Governance in Southern Afghanistan

In the current debate over a comprehensive civil-military approach to the population-centric counter-insurgency strategy conducted by the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan one key argument stands out: At the operational level sub-national ‘governance’ is the centre of gravity of the campaign.

Foto: Danske og afghanske soldater på patrulje

Only the presence of sufficiently legitimate government structures at the sub-national level in the districts of Afghanistan that are able to deliver a minimum of political and social services can lead the population to prefer the authority of the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) to insurgent alternatives. Accepting this argument should further lead us to accept and adopt a doctrine of what could be called ‘Governance Led Operations’ rather than continuing to conduct ‘Security Led Operations’, which is currently the case. Understanding what this is and what it entails is of pivotal importance not only to conducting the campaign in Afghanistan. It is also important to understanding the link between the strategy syllabus and operational level military theory at any staff college. It is required to understand how a comprehensive civil-military approach can be implemented into integrated civil-military planning at the operational level if we are to succeed in moving the ‘comprehensive approach’ from a  predominantly rhetorical notion backed up by insufficient resources and political will  to a joint civil-military planning tool as a standard ‘modus operandi’.[2]

From 1951 the United States of America funded and carried out a vast nation-building project in Southern Afghanistan. The most notable symbol of the achievements in this project that aimed to transform the Helmand River valley into a modern, western type society was the construction of the capital town of Helmand. The town that came up within ten years from scratch as a model town had paved streets lined with trees, white-stucco homes behind the tree line, a high school, a community pool open to children of both sexes and plans for a university. The Americans called the town Lashkar Gah – the Afghans called it ‘Little America’![3]

The project was a success in terms of physical delivery of infrastructure such as schools, plumbing, sewage, roads, court houses, even cutting out a large chunk of desert for farm land irrigated by canals in Nawa, Marjah and Nad e Ali. It was, however, a disaster as a sustainable development project. All construction work was carried out by American companies and American engineers, which meant that when they left from the late sixties onwards they took with them all construction and maintenance capacity. It was so obviously a result of a faulty focus. Focus was not on building local Afghan capacity and local ownership of the project, but rather on producing visible outputs of the project that could immediately be accredited to the programme managers. The philosophy was that once people saw the outputs that the infrastructure of modern society could deliver, they would cherish it and would feel encouraged to maintain and further develop it.

Almost sixty years later, in March 2010 the District Delivery Program was conceived by the US Embassy in Kabul and advisers to the Afghan Government’s Independent Directorate for Local Governance. The aim with the program is to ensure basic service delivery in up to 80 local districts throughout Afghanistan so as to serve as a stabilising instrument that would create long term sustainable development effects such as self-sustained social and political authorities producing social and political deliveries demanded by the local populace. The problem, however, remains exactly the same as sixty years ago: Focus is on producing military security effects to allow governance outputs to be delivered, such as notional governmental authority and apparent rule of law structures without considering sustainability and local ownership through genuine local capacity building. The argument of the article is that we will not be able to succeed in a population-centric counter-insurgency campaign unless we develop our ability to implement the notion of ‘comprehensive approach’ through integrated civil-military planning at the operational level on the basis of the common agreement that the centre of gravity of the campaign is sub-national governance.

From light military footprint to heavy civil-military integration

When unilateral US Operation Enduring Freedom was commenced in 2001, the strategy was based on a light military footprint and was entirely enemy centric with Al Qaeda and Taleban as the focal point of all operations. When the UN Security Council Resolution 1386[4] established the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) under British lead, the scope of the overall campaign was still limited and focused on security. However, the take-over introduced a shift in focus from a strictly military campaign towards an integrated state- and nation-building campaign. The mandate’s slide away from a strictly military campaign towards an integrated state- and nation building campaign was accelerated with NATO’s take-over of ISAF in 2003[5] and the expansion of the mandate beyond Kabul. In December 2003, the North Atlantic Council authorised the Supreme Allied Commander, General James Jones, to initiate the expansion of ISAF by taking over command of the German-led PRT in Kunduz. The other eight PRTs operating in Afghanistan in 2003 remained under the command of Operation Enduring Freedom, the continuing US-led military operation in Afghanistan. On 31 December 2003, the military component of the Kunduz PRT was placed under ISAF command as a pilot project and a first step in the expansion of the mission. Six months later, at the Summit meeting of the NATO Heads of State and Government in Istanbul, NATO announced that it would establish four other provincial reconstruction teams (PRT) in the north of the country: in Mazar-i-Sharif, Meymana, Feyzabad and Baghlan. From 2005 until end of 2006, NATO further expanded the campaign to include ISAF-led PRTs throughout the country with a gradual counter-clockwise extension beginning in the West of Afghanistan to include the South and the East by the end of 2006. Simultaneously, with this geographic expansion of the campaign, a functional expansion also took place as the two ‘civilian’ lines of operation, governance and development, were introduced into the integrated civil-military planning efforts. It was, however, not until early 2009 that this development was completed with the change of strategic focus in the counter-insurgency campaign. Until 2008, when General David D. McKiernan took command, the campaign was still focused on clearing the physical terrain from the enemy, the insurgents. General McKiernan commenced a process of a strategic shift of focus towards a population-centric campaign which was completed when General Stanley A. McChrystal took command over ISAF. This shift changed the strategic priorities to the effect that the two civilian lines of operation took priority over the security line of operation. When General McChrystal established his operational command, ISAF Joint Command, in August 2009 he ended a long and gradual strategic shift from a light military-only footprint in 2001 to a full-fledged integrated civil-military state- and nation building campaign that sees governance and development as the centre-pieces of the strategy.

