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When Governance is individuals: “..one heart attack away from a really big problem”


Niels Klingenberg Vistisen, Cand. Mag. and Major, Danish Army.

This article is based upon my experience as the Chief Governance planner of Regional Command Southwest, in the fall of 2010, at a time when Governance in the Helmand province of Afghanistan was still at a fragile state, and where the international surge was at its peak, just in the aftermath of Operation Moshtarak, the airborne invasion of Marjah, the insurgent stronghold in central Helmand. Governance, as explained below, was one of the three key lines of operation in the counterinsurgency campaign, alongside Development and Security. I was also triggered by the Rajiv Chandrasekaran article in the Washington Post from 12th December 2010 “Afghan strategy´s proving ground”,1 concerning the Helmand district of Nawah-ye Barakzai. The article captures several key aspects of the nature of what we are trying to do and some of the key challenges, possibly without Rajiv Chandrasekaran understanding just how key some of his points are. Overall, Rajiv describes the immense impact of an influx of US Marines into a district, and how they succeed in many of the things the counter-insurgency tactics describe, indeed to such an extent that it was a model case for General Petraeus to prove the COIN concept. The necessity to prove the concept comes after some mistrust in the actual capability to win the war, even at the tactical level. Rajiv elaborates to describe the governors role in the fight, and dwells on his health, stating they are “one heart attack away from a really big problem” qouting one of the advisors from the US Marine Corps – the Marines. I recommend reading the article from the Washington Post before continuing to read this article, to get adequate background and understand my points about the reliance on individuals. This, in essence, is the governance problem and challenge of the current way counterinsurgency is conducted in Afghanistan, and perhaps in particular in the rural and dangerous areas like Helmand. Nawa-ye Barakzai district is but one example where this is the case, and the real risk of this is not even adequately described in Rajiv Chandrasekarans article about that district with its governor of flailing health.

The importance of governance in Afghanistan and its historical context

When the whole counter-insurgency campaign and tactics build on Governance, Development and Security, it is probably less implicit how important and vital governance really is in this equation, and how multifaceted it is in Afghanistan, given the specific political history and culture of most provinces. Nonwithstanding the importance of governance and development in the various counterinsurgency manuals, the realization of both the lack of and the importance of governance and development only came as part of the strategic reviews of Afghanistan conducted in 2008 and 2009.2 This in turn resulted in the surge of troops to Afghanistan. The value of this surge, is exactly what General Petraeus is trying to prove in his briefings about Nawa-Ye Barakzai. It will be my statement that bad governance can lose us the struggle against the Taliban/Criminal insurgency, but only real economic development can permanently win it, good governance cannot. That bad governance can lose us the struggle, is sufficient reason to devote the energy and face the risks outlined in this article. Governance is the actual political and administrative leadership of the population, the interaction interphase, where the Government of The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, abbreviated GIRoA, meets the local afghan, out in the village. Programs such as the “district development program” focuses on the district level in Afghanistan, particularly because it is the level where the afghan meets GIRoA, never encountering directly the strong Kabul based central government. This is particularly true in remote areas such as the southwestern provinces of Helmand and Nimruz, where there is little tradition for a strong link to the central government in Kabul. Corrupt governance in Afghanistan was a primary reason for the popular support to the Taliban alternative in the early 1990s. Without the financial support of the Soviet Union, Kabul did not have sufficient funds to adequately pay the local governance structures, who in turn turned corrupt to an extent that alienated the local population to invite Taliban in as an alternative. Although corruption is an accepted part of Afghan culture, there are limits. There is a distinction between acceptable corruption and predatory corruption, which we shall dwell on later.

