23 January 2010

Taliban's Shadow Government: “Community-Level” Governance

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton officially released the State Department’s “Afghanistan and Pakistan Regional Stabilization Strategy” on Thursday [read the full report here]. The NY Timesprovides a great summary of the key elements of what has been referred to by many as the “civilian surge” in Afghanistan (and Pakistan). Explaining that, “Our civilian engagement in Afghanistan and Pakistan will endure long after our combat troops come home,” the report goes on to outline several key initiatives including: 1) a civil-military agriculture redevelopment strategy; 2) efforts to improve governance at the provincial, district, and local level, where most Afghans encounter their government; 3) a bolstering of justice and rule of law programs; 3) support to Afghan-led efforts to reintegrate Taliban who renounce al-Qaeda, cease violence, and accept the constitutional system; and 4) a complementary expanded civilian presence at both the national and local levels to implement these initiatives.

While it’s encouraging to see Secretary Clinton embrace the State Department’s important role in a “whole-of-government” approach, it will be a long and extremely difficult struggle to improve governance and essential services at the community level (district/village). Ultimately, until the people of Afghanistan see their local government meeting their basic needs, their only other option will be to turn to the Taliban. It’s clear from recent reports in Afghanistan that the Taliban has the upper hand right now in terms of influencing the “key terrain” of Afghanistan – the local populace. As Clinton explains, “The Afghan government is under assault from the Taliban and struggling to provide security, jobs, and basic justice to a society devastated by 30 years of war.”

In the remainder of this post, I will discuss the greatest obstacle the US faces in its efforts to successfully implement this civil-military strategy: the Taliban’s “shadow government.” As GEN McChrystal’s Afghanistan assessment highlighted this summer, the Taliban has established a formalized “shadow government” system across the country, with Taliban shadow governors appointed in 33 of 34 provinces. The ISAF assessment provides a good summary of the roles and functions of these shadow governors in providing an alternative source to meet the people’s needs in terms of governance, essential services, and justice:

The QST [Quetta Shura Taliban] has a governing structure in Afghanistan under the rubric of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. They appoint shadow governors for most provinces, review their performance, and replace them periodically. They established a body to receive complaints against their own "officials" and to act on them. They install 'shari'a' courts to deliver swift and enforced justice in contested and controlled areas. They levy taxes and conscript fighters and laborers. They claim to provide security against a corrupt government, ISAF forces, criminality, and local power brokers. They also claim to protect Afghan and Muslim identity against foreign encroachment. In short, the QST provides major elements of governance and a national and religious narrative.”

The Times of London provides an excellent profile of what the shadow government looks like on the ground in a recent article here. Highlighting the story of a local woman, Habiba, who lives inJaghatu district, Wardak province, a short drive south of Kabul, the article tells the story of her attempt to resolve a dispute between her husband and a neighbor over water rights. Habiba traveled for hours to see Mullah Zafar Akhund, the Taliban’s shadow governor for the district.Within a matter of days, he had ruled on the dispute and sent several Taliban fighters to Habiba’s village to enforce his decision, something that the local government had been unable to accomplish for months. Another neighbor of Habiba’s summarized his similar experiences with the Taliban’s justice and governance system, explaining that, “If you complain to the Government it takes years; they ask you for bribes and you have to go to their offices every day…That’s why people choose the Taliban.” For more background and coverage of the Taliban’s shadow governance efforts, also check out this excellent story from the Washington Posthighlighting the Taliban’s shadow government in Laghman province, this article from McClatchythat discusses the increasing Taliban efforts in RC-North, and my previous post on the Taliban’s shadow government in Nuristan province.

As these articles illustrate, the greatest challenge in countering this shadow government will undoubtedly occur at the community level, particularly in the multitude of districts and villages across Afghanistan’s South and East. Clinton clearly recognizes this, stating, “The provinces and districts are where our most consequential programs will be delivered, where we must help the Afghan government provide economic opportunities that increase stability and reduce the strength of the insurgency – and where we are most visibly expanding our civilian commitment.” But will our efforts be enough? While the Taliban has an extensive network of governors, ministers, intelligence sources, and fighters to rely upon, the US currently relies primarily on our Soldiers and Marines. Clinton’s civilian surge will help by more than tripling the number of civilians on the ground to over 1000, but this still pales in comparison to the numbers that the Taliban already has in place.

So, what’s the solution? Clearly, we all agree on the need to greatly increase the number of civilian advisors at both the national and local levels. But what should they be focused on? And how can we leverage the thousands of troops stationed across the country to compliment the “civilian surge”? In his must-read article published in the most recent issue of Joint Forces Quarterly, COL Chris Kolenda offers one solution. His article, entitled “Winning Afghanistan at the Community Level,” essentially advocates the “population-centric COIN” approach outlined in FM 3-24 (and emphasized by GEN McChrystal in his recent COIN Training Guidance), but with a major focus on providing governance at the local community level. Rejecting the argument that Afghanistan is incapable of governing itself, Kolenda explains that, “The current state of weak and bad governance is at the heart of political dissatisfaction, not the existence of government itself. Although several institutions have made significant progress and many national level ministers have proven quite capable, the same is not true at the subnational levels where the government meets the people.” In Kolenda’s plan, the main effort must be to re-establish capacity at the local level to provide basic governance, requiring “mobilization at community rather than tribal levels.” This runs counter to the arguments of many (like MAJ Jim Gant in his paper “One Tribe at a Time”) who have recently advocated engagement at the tribal level as the best (and only) method for success.

Kolenda argues, correctly in my opinion, that, “The community level will be decisive – and that support is entirely up for grabs.” By focusing our efforts on community leaders (which would include a combination of local government and tribal leaders, selected based on an informed intelligence analysis of key local power brokers), we can mobilize a segment of the populace that to this point has been on the fence, essentially afraid to commit in any one direction. Kolenda highlights this sentiment with a quote from a local elder who explains, “We are robbed by our government, bombed by international forces, and beaten by the Taliban.” We must win the support of this target audience in order to tip the balance in our favor and away from the current de facto power brokers – the Taliban shadow government. In order to do this, Kolenda offers three specific recommendations to improve sub-national governance: 1) increasing the numbers of technical experts at provincial and district levels to help develop basic public administration systems while providing necessary overwatch to ensure accountability; 2) expanding the concept of official governance by incorporating traditional structures such as village and district shuras to provide an effective check and balance to district officials through programs like The National Solidarity Program Community Development Councils and District development Assemblies (similar to the bolstering of the NACs and DACs across Iraq to complement the military surge operations in 2007-2008); and 3) developing and establishing effective local dispute resolution mechanisms that can outmatch the rough justice meted out by extremists like Mullah Zafar and other Taliban shadow governors.

Clinton’s plan is a good first step and it at least mentions the importance of focusing our limited resources at the local level. However, in reality, most of the State Department’s focus is still at the national level, with very few resources being pushed down to improve governance at the district/village level and create bridges between Karzai’s government and the provincial/district government entities. In order to truly tip the scales in our favor, we need to drastically increase the number of civilian personnel deployed to Afghanistan and we must ensure that they are focused to provide effects at the critical point – the community level. If we don’t do this right, we risk missing the opportunity to exploit the improved security provided by the military surge, leaving us without an enduring system of local governance that can replace the Taliban.

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