Sub-National Governance: The Centre of Gravity for Transition

The international community may have had no difficulties supporting the reconstruction of national governance structures in Kabul. However, it found it equally difficult to support the establishment of such governance structures at the sub-national level and even more difficult to support and oversee the establishment of good governance processes both at national and sub-national level. Lack of good governance and most notably the inherent corruption at all levels is probably the biggest problem in the remaking of a legitimate Afghan governmental authority that offers political and social services demanded by the people. The services of uncorrupted justice structures to provide policing and dispute settlement down to district level would undoubtedly be between the services that would be in highest demand if they were provided[6]. But also provision of basic political services such as inclusion in policy-making would be in very high demand. And such provision would inherently carry with it legitimisation of government and state by the people, which is the centre of gravity in any nation-building effort.

In July 2010 at the Kabul ‘Inteqal’ Conference, the international community committed to the Joint Framework for Inteqal[7]. The framework describes the conditions along the main strand of operation (‘Lines of Operation or LOOs’) - security, governance and development that should be achieved with support from the international community to complete the process of transition. It is indeed stated in the framework that the whole process must be based on conditions rather than on timelines. However, the deadline for the transition of security has been set to the end of 2014. One consequence of publishing a deadline is that international support is currently focused on supporting the Afghan government in building Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) structures sufficiently large and capable to allow transition of the responsibility to provide basic physical security at the sub-national level by 2014. Whereas this might be inescapable it is definitely also unhelpful because it has diverted the attention of the international community away from good governance as the necessary condition for establishing and maintaining legitimacy of government. Inability to establish legitimate government structures and a minimum of good governance would deteriorate both the legitimacy and the ability by the ANSF to maintain security over time. In other words, an improved security situation that allows transition of security is only sustainable if it is supported by progress in governance. To accomplish this, priority must be given to sub-national governance, and change in the role of the international community’s primary instrument for supporting the Afghan government in governance efforts, the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), must be brought about. The PRTs should be based on a mainstream civilian development model, supporting autonomous provincial and district governance, replacing capacity substitution and direct delivery by the PRTs with genuine capacity building and partnered delivery.  Accomplishing this change would greatly improve ISAF’s and GIRoA’s chances of establishing legitimate and sustainable government structures. However, such change has only been rudimentary so far and has only appeared in very few regional commands, with Regional Command South West (RC SW) as a potential exception. The PRT in Helmand is unique in the sense that it has civilian leadership and in the sense that is has already changed its approach from direct delivery of output to capacity-building and technical assistance. In this sense, the Helmand PRT could be used as best practice by other regional commands and PRTs.  Unfortunately, the Helmand PRT is illustrative of another problem alluded to above – the lack of integration between the three lines of operation: security, governance and development. RC SW has only one PRT, the one in Helmand, which at least in theory should make it easy to ensure such integration. This is evidently not the case. Indeed, almost the opposite appears to have happened. On the one hand, there is a clear division of responsibility at the regional level between the military command in RC SW assuming lead responsibility for security and transition of security to ANSF. On the other hand, the civilian-led PRT is responsible for development and governance. The physical separation between the civilian PRT and the military headquarters further complicates the situation. In combination, the physical separation and the division of labour have made it virtually impossible to align the military and civilian efforts. Such alignment has only been established  at the tactical level in the British Task Force Helmand’s area of responsibility. Alignment, or indeed integration of planning, has not taken place between the civilian efforts of the PRT and the vast majority of the forces in Helmand, which is currently made up by II Marine Corps Expeditionary Force. Alignment is entirely necessary to avoid that security is transitioned without being embedded in a fundamental basis of good governance. This minimum must include Afghan governance structures at provincial, district and municipal level capable of incorrupt delivery of the basic functions and services of state. A critical mass of the population must prefer these structures to non-government alternatives such as the Taleban. If popular support for viable governance structures is not achieved before the process of transition of security in all provinces is completed, transition is unlikely to be sustainable.