The current state of governance in Helmand

All districts in Helmand, a total of thirteen, had a district governor by the end of 2010, but besides that, the actual depth of the official GIRoA at district level varied immensely across the province. By the end of 2010 governance was categorized “emerging” many places in Helmand. This was the colour coding and short description used in the internal ISAF reports about the status of governance, falling in between categories “at risk” and ????. The measure for this was a combination of the fill rate of the tashkiel in the districts, that is how many of the official positions were filled, and the quality of the key leaders in a district. The key leaders were defined as the district governor, the district chief of police (DCoP: Afghan National/Uniformed Police) and the chief of the National Directorate of Security (NDS). These three positions were deemed vital to the success of a district, and effort was put into ensuring the quality of the individuals in these positions as well as that they were filled. These three positions were the real face of GIRoA at the district level, and a lot of pressure was put on these individuals, and filling the positions. This was adequately described in the Washington Post article, focusing on the responsibilities of the District Governor, and how the US Marines interacted with him. Having such a strong focus on the top three individuals in a district did not mean that the rest of the civil administration, the secretaries, the line directors for the departments of education, health, power, infrastructure etc. were forgotten. A district government structure, tashkiel, is much more than just the top three, and the top three are only the leaders. Below them, to run the administration, are the civil servants, which hardly feature in the article in the Washington Post. This also points to the big challenge of governance in Helmand, the overreliance on a few good individuals, making governance fragile and at risk to assassinations and accidents, and also more prone to corruption and abuse of power. Filling the tashkiel at the district level is difficult, facing several challenges. Applicants for some of the positions are sometimes as scarce as hens teeth. Many Afghans shy away from applying, because of the danger involved, both from non-targeted threats such as IEDs, and more direct insurgent targeting of GIRoA officials. Besides, for many of the jobs, such as judges, prosecutors, health officials etc. there are in reality no applicants with proper qualifications in Helmand. People with such skills are primarily staying in Kabul or other bigger cities, where it is safer and where they can earn more. In addition, because the afghan official financial system hardly works, many officials at the district level would not be paid for months, being promised “your wages, including back pay will arrive soon”, only to be disappointed again and again. Many of the officials actually filling the positions actually live in the provincial capital of Lashka Gah, where it is safer and electricity etc. is fairly stable, only rarely travelling out to the actual district where they hold a position. This leaves the actual tashkiel fill sometimes a false echo, because some of the people are not actually out in the district, performing work, although the position is listed as filled. All together this situation has serious impact on actual GIRoA responsibility and delivery of services and responsiveness to the local population. This effectively adds pressure to the top individuals in the district, including and specifically the district governor, making governance more individual than desirable, hinging on a few key individuals. Essentially, this is the problem stated in this article, and one of the key points of Chandrasekarans article; that Nawa-Ye Barakzai district is “one heart attack away from a really big problem”.

Nawa and the lessons to learn

Although the progress of Nawa described in the article is impressive and follows the counter-insurgency manuals and design, the basis of it should raise concerns, particularly the overreliance on individuals. It becomes clear that everything is done to support the district governor, Abdul Manaf, and that the governor himself is quite aware of the support he can gain from the ISAF forces, both on terms of security, development and as small things as medical treatment and access to the marine base right next to his office. Although there is no real alternative to supporting the district governor, it must not reach an extent where the biggest worry about government, according to the article, is actually the health of the governor. Then, government have become so reliant on individuals, that is almost becomes detrimental to the effort of building effective and responsive governance. This must also be viewed over time, to create a sustainable end state. Even if the immediate effect is drastically increased security and success in Nawa, this must be turned to a lasting and resilient condition, lest the ISAF forces have to stay forever. Overreliance on, and focused engagement with the key individuals is also factor of the lack of actual government structures, the civil servants described above. The fact that the Marines have to provide accommodation to the line ministry representatives in Nawa, suggests the unsustainable nature of the presence of these in the district. Given the recent history of government corruption and ineffectiveness, the approach of building on individuals and using money and projects to create support for these individuals, also creates the opportunity for corruption. With money and the power of individuals come the temptation, and without a structure, the symbolic value of one previously good individual turned corrupt becomes immense. Corruption is a way of life and business in Afghanistan, perhaps particularly in the south, but as Chandrasekaran describes, there are limits. The excess government corruption under the previous provincial governor Sher Mohammed Akhundzada actually became so predatory that the population turned against the government and invited in the insurgents. Apparently, criminal behavior is growing in Nawa-Ye Barakzai, perhaps as a result of the influx of money and the opportunity of corruption. Money may buy immediate support for the governor, but may also lead to the corruption and crime that may eventually invite back in the Taliban, once the Marines leave the district. The story of Nawa, with regards to the general success in counter-insurgency, is not unique. Although Governor Manaf and Rajiv Chandrasekaran questions the applicability of the Nawa experience to other districts throughout Afghanistan, it is clear that some of the counter-insurgency tactics work. Cash for work, as in Nawa, succeeds in hiring more than 16.000 men for short-term manual labour, pushing out the Taliban and reducing their recruitment base. This is applicable elsewhere as well, and used in national programs, and with American commanders emergency response program (CERP) funding. However, the overreliance on individuals and the difficulties of attracting professionals for the government offices is also a common feature across districts. Many districts face similar success and conditions as Nawa. Perhaps, the contrast of increased security over a short period of time is not as visible or stark, but otherwise the districts face similar progress and challenges. In many places the top three officials positions are filled, in much the same way as in Nawa, but with the same challenges. That, perhaps, the DG and DCoP may work well with the ISAF forces, but may also embody some of the inherent trends of corruption, something which may not readily be visible to the international forces working with them. One particular chief of police from a district was liked by the Marines for viciously fighting Taliban and handing over captives, but at the same time being so brutal and corrupt that the population feared him more than they feared the Taliban. Under such an individual, directly supported by ISAF, it is almost impossible to build a functioning and non-corrupt police force or government body in a district, achieving the resilience against insurgency once ISAF is gone. In this light, Nawa can easily become a model case for the counter-insurgency across Afghanistan, but in a different context than General Petraeus used it in power point slide presentations by end 2010. It can be the proof that on short term tactical level, the reliance on individuals, DGs and DCoPs and others, combined with expensive cash for work for unemployed afghans, influx of western money and ISAF supported security, does work. It does push out the insurgency and establishes trust in legitimate Afghan government. However, it can immediately thereafter become a model case for how this short term tactic spells unsustainable progress and long term failure, particularly because of the lack of depth and resilience of local Afghan government structures, potentially resulting on corruption and collapse. The overreliance on the individual in the method becomes a long term drawback and presents serious risks. These risks are already identified on the ground, when an adviser can say: “we are one heart attack away from a really big problem”.

