An article in the Small Wars Journal entitled “Development in Afghanistan’s Counterinsurgency: A New Guide” is worth reading in its entirety, as it questions the efficacy of our dumping billions of dollars into Afghan infrastructure as a way of fighting the Taliban. But one aspect jumped out: the importance of co-opting social elites:
Both population-centric COIN and development theory rely on a basic formula that can be summarized as follows: popular grievances cause insurgency, so counterinsurgents should adopt a set of methods that gain the support of “the people” by redressing these grievances.6 This formula, which shall be called the “grievance formula,” has three critical weaknesses, all of which bear directly on the employment of development aid. All three result from a failure to assign adequate importance to leaders, who are the central actors in counterinsurgency.7 They shall be addressed in order.
The first of these weaknesses is that grievances do not cause insurgencies. Insurgencies are caused by determined elites who have the talents required to organize military operations, operate shadow governance structures, and mobilize the population against the government. Grievances can make their job easier, but are not essential to their success. In a given counterinsurgency, we often find a lack of insurgent activity where the population has numerous grievances, and intensive insurgent activity where it has relatively few grievances. By contrast, we seldom find a lack of insurgent activity where able insurgent elites are present, and we never find intensive insurgent activity where such elites are absent.
The insurgent elites obtain popular support by doing the government’s job better than the government is doing it, particularly in the areas of security and governance. When choosing whether to support to the insurgents or the counterinsurgents, the number one criterion for most people living amidst an insurgency, including most Afghans at the present time, is security. Governance comes second, and development is well back in third place.8 This ordering differs from that in population-centric COIN, which puts governance first, and development theory, which puts development at the top. Support of the government increases sharply as security improves, somewhat less sharply when governance improves, and very little when development improves. In Afghanistan and numerous other cases, the insurgents have been able to control large amounts of territory with little or no expenditures on development, by outperforming the government in security and governance.9
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In other insecure areas, the insurgents allow development to proceed in order to leech off of it. Numerous development contractors in Afghanistan pay protection money to private security companies or local power brokers because the counterinsurgents lack sufficient forces in the area, and oftentimes this money falls into Taliban hands through intimidation or collusion. Military superiority also allows the insurgents to reap the economic benefits of completed projects. For instance, the United States spent more than $100 million repairing and upgrading the Kajaki hydropower plant to provide electricity to Helmand and Kandahar provinces, but last year half of its electricity went into areas where the insurgents control the electric grid, enabling the Taliban to issue electric bills to consumers and send out collection agents with medieval instruments of torture to ensure prompt payment. The consumers in these places use the power for the irrigation of fields that grow poppies, which in turn fuel the opium trade from which the Taliban derive much of their funding.
Where good governance is lacking, development money often finds its way into the pockets of corrupt officials or shady businessmen. Development spending without good governance also exacerbates corruption within the government, by encouraging unscrupulous and rapacious individuals to enter into government service. Some positions in the Afghan government are sold for tens of thousands of dollars to such individuals, ensuring that the buyers will seek to squeeze large sums from foreign donors and ordinary Afghans in order to recoup their investments. Some senior Afghan officials have become so addicted to the money they skim from aid programs that they abet the insurgents as a means of convincing foreign donors that additional spending is required.
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Success in security and governance, and also in development, depend more than anything else on the quality of the leaders in the local area. The second weakness of the grievance formula lies in its contention that effectiveness in COIN hinges on finding the right methods, and its inattention to finding the right leaders.13 Most COIN methods, whether in security, governance, or development, do not work in all cases, and most succeed only when implement by leaders with the proper capabilities. Insurgent and counterinsurgent leaders use their intellects to determine the combination of methods best suited to mobilizing the population, co-opting elites, and capturing or killing implacable enemies in their areas, and then draw on a broad range of leadership attributes to implement those methods. In most counterinsurgencies, the side with the more talented and motivated leaders ultimately prevails.
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In dispensing development aid, the first challenge facing the counterinsurgent leader is deciding on the beneficiaries. Herein can be found the third deficiency in the grievance formula, the treatment of “the people” as an undifferentiated mass. As a consequence of the reigning COIN and development theories, the United States routinely has funded and continues to fund numerous projects in Afghanistan that provide the same benefits or job opportunities to everyone in the community.15 The commanders who have made the best use of development aid in counterinsurgency, however, have figured out that aid benefits the counterinsurgency most when aimed at the elites of a society, and have invested much effort into finding the right elites and seeking to influence them with aid.
Within any society, only a small minority of the population has the talent, resolve, and social status to organize economic, political, or military activities that will antagonize violent insurgents. The members of this elite group must be co-opted or else rendered incapable of abetting the insurgents. Co-option of elites differs in important ways from the “mobilization” by which most of the population can be brought to support the counterinsurgents. Mobilization requires changing people’s allegiances and leading them. Co-option requires only changing allegiances, for elites do not need others to lead them, and can themselves lead and mobilize substantial numbers of people. With co-option, as with mobilization, the security and governance lines of operation are generally more important than the development line in altering an individual’s allegiance, but development spending can have a greater impact in co-option than in mobilization. It can be concentrated on the few individuals capable of leading the rest of the community, and this concentration can ensure that those elites remain above others in power and wealth, which elites usually believe they deserve in such circumstances since they are taking the most risks and doing the most difficult work.
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A development strategy focused on bolstering a society’s elites will ensure that socioeconomic inequality persists, and it will let the society’s elites decide how much wealth should go towards poverty alleviation, which may or may not be as much as we would like. The international community, however, must be disabused of the idea that eradicating inequality and poverty in Afghanistan lies within our reach, as well as the idea that such an outcome is required for the success of the counterinsurgency. We have not been able to eradicate inequality or poverty in our own countries, despite far larger expenditures, much better governance, and an absence of insurgency. We can, nevertheless, take some comfort in the fact that the average Afghan will be better offer economically and socially if our side prevails than if the Taliban returns to power. Ending insurgent violence will allow NGOs and governmental development organizations to operate freely and much more effectively throughout the country. In addition, by influencing which elites gain the most power, we can help weed out the most predatory and corrupt of them, which will do much to facilitate long-term stability and prosperity.
There’s a lot in this article. The authors are very candid about the kind of government NATO has wound up creating here in Afghanistan: a government of thieves (and pederasts, while I’m at it). But it also occurred to me how America’s “meritocracy” has successfully co-opted anybody likely to effectively challenge the elite’s multiculturalist paradigm. Thus we have continue runaway immigration in the teeth of widespread popular opposition.