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Counterinsurgency in Eastern Afghanistan — Governance

After 9/11, the United States recognized the instability within made Afghanistan a sanctuary and breeding ground for terrorism — evident in the growing presence of al-Qaeda in the eastern half of the country. U.S. policy pivoted from containment to counterterrorism (CT) and counter-insurgency (COIN) and focused on the three pillars of security, governance, and economic development.

In these excerpts, Kemp discusses the efforts of the coalition in building governance:  the role (and liability of corrupt) local governors in the COIN efforts; the creation of the Independent Directorate for Local Governance (IDLG); the challenges the IDLG faced; and the delicate task of devolution of governance from the coalition to the GOA.

Robert Kemp is an active-duty Foreign Service Officer who served in Afghanistan in 2004-2005 and 2007-2008 and published Counterinsurgency in Eastern Afghanistan 2004-2008: A Civilian Perspective in 2014  as part of ADST’s Memoirs and Occasional Papers Series. Kemp offers a voice of clarity in this complex engagement in a country largely misunderstood by outsiders. He was awarded the Department of the Army Commander’s Award for Public Service for his work in Afghanistan. You can read the overview of his book here.

You can also read about the rise of the Taliban, the U.S. bombing of an Afghan wedding, and the 1979 assassination of Ambassador Spike Dubs in Kabul.


“Support from coalition officials was often critical to the success (and to some extent, the survival) of governors”

KEMP:  During this period [2004 -08], the Afghan Government at all levels — national, provincial, district, and municipal — was undergoing a slow and difficult process of reestablishing itself. Rebuilding (or building) government in the middle of an insurgency, with limited human and financial resources, was difficult, and tribes and communities often provided governance where the reach of the formal government did not extend.

At least on paper, Afghanistan has one of the world’s most centralized governments, which put control of development planning and funding in the ministries in Kabul. At the same time, the ministries were “stove-piped,” with lines of authority extending directly to officials of that ministry in the provinces, often bypassing governors’ or mayors’ offices….

Governors were the chief political contacts for coalition military and political officers from 2004 to 2008. They played a key role in the success (or failure) of counterinsurgency efforts at the provincial level. Conversely, support from coalition officials was often critical to the success (and to some extent, the survival) of governors. In RC-East, coalition officers met almost daily with provincial governors to discuss events, coordinate development projects, review security efforts, plan for upcoming VIP visits, review policy guidance from Kabul, or examine potential points of friction in local society.

Several governors in RC-East were successful, notably Mohammad Gulab Mangal (as governor of both Paktika and Laghman), Arsala Jamal in Khost, Fazlullah Wahidi in Kunar, and Hakim Taniwal in Paktia (until his assassination). These governors established reputations for strong leadership, the ability to work well with the local tribes, physical courage, and ties to Karzai [President of Afghanistan, 2001-2004].

[Governor] Asadullah Khalid in Ghazni, despite allegations of misconduct, brought strong leadership (to the point of leading militias against Taliban forces). Governor Habiba Sarobi (at right), the only female governor in Afghanistan, brought national experience and integrity to Bamyan.

Through their popular support, they opened opportunities for provincial reconstruction teams and maneuver units to engage more with the people, move additional development funding into communities, and push back against insurgents (particularly those from outside of the provinces.) These governors depended heavily on the United States to provide security and development assistance, while U.S. forces depended on the governors to manage the complex politics of their provinces.

Given the internal divisions in many Afghan provinces, governors played an important role in resolving or reducing tribal or ethnic disputes. For example, Ghazni Province includes Pashtuns, Hazaras, Tajiks, and during warmer months, nomadic Kuchis. Their ethnic differences have historically led to considerable friction, which a skilled governor could help minimize. Tribal and sub-tribal disputes over land or historic grievances are also potential flashpoints, and the Taliban uses these disputes to their tactical advantage, as they did in the 1990s when they took over much of the country; this is an important consideration when planning any COIN campaign in Afghanistan.