The reign of Gulab Mangal in Helmand

The provincial level government in Helmand is hardly any better than the district level, although provincial governor Gulab Mangal is described by many as the best governor in Afghanistan. He has himself wanted a new position for some time, and he is no favourite of president Karzai. Karzai is friendly with former Helmand governor, criminal and powerbroker Sher Mohammad Akhundzada, and would like to replace Mangal as soon as possible. The international community, ISAF, holds its hands under Mangal, putting pressure on Karzai to keep him in place, because he has proved effective, is not overtly corrupt, and is working well with the internationals in Helmand. Mangal is our man, not the afghans´, and another individual that a lot hinges on. Mangal is perhaps a powerful and good provincial governor, but also just one man in what should be a large provincial administration. If Mangal would be replaced by a corrupt provincial governor, the administration would not be able to continue its current line, but would deteriorate into corruption and ineffectiveness. This is also part of the political culture in Afghanistan and particularly in Helmand, where government have never been strong or assertive, and never actually delivering much, but often at the forefront of corrupt activity. One strong criminal or corrupt powerbroker can soon ruin the good work of one good individual, such as Manaf or Mangal, and again turn the population against GIRoA and into the arms of the insurgency. Particularly with the lack of appropriate funding and wages, the temptation for a GIRoA official to supplement his delayed wages with corruption is understandable. When government often consist of a just handful of people, corruption quickly becomes visible to everyone, both for the people, but also for the ISAF community, and the legitimacy for GIRoA becomes severely damaged. Governance, and GIRoA, becomes individuals, not an institution, and extremely susceptible to the failure or removal of a very few individuals, with a disproportionate effect on the entire mission in a province like Helmand.

Community councils and local governance bodies and structures

To interact with these few individuals in the local governments, the district community councils have been established, consisting of up to 45 elders and women of district, elected by peers, and to some extent representative in terms of geography, tribal affiliations and more. It is important to grasp, that these councils are established as part of the District Delivery Program Chandrasekaran is describing as “a British program”, which still haven’t provided on budget funding to the normal district level business. The District Delivery Program, however, is adopted at the NATO/US cornerstone of the operational design for the campaign, and not a solely British program. It is however, not actually providing any funding through afghan channels. The community councils are most likely also representative of the insurgents, Taleban, criminals, businessmen, and more, perhaps the only way you can get all represented at one time. The District community councils have been given a direct role in local governance, as they are a big part of the district delivery program, proposing and identifying projects the people wants and needs, to go into the planning for the district government to deliver. In this case, the process of identifying, discussing and prioritizing the projects, is as important as the actual delivery of the projects, as the main goal is to tie the local government to the people, and the vehicle is this district community council. Here, the lack of actual government capacity becomes a direct inhibitor for delivery. The reliance on individuals described above, does not actually put in place the structure of officials to handle the funding stream to pay for these identified projects. It is important to recognize, that the community councils are not actually part of the local government, or GIRoA, but serves a function to connect the government to the population. The establishment of these more or less fully elected bodies, like the District Community Councils, to some extent also functions as a filter between GIRoA and the people, establishing something which is not fully culturally afghan. In the daily business by ISAF and the PRT, the community council provides an opportunity to engage with the wider group of elders, thus in one way expanding our interaction beyond the individuals in government, but it may very well at the same time in fact divert our attention and efforts away from the proper district level administration, the civil servants in the tashkiel.

How to change it?

