Little Governors

Two recent articles in the Washington Post and Time magazine describe the political realities faced by the U.S. military, when participating in local politics in Nangahar province, in eastern Afghanistan. Both articles go to great length to describe what many would perceive to be another example of a failed local engagement strategy—and both articles fail to shed light on the grassroots political dynamics in play.

According to both, in late January, select elders of the Shinwari, a Pashtun tribe in eastern Nangarhar province, approached U.S. military officials and offered to confront militants operating in their territory. They would also punish anyone who cooperated with the militants. In response, U.S. military officials decided that they would allow the leaders of those fighting the militants to help decide how the approximately $1 million in U.S.–funded development projects would be spent.

The idea that a select group of local leaders might help decide who would benefit from U.S. development funds caused an immediate reaction from rivals and accusations of a local power grab with the support of the U.S. military. The Governor of Nagahar Gul Agha Shirzai accused the U.S. military of turning local elders into “little governors.” But don’t be fooled. Governor Gul Agha Shirzai understands the importance of “little governors” especially since he and the Karzai administration are pursuing a “little governors” strategy to expand and consolidate their influence in the province.

The Karzai administration’s “little governor” strategy is deeply embedded in Afghan culture. Empires and dynasties are born through the recruitment, cooption and consolidation of urban and provincial aristocratic, merchant and martial networks. In today’s political vernacular, the central government seeks to legitimately dominate the periphery by imposing a central authority or by co-opting the loyalty of provincial commercial and security networks. While conquest is an option, the preferred method is to co-opt the loyalty of the provincial elite and their commercial and martial networks.

Noah Coburn, in Connecting with Kabul, explains that many of those interviewed for his study defined the word “government” as the executive branch, and “parliament” as a means for local power brokers to oppose executive power and to challenge the status quo. Coburn’s study further explains that all power in Afghanistan is local and based on personal relationships rather than an impersonal Weberian legal-rational, bureaucratic authority.

We actually assume that an Afghan government exists because we say it exists. President Karzai is under no such illusion. The Karzai government understands that it is engaged in a process which seeks to monopolize the control over violence and resources and impose organizational hierarchies on disparate social networks. President Karzai is not the defender of an existing legal order but is imposing a new order. President Karzai’s “little governors” strategy therefore has little to do with Western notions of rule of law, or imposing impersonal governance and legislative procedures on a compliant population. It has everything to do with eliminating, replacing or co-opting local patronage networks.

The application of the “little governor” strategy since at least the late nineteenth century.

  • The Amir Abdur Rahman Khan (1880s) extends his authority through the manipulation of tribal and personal rivalries. He becomes a source of patronage and by strategically supporting one Khan against another alters the existing regional balance of power in his favor.
  • Ismail Khan, (1979–1992) consolidates his power by establishing a loyal security force and then co-opts the local patronage networks by the targeted distribution of supplies to his supporters. He successfully shifts the balance of power in the area away from the local strongmen and assumes the military-political leadership in Herat.
  • President Najibullah in early 1987 announces his national reconciliation program. His intent is to weaken the opposition by instigating and managing factional rivalries and buying the support of one or the other of the mujahedin organizations engaged in fractional fighting.
  • Since 2005, the Karzai administration has administered Kandahar province through President Hamid Karzai’s brother Ahmed Wali Karzai. Ahmed Wali Karzai enters into alliance with local power brokers to gain control over key trade routes and commercial and security networks. He integrates local power networks and state institutions to manage political and commercial activities and to retain formal control over the province.
  • President Hamid Karzai reassigns Governor Gul Agha Sherzai to Nangahar province in 2005. The Karzai administration expects Governor Gul Agha Sherzai to exert his authority by integrating local power networks and state institutions. The first thing that Governor Gul Agha Sherzai does to establish himself in Nangarhar is to gain control over the local economy. He does so by eradicating the poppy economy. Instead of growing opium, local farmers will receive development aid from the provincial government. Governor Gul Agha Sherzai has successfully undermined local commercial networks and now controls the distribution of development aid to his supporters and leveraged to punish his distracters.

Conclusion: Personality-driven political orders are the norm in Afghanistan and the “little governor” strategy embedded in Afghan political culture. As such, it might actually make sense for the U.S. military’s engagement strategy to poke the local power broker and manipulate the local balance of power every now and then so as to encourage the “little governors” to become a more credible servant of the people they purport to represent.  

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