The Governors’ Critical Role in Strategic Communications

Some governors were important in solving problems that occurred when foreigners interacted with Afghan society. These problems ranged from the benign, such as cultural misunderstandings, to the important, such as crops and property damage during raids, to the critical, when air strikes mistakenly killed civilians. The governors had to walk a fine line between getting the truth out (the Taliban had become expert at distorting the truth regarding coalition attacks) and not appearing biased in favor of outsiders.

In a larger sense, the governors played a critical role in strategic communications, given the cultural complexities, the difficulty (for foreigners) of learning Afghan languages, the deep-seated suspicions towards outsiders, and Taliban disinformation campaigns. Low literacy rates and the isolation of many rural communities made this task even harder.

However, many of the governors were impressive public speakers and capably presented the provincial and national government’s views and supported coalition efforts. Radio networks helped the government connect with the population, and large shuras (assemblies, at left) presented similar opportunities. For example, in 2007, hundreds of tribal elders attended a shura in Paktika Province, giving Governor Mohammad Akram Khpalwak a chance to reach much of the province, directly or indirectly.

Several governors played an important part in the 2005 parliament and provincial council elections. They helped organize the elections and explained to a population largely unfamiliar with elections and democracy what the elections were about, why they needed to participate, and what to expect from their representatives after the elections.

Governors also played an important role in communicating with decision makers and populations in International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) home countries. For example, the U.S. Embassy sponsored several successful trips by delegations of governors to the United States and Europe, where they presented the “ground truth” of their provinces and described the repressive and violent nature of the Taliban insurgency. This was especially important in Europe, where public support for ISAF efforts in Afghanistan was often shaky. Some governors were also effective in briefing visiting officials, including U.S. congressional delegations.

Coalition Support to Governors

Brigades, Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs), and battalions helped the governors overcome various obstacles. Brigades hosted regional governors’ conferences that brought together governors, their staffs, Kabul-based officials, and provincial security officials to discuss security and development issues. These conferences were useful in comparing notes, increasing communication between governors, and developing regional policies and projects. They also presented opportunities for press briefings.

Some PRTs took the lead in arranging for governors to travel to Kabul to meet with embassy and government officials and donor agencies such as the World Bank. The meetings helped the governors better understand the often complex world of international assistance, while giving donors insights from the field.

Governors also played an important role in communicating with decision makers and populations in International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) home countries.

For example, the U.S. Embassy sponsored several successful trips by delegations of governors to the United States and Europe, where they presented the “ground truth” of their provinces and described the repressive and violent nature of the Taliban insurgency. This was especially important in Europe, where public support for ISAF efforts in Afghanistan was often shaky. Some governors were also effective in briefing visiting officials, including U.S. Congressional delegations.

Coalition efforts helped governors succeed in other ways. Governors often took credit for coalition-funded development projects, which increased their standing among the people. In more dangerous provinces, military assets—including convoys and helicopters—provided mobility for government officials, and the PRTs helped fund some governors’ staffs and train them in basic administrative tasks. The provincial coordination centers, established with coalition support (as “9/11” centers of a sort) gave citizens points of contact for Afghan security forces. PRT officers, in particular, acted as neutral advisors—giving governors advice that they might not get from locals with personal agendas—while also giving some governors warnings when corruption, favoritism, or bad policy decisions threatened to undermine their credibility with the local population.

Corrupt Governors — A Major Liability

Being an Afghan governor during this period was a daunting task, as many provinces had fractured societies, dire poverty, no infrastructure, and active insurgencies…. Corrupt governors were one of the biggest obstacles to long-term coalition success in RC-East, undercutting counterinsurgency efforts. For example, between 2004 and 2005, the local population in Kunar believed that the governor and some provincial security chiefs misappropriated government funds and engaged in smuggling of timber and gemstones.

During the same period, the locals saw the governor of Khost Province enriching himself through the sale of publicly owned land. One governor of Logar had a minimal impact, returning to his home in Kabul every evening. These governors decreased the legitimacy of the Afghan government, provided openings for the Taliban to increase its influence, and almost certainly reduced the credibility of the coalition forces that worked with them.