Realizing that this overreliance on individuals is a problem for both sustainability and thus also for our mission, easily incurring setbacks, the question arises of how to change what we are doing, to avoid and overcome the problem. Positive and skilled individuals are a necessity as a starting point and an inroad to allow the building of resilient and enduring institutions, yet realizing some individuals often are the biggest blockage for this to happen. What we must not allow ourselves, when building governance on the ground in a district, is to succumb to the lure of immediate effect, of unrealistic timelines, and the consent winning activity cycle, which almost always impairs our view of individuals. This is no easy fix, particularly not when the life of young ISAF soldiers is on the line. It is a planning task for ISAF and stabilization advisors, to realize the possible change of strategy, from a reliance on an individual, to start forcing the afghan process to work. This would actually often mean actively deciding not to do something, which either seems natural or is directly asked for by the Afghans, and something which could result in consent winning, at least towards ISAF. There is no checklist to achieve the aim of building institutions, but it requires an in depth understanding of the process gains contra the products delivered. What we must be certain on is not to aggravate the problem set further by over empowering individuals, to the point where one heart attack would be a major setback, as with Abdul Manaf in Nawah-Ye Barakzai. Furthermore, we should be careful not to establish further bodies and institutions such as the district community council, or the district delivery program. Projects, such as the solar lights in Nawah-Ye Barakzai must be carefully applied, and the extremely short term effect of such coalition force projects have been well documented in other studies. There has to be a focus on the real problem in Afghanistan, the corruptness of the local governance as the real reason for support to the insurgency, and always to refer back to this original problem. This will substantially prevent us from focusing on various symptoms and the wrong projects. Most of what we do, will in one way or another prevent legitimate afghan structures from doing it, thus de facto undermining them, and hurting the real cause: building a legitimate GIRoA to counter insurgency. In sum, there is no easy solution, and it must be dealt with in the fundamentals of our approach, at all levels. There is nothing wrong with the concept of counter-insurgency, but in the execution and implementation of it at the lowest levels. The long term approach must be thought out and respected, in the initial stages of stabilization, when the consent winning activities and huge support to a district governor, to a small community and the building of a community council appears as good ideas. We must think two steps ahead and respect existing structures and informal bodies. Thus we must already from day one avoid aggravating the problem and carefully work with the positive individuals we still need to make the inroads and who will allow us, as soon as possible, to start building the institutions and the resilience in structures, against changing individuals, corruption and insurgency.

The perception of governance today – risks and challenges

While pointing to the problems of governance, and highlighting how we bet on a few individuals in each district, there are few answers to what the international community should or could do differently. There are also limitations in ISAF and PRT capacity to build these structures, as well as the bottleneck of few qualified Afghan officials to hire into this structure we would like to build. However, no matter the challenges and risks, we have to avoid building a to fragile structure, realizing that sometimes it may be worse in the long run, than not building anything at all – or at least building less. Speed and results must be overruled by sustainability and resilience in government structures. Perhaps, the delivery in Nawa-Ye Barakzai is sufficient, for Afghan standards, and more energy should be devoted away from Governor Manaf and the looming risk of a heart attack being a major setback – towards forcing Manaf to use his government structure, and using the structure there is, no matter how ineffective it is. It is what is there, in Helmand, Afghanistan. At the end of this article, where I have attempted to point at the risk of overreliance on individuals, I will use the summary of my hand over notes to my successor, from December 2010, when I left the function as Chief Governance Planner. This should sum up my position and concerns. The state of governance right now in Helmand, is capable, delivering but fragile. We have an overreliance on good individuals, like the provincial government is synonymous with Mangal, and it can backfire. It makes districts vulnerable to assassinations etc. We must build on institutions, and focus on the top three – DG, DCoP and NDS chief, ensuring they are all capable and function as a team. We must look for trends across districts, for example the poor state of barely effective DCoP’s across several districts, and see the trend. We must engage the provincial political level to engage on these characters. District community councils have proved that they work. But, as they become our center of Gravity, the insurgents will target them, and intimidate people not to participate. Protect the people who stand up for the legitimate government. This is more important than killing insurgents. To build the capacity in the institutions as mentioned above, it is vital to use all security operations, coalition as well as combined and Afghan, and all development projects, under local Afghan leadership – that is, full partnering. We must sacrifice operations tempo, to develop our partners. Ensure that all development projects are cases of learning for the district governments line ministry representatives etc., and ensure they are nested with the District Development Plan developed by the District community Councils and the District government. Coordination, cooperation and patience are the big challenges for governance and the COIN fight.

Helmand, December 2010


1 Washington Post, 12. December 2010: “

2 ”Obamas wars”, Bob Woodward, Simon and Schuster, New York 2010.