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Inducing Cooperation: Building Governance in Afghanistan

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Inducing Cooperation: Building Governance in Afghanistan

Aaron W. Miller

Between November 2012 and February 2013, I interviewed twenty-eight commanders who served in Afghanistan from 2009-2012 at the company through brigade levels.[i]   Interviewees echoed the following: the successes of my unit are transient; there is nothing to hold together the improvements (Afghan Police, schools, local cooperation) that have been made.  Most commanders, though faced with a wide variety of environments, sought to accomplish the same goal: enabling governance.[ii]  Using my interviews as background and Afghanistan as a case study, this article captures tactics that may allow future commanders to build the basis for sustainable governance.  Through the careful use of development funds, it is possible to inducing cooperation between previously fractious groups.

Governance in Afghanistan

Governance is not government. Governance is about “problem solving, and consensus building.  It is about responsibility and accountability to the people.”[iii] Accountability is a word whose definition shifts based on the political context of the state in question.  The western use of the term - which frequently links accountability to the election of officials – is not applicable in Afghanistan.  The institutional capacity required for a peaceful transition of power via elections or even the idea that elections represent the voice of the people is questionable.  A better term in the Afghan context is legitimacy; but even this term must be understood in context.[iv]

Legitimacy in Afghanistan is based on a pre-modern convention: “those who hold the reins of power [are] legitimate if they [can] provide security and governance.”[v]  Legitimate leaders provide stability.  Maintaining stability requires leaders to worry about both the power and intentions of surrounding groups.  Viewing tribal chiefs or elders as supreme leaders, however, is potentially mistaken.   A tribal leader’s position is not necessarily permanent; it often depends on his ability to provide a steady flow of resources to tribal constituents.  The tribal leader is not always able to meet his end of the bargain, particularly when a war or a foreign intervention upsets the patterns to which he is accustomed.  The resulting instability saps the leader’s legitimacy and allows new leaders to emerge.

Groups that are horizontally aligned, such as tribes with tribes and districts with districts, vary along many dimensions of power, including social status, economic power, agricultural options and military strength.   But the relative power of groups is of particular concern to both tribal members and leaders in a violent environment like Afghanistan.  As power shifts between groups, uncertainty as to the intentions of a neighbor only increases.  The presence of U.S. forces, essentially another potential source of guns and money, further complicates the assessment of local power dynamics. 

To recap, Afghan leaders derive legitimacy from their ability to provide group members with a stable environment.  Maintaining stability requires an Afghan leader to be cognizant of, and react to, the relative power of neighboring groups; strong neighbors increase the risk of miscalculation.  Control over resources defines bases of power.  How then does one foster governance within an anarchic environment?

Inducing Cooperation or Horizontal Integration

A critical challenge commanders in Afghanistan faced was getting highly suspicious Afghan groups and leadership to work peacefully with each other.   Connecting different groups was not achieved through military fiat or even the presence of troops. It was the careful use of development funds that induced previously disconnected groups to aggregate into larger political entities. 

Horizontal integration required three operations.  First, commanders had to identify local groups and leaders; they then had to understand the relationships among different groups.  Accomplishing these first two steps allowed a commander to facilitate the creation of a (loosely) unified group that could collectively make decisions and resolve disputes without the use of violence.[vi]  The specific mechanism(s) for conflict resolution were not imposed by commanders; rather, local norms and informal institutions were allowed to operate.  The third step was the careful use of development funds to entice previously disconnected groups to cooperate.

Identifying Local Groups and Leaders:  Taliban assassination and intimidation campaigns continued throughout 2009-2012 despite tremendous targeting efforts on the part of Special Operations.  In the face of an active insurgency identifying leaders was not always easy. Commander’s resorted to less direct methods of both identifying and assessing the intentions of local leaders. 

Through census taking or meetings (often called “Shuras”), U.S. commanders were able to identify local groups.  Conducting a census consisted of going door-to-door and identifying tribal and family names.  Shuras between Afghans and Americans also served as a means of identifying local groups.  But the picture of local groups captured through a census often failed to define the hierarchy of various groups inside a village or region.  By observing social interactions between Afghans, a commander could begin to identify local leaders.  One interviewee discussed how, by watching the Shura proceeded - who talked, where people sat, who villagers listened to etc. – he could slowly put together a picture of the village hierarchy. 

While seating arrangements often defined the pecking order of an area, not everyone in a meeting was the head of his family or tribe.  Given security concerns, elders often sent younger men in their stead, giving the family in question deniability should local insurgents visit in the night.  Thus it was the combination of multiple approaches – a census plus shura observations – that allowed commanders to formulate a more accurate picture of group dynamics within a particular geographic area. 

Assessing Leaders:  Properly assessing local leadership – determining who might be viewed as legitimate - was one of the most important tasks a commander could take in promoting the long-term stability of a village or region.  Popular discontent over corruption and the perception that Americans supported corrupt leaders frequently created a fractured environment that allowed for the continuation of any insurgency. 