Strategic Alignment of Programmes and Plans

The argument above that sub-national governance constitutes the centre of gravity for the strategic end-state of the campaign implies that another alignment must be facilitated: an alignment between the different programmes and plans. A plethora of different Afghan and international plans and programmes exist that are at best non-aligned and at worst counterproductive. Ideally, these would be reduced to a minimum to ensure that a few key plans and programmes contribute to one general plan for a province that defines how the Afghan government and the international community address this particular province. This development is illusory at the national level because of the complexity of government and bureaucracy at this level. However, at the provincial level it is possible to at least identify one coherent strategic plan consistent with plans at the grand strategy level such as the Afghan National Development Strategy[8]. Currently, this structure is not in place. The most prominent current example of the problems that the lack of alignment creates is the efforts spent planning the implementation of the District Delivery Programme under the Independent Directorate of Local Governance.[9] This programme is the major sub-national capacity-building programme which aims to achieve a visible local government presence in all districts. The programme entails the establishment of a functioning government system which provides basic services and builds the foundations for a sustainable infrastructure. By now, 18 months after the beginning of the programme, almost all effort and money in Southern Afghanistan have been spent on identifying and filling positions and paying salaries to key administrative personnel in local bureaucracies. Virtually no basic service delivery has yet emerged in Southern Afghanistan as a result of the District Delivery Programme, which is by far the heaviest and most expensive sub-national governance programme. This is problematic in itself, but even if the District Delivery Programme eventually starts to produce results, the problem remains that the programme is detached from and non-aligned with the transition programme[10]. The District Delivery Programme is based only on districts and is not linked to a provincial transition approach. Such links are critical to develop and identify other conditions for provincial transition than security conditions, such as the presence of functional and incorrupt structures of justice, education and government. This is but one example among hundreds of plans and programmes that need to be aligned (or scrapped) to allow a focused effort to take priority and ensure that a successful transition process has taken place by 2014.


The strategic end-state of the military campaign in Afghanistan, transition of security responsibility to ANSF at the sub-national level throughout the country, can obviously succeed through capacity building of large and capable ANSF structures. However, such transition will not be sustainable unless it is accompanied by integration into the campaign of the two civilian ‘lines of operation’, ‘governance’ and ‘development’. The need for such integration is based on the argument that a relationship of mutual dependence exists between physical security and social security. Transition of security may hence be accomplishable but will then fail to be sustainable over time if GIRoA is not assisted in bringing about a minimal level of physical presence of government at the sub-national level. Furthermore, sub-national government must be capable of delivering a minimum of social and political services demanded by the populace. This must be accompanied by a minimal level of ‘good governance’ to ensure sufficient feedback mechanisms to be used by the populace to make demands on and accept the authority of GIRoA rather than the insurgent alternatives. If we are to establish such social and political structures, we must accept that kinetic operations, i.e. the application of physical violence, are convincingly carried out as support operations assisting a greater good. In other words, kinetic operations must support the provision of governance and development. GIRoA and ISAF are able to facilitating such a development  by adopting and accepting a tactical doctrine of ‘Governance-Led Operations’ rather than the current tactical doctrine ‘Security-Led Operations’.

The ability to work towards the strategic end-state of comprehensive transition would be greatly enhanced if GIRoA, ISAF and the rest of the international community involved in state- and nation building in Afghanistan would accept reducing the plethora of different and often contradictory plans and programmes to a minimum and seek to align at least the major ISAF and government plans and programmes towards transition. In the end, this may involve abolishing useless national signatory programmes, such as the District Delivery Programme. The potential embarrassment of having to admit past failures is far more acceptable than failing to succeed with the transition process.

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[1] Ole Kværnø, Director of the Institute for Strategy at the Royal Danish Defence College since 2004. During his assignment he has been posted to ISAF for a one year tour of duty as Chief Governance in Regional Command South 2009-2010. Immediately before joining RDDC he was posted to Estonia for four years as dean of the Baltic Defence College. He has previously held various international assignments, ao. with NATO, UN and the OSCE.

[2] Robert Dorff, “Understanding and Teaching Strategy at the US Army War College”, Militært Tidsskrift, no. 4, 2011.

[3] Rajiv Chandrasekaran, “In Afghanistan, the rise and fall of Little America”, The Washington Post, 5 August 2011.

[4] UN Security Council Resolution 1386, 20 December 2001.

[5] UNSC Resolution 1510, 13 October 2003.

[6] Asia Foundation, “A Survey of the Afghan People”, 2010, pp. 7-19.

[7] Dari for ’transition’, “Government of Afghanistan and North Atlantic Council Joint Framework for Inteqal”, 20 July 2010.

[8] Islamic Republic of Afghanistan National Development Strategy, “A Strategy for Security, Governance, Economic Growth and Poverty Reduction 1387-1391 (2008-2013)”, Kabul, 2008.

[9] Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, “IDLG, District Delivery Programme”, March 2010.

[10] Government of Afghanistan and North Atlantic Council, “Joint Framework for Inteqal”, Kabul, 20 July 2010.