Corruption of Afghan officials was a central, recurring theme in conversations with locals during this period. Afghans expected coalition forces to end corruption among provincial officials and were not at all understanding when this did not happen. They assumed that the coalition lacked the will to counter corrupt officials, or worse, that the coalition accepted the corruption.

In fact, both Department of Defense and State officers confronted provincial officials with charges of corruption when they had compelling evidence of its practice, and this may have modified the officials’ behavior in some cases. At the same time, mullahs [local religious leaders], business groups, and later provincial councils continued to publicly and privately accuse provincial officials of corruption. While some of these accusations clearly had a basis in fact, others may have been fabricated to further the interest of the accusers.

Not all of the corruption at the provincial level was destined for the officials’ own pockets: some governors used illegal tolls on highways and border crossings to fund projects and the day-to-day running of their governments.

Obviously, corruption existed in Afghanistan before this period, for a variety of reasons. The legal system was never particularly strong, patronage systems were a political reality, and foreign aid — be it from the Soviets or the U.S. beginning in the 1950s, or support for the mujahedeen in the 1980s — provided officials with a potential source of money. The repeated cycles of war, the influence of warlords, and narcotics trafficking also weakened societal norms and made operating outside of the law more acceptable.

Addressing corruption and inefficiency through the Independent Directorate for Local Governance

The Independent Directorate for Local Governance (IDLG) was established in August 2007 by Afghan presidential decree, with the mandate to “consolidate and stabilize, achieve development and equitable economic growth, and to achieve improvements in service delivery through just, democratic processes and institutions of governance at the sub-national level, thus improving the quality of life of Afghan citizens.” The Ministry of Interior (MOI) had previously been responsible for sub-national governance, but it had acquired a reputation for corruption and inefficiency….

The IDLG represented a fundamental shift in how Kabul administered local governance, and it had immediate implications for COIN strategy in RC-East. The directorate took a much more vigorous approach to managing local governance than the (MOI) had. At the same time, IDLG officers began to assert themselves as the supervisors of local officials. They demanded a say in how PRTs, battalions, and brigade staffs related to local governments and asked that Kabul be informed of coalition interactions with provincial officials.

With considerable support from President Karzai and the international community, the IDLG began an ambitious program to overhaul governance at the provincial, district, and municipal levels. It also began increasing its influence in Kabul and improving coordination with other ministries, some of which had considerable stakes in local governance.

An important step forward was the development of the “Five-Year Strategic Work Plan” in April of 2008. The plan outlined general goals including policy development, institution building, and broader governance nested within the overarching Afghan National Development Strategy. A coherent and realistic document conceived with support from international advisors, the plan laid out a blueprint for local governance and described areas where donors could provide financial and technical assistance.

The Daunting Challenges of the IDLG

As with all previous Afghan governments, the IDLG faced the difficult task of extending its writ to the provinces. This was a daunting task, given the size of Afghanistan and its rugged terrain, harsh winters, and the lack of a transportation infrastructure. Additional challenges included limited resources, several governors who acted quite independently, the need to balance complex political situations at both the national and local levels, and the need for President Karzai to become involved in decision-making at the local-governance level. Added to this were very real security considerations for those traveling in parts of the country.

A major hurdle for the IDLG was the lack of trained civil servants — a result of decades of war, of the migration of a significant percentage of the population to other countries, and of an education system that, by 2001, was almost nonexistent. Some of the best governors were those who had returned from overseas, but significant security risks, hardship, and low pay kept others away, a situation even more evident at the district and municipal levels.

In the IDLG’s favor was the remarkably rapid expansion of cell phone coverage to many parts of the country and the availability of internet service in cities; such capability allowed the directorate to be in almost constant communication with many governors. Commercial air travel was gradually becoming available for cities such as Herat, and the Afghan military’s air wing began flying to more places, allowing IDLG officers to visit the provinces more easily.