Identifying and assessing leaders required intimate knowledge of the local human terrain and a little ingenuity.  One commander I interviewed, knowing that a series of irrigation canals were broken during several previous operations, would take self-identified “leaders” on a canal assessment and ask, “where should this canal flow?”  Using overhead imagery from before the operation, the commander was able to compare answers to the ground truth.  The commander could assess tribal dynamics based on the “leader’s” efforts to include/exclude different tribes from the benefits of a repaired canal.  But carefully assessing leaders required time and patience.  When a commander enters a new region, there is almost always a single leader promising to identify or fight the Taliban, start a police force, or end opium cultivation.  This individual is often a danger, looking to strengthen his own group with little consideration for other actors.  Reinforcing opportunistic individuals damned U.S. attempts at generating stability – smart commanders were skeptical of easy promises.

Connecting Groups: Just because a commander identified leaders does not mean that the Afghan powerbroker(s) were willing to work with coalition forces or even coordinate with other locals.  To connect groups, commanders sought to shift local power balances, strengthen some groups over others.  Providing aid to certain groups over others called into question the legitimacy of leaders without access to American resources.  While some leaders resorted to violence in the face of decreasing power and limited internal resources to offset the new dynamic, many Afghan leaders sought to redress this imbalance with outside assistance.   An enterprising U.S. commander then positioned himself as an easily accessible source of resources.  Coupling access to resources with certain norms of behavior allowed local methods of governance to slowly grow.  But this approach could also have negative consequences for local stability.  

The use of development funds or other sources of aid could prove just as ineffective as the imprecise use of combat power.  Too much aid, or aid injected too quickly, created a power imbalance in a zero-sum environment, forcing weakened groups to seek to redress the power imbalance immediately.  In time-constrained, uncertain environments like Afghanistan, violence is often viewed as the only recourse. There are indications that providing weapons – a la the Afghan Local Police – creates more problems than benefits.   When the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne tried to start Afghan Local Police Programs, some tribes were reluctant for fear of causing local conflict to breakout.  Injecting money or weapons- changing the power dynamic in the area - alters a conflict.  Operating in an environment characterized by uncertainty then requires that the the shift in power be obvious, but not immediately threatening to local groups.  The tempo and the conditions under which aid was distributed proved crucial to inducing cooperation. 

Shifts in the local power structures brought on by aid frequently prompted excluded leaders to approach U.S. commanders.  Requests for assistance were always accepted, so long as the group in question invited the commander to visit – implicit in the invite is a security guarantee for American forces.  Commanders also started weekly meetings for the local elders.  By making these meetings the access point for resources, more and more local leaders were drawn in.  Using this method, several commanders were successfully able to expand their areas of influence beyond the geographic area they could project force into, without the addition of more American or Afghan soldiers.  More importantly, it was these meetings where the foundations for sustainable governance started to form. 

There is no satisfying answer to the question: “how much is the right amount of development aid?”  It depends.  But some of the commanders I interviewed, after spending time understanding the local dynamics of their region, felt they were able to avoid the dangers of injecting too much aid, and lay the foundations for local governance.  A more definitive answer seems to lie in the type of aid provided.  Lethal assistance – weapons – created an environment in which excluded groups had little ability or time to react.  Excluded leaders sought the quickest method for resolving the power imbalance – which often included working more closely with the Taliban. 

In sum, creating local power imbalances presented an opportunity for commanders to bring tribes into alignment with U.S. objectives and create a stable environment.  Interestingly, security was not necessarily a prerequisite for creating connections.  The strength of the tribes being connected was often sufficient to keep out the Taliban, though this phenomenon was mostly isolated to the mountainous regions of Afghanistan.  U.S. commanders using this approach to building governance acted both as a source of aid and as a neutral third party that removed tribal concerns over being cut off from the distribution of aid. 


Attracting local leaders through the use of development funds provides a viable method for bringing local Afghan leaders together and starting the process of building governance.  But this approach also presented commanders with a dilemma.  The weak bonds of induced cooperation required resources.  More problematically, the creation of an American warlord fails to guarantee any sort of long term stability.  The final phase in creating sustainable local governance then is tying local tribal structures to the Afghan Government at the district level and phasing out American support.  But this third and final piece of building sustainable governance rests on a questionable assumption: the capacity of the central Afghan government to support and maintain such ties.

The previous Afghan administration “[operated] on a highly centralized patronage model in which power and resources were channeled through Hamid Karzai… [and invited] corruption, rent-seeking, and a hemorrhaging of domestic legitimacy.”[vii]  Even with the change in Afghanistan’s government, there is no reason to assume that the underlying incentive structures and power-brokers have shifted significantly.  Even if he wished to do so, President Ghani cannot necessarily operate differently than former President Karzai.  The facade of government is actually the refuge of weak governments: looking like a democracy with all of the associated institutions is necessary for the Afghan government to continue receiving international support.  Failure to maintain international support will destroy the already questionable legitimacy of a weak government.

