The South Asia Channel

Taking stock of the surge — from the bottom up

This month marks the end of the American surge in Afghanistan: the 33,000 additional troops President Barack Obama authorized in his administration’s first months will complete redeployment, leaving behind a force of 68,000. By launching the surge in December 2009, President Obama attempted to remedy the previous administration’s inattention to the Afghanistan effort and fully ...


This month marks the end of the American surge in Afghanistan: the 33,000 additional troops President Barack Obama authorized in his administration’s first months will complete redeployment, leaving behind a force of 68,000. By launching the surge in December 2009, President Obama attempted to remedy the previous administration’s inattention to the Afghanistan effort and fully resource a civilian and military stabilization campaign.  

Although the surge’s primary military objective was to reverse the Taliban’s momentum and train Afghan National Security Forces, it also aimed to "promote a more capable and accountable Afghan government."  It would focus on local Afghan government institutions. After widespread acknowledgment that international assistance had concentrated too heavily on Kabul in the years after the 2001 Bonn Agreement, the new U.S. approach aimed to connect local-level governance structures to national ones "from the bottom up." The new strategy endeavored to build governance and development in regions of the country recently "cleared" from a security perspective-largely in Regional Commands South and East. For the first time, U.S. personnel and resources would flow directly into the district level in some of Afghanistan’s most volatile areas.

Over three years after President Obama’s initial strategy announcement, and as the international community shifts to transition mode, what lasting impacts has the surge had on Afghan subnational governance? A new paper from USIP, drawing on over sixty interviews with Afghans and Americans based at the district level, explores this question. Examining both the U.S. military’s localized CERP-funded "governance, reconstruction, and development" projects and civilian stabilization programming, this paper argues that despite policymakers’ proclamations of modesty, the U.S. surge aimed to profoundly transform Afghanistan’s subnational governance landscape. Although the surge has attained localized progress, its impact has fallen short of this transformative, sustainable intent because its plans were based upon three unrealistic assumptions.

First, the surge overestimated the speed and extent to which specific types of governance intervention would yield progress. In military parlance, it assumed that the campaign’s quick success in "amassing security effects" would be mirrored by (or closely approached by) the speed with which it amassed governance effects. Plans assumed that in the realm of governance, more resources could make up for less time. For example, surge policy presupposed that with enough assistance, local governors could rapidly foster legitimacy and durable local support. It also assumed that American aid could quickly establish vertical linkages for service delivery-connecting increasing local "bottom up" demand for services to the "top down" of ministries’ delivery systems.  Finally, plans assumed that governance successes would quickly gain momentum of their own and spread "ink blot" style, rather than continuing to require great amounts of U.S. inputs. 

A second miscalculation was the expectation that the surge’s "bottom up" progress-the result of dedicated work by locally-based U.S. and Afghan personnel-would be matched by "top down", Afghan-led systemic reforms to make this local progress durable.  Where surge personnel encouraged district governors’ responsiveness to their local populations in the short run, they hoped that in the longer term, these local officials’ incentive structures would shift to ensure they were more accountable to their constituents and not Kabul. Instead, the Independent Directorate of Local Governance’s subnational appointment system made claims of reform and merit-based improvements but in practice left Kabul’s longstanding patronage system largely unchanged.  

In addition, as U.S. officials worked with district-level councils to improve the competence of these shuras, they assumed that, in the longer term, the councils’ makeup and authority would be formalized by the Kabul-based government. Instead, Kabul showed little appetite to reconcile the confusing, competing array of local councils or to standardize their powers. (Very recently, after the Tokyo conference, a committee led by the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development (MRRD) is drafting district council regulation, but any implementation will come too late for the surge.) Finally, some surge personnel labored to increase local officials’ budgetary prioritization skills so that local needs could be reflected in central line ministries’ decisions.  But any meaningful fiscal deconcentration, apart from a nascent and currently-stalled provincial budgeting pilot, was unlikely during the lifespan of the surge. In short, the surge showed that one key ingredient-Afghan political will to undertake needed structural reforms-was not malleable from the "bottom up."

Finally, the surge rested upon the assumption that "lack of governance" was a universal driver of the insurgency, for which service delivery was the appropriate cure. Though this analysis rang true in some districts and municipalities, in others, particularly some remote parts of Regional Command East, observers suggested that presence of government became a fueling factor. In these regions, the local insurgency represented a response to the intrusion of the Afghan government, viewed as extortive and foreign. The presence of ISAF troops facilitating this extended Afghan government reach represented a further grievance for communities who wanted to be left alone. Stabilization programs attempted to win popular support by providing services, but in some areas these initiatives were just atoning for the fact that outsiders-Western and Afghan alike-had shown up in the first place.

More broadly, there is genuine debate over whether "more service delivery" is truly the appropriate prescription for the most contested areas of Afghanistan targeted by the surge.  Beyond a deep local desire for security and justice, most other international offerings of "service delivery" found themselves abutting preexisting Afghan arrangements to locally manage everything from karez (irrigation canal) cleaning to equitable water distribution. Many service delivery offerings targeted local requests that were never before expressed, thus creating newly inflated expectations. Meanwhile, the insertion or elevation of local government officials to administer these programs often facilitated extortion, further alienating the local community.

What to make of the surge’s governance track record? In many ways, this record merely echoed criticism of the surge’s plans from the start, from those inside and outside of U.S. government: the campaign was overly ambitious for an externally-driven effort on a short timeline. So why was optimism so high at the outset? Partial explanations reside in American confidence about perceived counterinsurgency success in Iraq, and enthusiasm at finally resourcing the "good war" in Afghanistan. In addition, Capitol Hill and the American electorate would have been unlikely supporters of an effort billed as a very long, hard slog.

But once the surge was in motion, other American miscalculations emerged that fueled optimism.  One was the confusion of discrete successes with replicable progress. When a previously hostile district such as Helmand’s Nawa transformed into a peaceful one, the unrelenting stream of VIPs sent to visit did not necessarily see the unusual combination of tribal makeup, leadership calculus, and disproportionate American inputs that prevented the "Nawa Model" from being generalizable, or sustainable. Another common miscalculation was mistaking a local Afghan official’s individual advancement with wider progress in building the institutions of local government.  In a country where subnational officials are regularly reshuffled or, unfortunately, assassinated, this metric was deceptive. Finally, on a separate note, American officials often placed considerable faith in the power of technical and technological solutions to resolve problems that were fundamentally political in nature. New solutions fed new optimism.

As the surge recedes, the upcoming transition offers an opportunity to apply its lessons toward future governance and development planning. The U.S-Afghan Enduring Strategic Partnership Agreement[i] represents a promising opportunity to embrace strategic planning that is longer in term but more realistic in ambit. As the international community draws down, it should exert its remaining governance-related leverage to impact select systemic issues rather than tactical-level ones, such as standardizing the system by which district council members are selected, improving  ministries’ recurring services, and bolstering provincial and municipal administrations. The international community should also prioritize a few key, attainable efforts, such as providing training that is consistent with current Afghan government functions, while avoiding creating additional structures.  Finally, the surge proved once again that all the usual Afghan local governance recommendations still apply: resolving Afghanistan’s subnational challenges requires long-term commitment and systematic execution.

Frances Z. Brown is an International Affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an Afghanistan Fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

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