Beginning in late 2007, the Directorate began a review of provincial governors, removing some of the more corrupt and inefficient ones. Criteria for new governors included loyalty to President Karzai (center in photo), the ability to work with the local population, administrative and governance capabilities, and the ability to work with the coalition. Some of the newly appointed governors were marked improvements, particularly Wahidi in Kunar Province. One of Afghanistan’s best governors, Mangal, was moved from Laghman to the strategically important province of Helmand to address the daunting counter-narcotics and counterinsurgency challenges in that province. In the spring of 2008, the directorate began reviews of its Kabul staff, as well as mayors and district governors.

A Cautious Approach to the Devolution of Power

The IDLG, as part of an effort by several ministries, began to redraft local governance laws and policies. This included examining how to devolve power from Kabul to the provinces to give local officials greater budgetary and policy authority. From a COIN perspective, this had the advantage of making local government more responsive to its constituents, but in Kabul, there was some resistance to giving more budgetary authority to governors….

Compelling historical and practical reasons argue against devolution of power to the provinces. In the past, some governors have become powers unto themselves, with little accountability to Kabul. Others have come under the influence of neighboring countries, or become local warlords or the proxies of local warlords….

Governors in some ways act as the Afghan president’s envoy to a province, so Kabul has an interest in maintaining control over them, particularly during the run-up to elections. History has also shown that Afghanistan has the potential to fracture along ethnic or regional lines….

The current constitution leaves open the option of some devolution of power. Article 137 of the constitution says, “The government, while preserving the principle of centralism, shall delegate certain authorities to local administration units, for the purpose of expediting and promoting economic, social, and cultural affairs, and increasing the participation of people in the development of the nation.”

An important factor in the long run will be the development of a civil service cadre with enough officers available to run government effectively at the local level. At the same time, a strong center will also need to remain in place to hold Afghanistan together. As World Peace Foundation president Robert Rotberg notes, “Regardless of ethnicity, many Afghan politicians and policymakers from across the country favor a strong central state in order to curb powerful regional figures who often receive support from outside the country, as well as to reduce the danger of criminal influence over local government.”

“Success in counterinsurgency operations requires establishing a legitimate government supported by the people and able to address the fundamental causes that insurgents use to gain support.” – U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual

The growth of local government required the coalition to adjust its practices. While in 2004 the PRTs and battalions had to fill vacuums of governance in some areas, by 2008 Afghan officials were very much in the lead in many places, and the coalition had accordingly reduced its role…. The establishment of effective local government was also important to keep the Afghan military from being tempted to become involved in political affairs.

In the spring of 2005 …, insurgent groups became more effective, preventing NGOs from having a large presence in border provinces. This not only restricted flows of funds but also limited access for civilian experts on governance, and coalition officers had to fill some of this gap…. At the same time, U.S. programs supporting local governments were not always coordinated with programs of the international community, and vice versa, in part due to the limited presence of international donors in parts of RC-East.

A lack of trained civil servants was the greatest challenge to achieving adequate local governance….Corruption and the appearance of corruption were endemic in RC-East and was perhaps the second largest challenge. This was corrosive to COIN efforts and difficult to counter given how culturally ingrained it was. The judicial system was struggling, and there appeared to be a lack of will at high levels of the government to confront corruption.

On the positive side, RC-East had only limited narcotics trafficking (with the exception of Nangarhar), which reduced the levels of corruption in comparison with RC-South, where the drug trade flourished. Increasing tax revenues to support government bureaucracies and fund services at the local level was also a challenge. Funds came from the central government and to some extent, local donors, but with the exception of some municipal taxes (and informal revenue), the local governments had no means to support themselves….

By late summer 2008, the overall trend in RC-East was positive, and a functioning system of local governance was under construction. However, the government had not yet achieved legitimacy in many places, and was only beginning to develop the ability to address the conditions that allowed the insurgency to gain limited support. Local factors, such as tribal structures and the considerable capabilities of coalition forces, helped prevent insurgent forces from gaining a critical mass of support. While the presence of a Taliban shadow government in RC-East seemed minimal compared to some provinces in Regional Command-South (RC-South), gaps in coverage invited an insurgent presence.