This paper captures a number of tactics used by commanders to build governance at the local level in Afghanistan.  But governance in Afghanistan decreases as an observer moves towards the national level.  The weakness of the central state is a problem not only in Afghanistan but in all all politically fragile states.   It is possible that the practice of inducing cooperation can be applied to larger groups of political actors. Over time, the repetition of this technique may allow for the generation of stable political systems inside previously anarchic states.  While the final disposition of Afghanistan is questionable, the lessons learned by commanders are applicable to future operations in politically fragile states. This paper captures one approach to building governance: inducing cooperation.

End Notes

[i] These interviews were initially conducted as part of my Master’s Thesis looking at the implementation of strategy in Afghanistan from 2009 – 2012. Interviewees spoke on the condition of anonymity and will be used primarily as background.  The tactics discussed in this paper are an agglomeration of efforts.  Several commanders actively sought to induce cooperation by the means discussed in this paper while several other commanders identified this pattern of behavior in their respective areas of operation.

[ii] Not everyone interviewed would agree that governance was a common objective in Afghanistan – a common refrain is that the military should not be in the habit of state-building. Two commanders out of the 28 interviewed believed the military needed to focus more on direct-action type missions.   

[iii] Kolenda, Christopher D., The Counterinsurgency Challenge: A Parable of Leadership and Decision-making in Modern Conflict (Stackpole Books, 2012), pg. 33.

[iv] This is not to say that accountability and responsibility to the people is not important, but there are foundational steps that must be taken before these terms can be realized in the western sense.

[v] Thomas Barfield, Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2012), 341.

[vi] While efforts to connect groups could focus on connecting tribes, it was not uncommon for significant fissures to exist between families inside the same tribe. 

There is an old Somali proverb: “Somalia against the world. My clan against Somalia. My family against my clan. My brother and me against my family. Me against my brother.”  After 30 years of war, this view also exists in Afghanistan. 

“Front of the Book,” August 5, 2011, VICE News.  Accessed May 5, 2015. Available at .

[vii] “Governance in Afghanistan | Center for American Progress.” Accessed May 7, 2013. Available at .


About the Author(s)

Major Aaron W. Miller is a graduate of The United States Military Academy and was commissioned as an officer in the Infantry in 2004.  He has been stationed at Fort Lewis, Washington, and at Fort Carson, Colorado. Aaron has served in both Iraq (2007-2008) and Afghanistan (2009-2010); jobs while deployed include Platoon Leader, Executive Officer, Brigade Planner and Company Commander.  Aaron completed his Masters in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School in 2013 and currently teaches Winning the Peace – a class on state building - and Critical Thought at the United States Military Academy.


I have offered this item before, but it seems appropriate for consideration here also.

It is an article written in 1962 by Colonel (U.S. Army Reserve) Slavko N. Bjelajac who, at the bottom of the article, is said to be an expert on unconventional warfare and, as such, is said to have lectured on unconventional warfare at the Special Warfare Center and the National War College.

What I found most interesting is the following excerpt, at Page 79 of the article, which discusses the differences between the communist and our approaches:

"Communists, although champions of materialism, have succeeded in perfecting a method of exploiting human factors, which they regard as being of primary importance. On the other hand, the Free World, inherently less materialistic, tends to think and act more in terms of the material elements of a given situation, and less out of consideration of human factors."

(The "human factor" here being understood to be the item that addresses an individuals spiritual or ideological needs?)

This passage seems to suggest that our approach to achieving and maintaining power, influence, control -- and/or effective governance -- is based on the provision of a more-fleeting (and/or more difficult to constantly/continually provide?) inducement, to wit: material inducements such as development funds; which must be constantly/continually provided by the foreign power, so that things might continue to go its way.

While our enemies approach to achieving and maintaining power, influence, control -- and/or effective governance -- is based entirely on an effort designed at providing for a populations "spiritual"/"human"/"ideological" needs. These being much more easy for a foreign -- or indigenous -- power to address and provide on a continuing basis.

Although COL Bjelajac in his article here was addressing our old enemies (the communists) approach (vis-a-vis our own) re: gaining and maintaining power, influence, control and long-term effective governance, might the same difference still be seen today in how "we" and "they" attack these matters?

If so, then question becomes: Why have we not moved to the provision of "human" rather than "material" inducements; this, given the fact that human inducements appear to be so much more effective, so much more enduring and so much easier to maintain once the foreign power wishes to leave/goes home?

Is the "hard truth" answer to this question the fact that, in certain populations, our "human"/"spiritual"/"ideological" concepts are so much more different -- and therefore so much less attractive -- than that which is being offered by our opponents -- both yesterday and today?

This explaining why -- re: our engagements even today -- we have had to resort, once again, to such "second-class" inducements as those of a material nature? (Which, as we have noted, one must continue to provide long after one is gone?)