Legitimate" and "official" are not synonyms. Too often Westerners use the words as if they are. Also the apparent recognition that one cannot create legitimacy, rather one must earn it. It is a perception of the affected populace, not a fiat granted by some legal, offical body (foreign or domestic).

I would offer that any form of governance that draws its beginnings through foreign offical power rather than through locally recognized (legitimate) forms of power is saddled with a de facto presumption of illegitimacy that is very difficult to overcome. This is the problem with Regime change and "king making." What used to work reasonably well in another era is far less likely to work in the modern information age. The Constitution of Afghanistan, with the President appointing governors at all levels from his friends and family, all owing patronage to him rather than to those they serve is a form of this type of illegitimacy. Particularly when the authority of that president is so widely viewed as having an illegitimacy based in the nature of his own rise to power.

A sticky problem that I fear cannot be solved at the tactical level. But efforts like this to try, to attempt to understand, and to appreciate the importance of this concept are critical.