Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

International Engagement

Reluctant Interventionists: ISAF’s influence on local power structures in Kunduz and Badakhshan

Deedee Derksen Thomas Ruttig 4 min

The latest AAN report, ‘Local Afghan Power Structures and the International Military Intervention,’ examines how the presence of German and other international military forces has impacted local power structures in Kunduz and Badakhshan. Author Philipp Münch presents these two provinces in Afghanistan’s northeast as detailed case studies, helping to answer the critical question as to whether, in the context of the aims of international state building, ISAF forces have been successful in supporting Afghanistan’s central government to extend its authority to the periphery. Deedee Derksen and Thomas Ruttig introduce main features of the report.

Drawing on a wide range of often new material, this report outlines post-2001 developments in the balance of power in the two provinces of Kunduz and Badakhshan. Author Philipp Münch argues that in contrast to ISAF troops elsewhere in Afghanistan, the German military and civilians heading the provincial reconstruction teams in Kunduz and Badakhshan were generally reluctant to directly influence local power structures. Unwilling to meddle in Afghan political affairs, they mostly opted to cooperate with local officials known to be linked to influential factions in the national government, including those linked to President Karzai and to the competing faction of Jamiat-e Islami-ye Afghanistan. Münch attributes this approach to the absence of a strategy that went beyond abstract, ill-defined goals such as “stability” or “security”. But as a result, Münch remarks, “large parts of the population perceived the internationals as being partial” or even “accomplices of the ruling class”..

During the “surge” in 2009, the US significantly reinforced their troops in Kunduz to combat a growing insurgency that had taken over significant parts of the province, often sidelining and overruling the local German forces seen as “too soft”. While fighting the Taleban the US set up and supported militias. The proliferation and formalisation of militias, like the Afghan Local Police, created new, fragmented and poorly controlled armed actors, strengthened the commanders of non-state armed groups and accentuated the potential for localised conflict (see other recent AAN analyses of this issue):

Back to Bad: Chahrdara between Taleban and ALP – a district case study;

Legal, illegal: Militia recruitment and (failed) disarmament in Kunduz and:

For a Handful of Bolani: Kunduz’s New Problem with Illegal Militias.

Yet, the focus of the German, and later, the US forces, on the official and most powerful strongmen failed to significantly challenge the distribution of power and instead contributed to even further entrench existing power brokers in this part of the country. Over the next circa 12 years, local power structures in Badakhshan and Kunduz remained largely unchanged. As Münch demonstrates via the example of illegal ‘taxation’, extorting money from villagers, by units of the Afghan security forces, there was a tendency towards the monopolisation of power through side-lining of weaker actors. For the most part, the outcome of these power struggles was determined by local power brokers who were able to tap into networks linked to allies in the central government. So, it were mainly Afghans themselves who determined the balance of power in Kunduz and Badakhshan.

The international military presence, however, did cause a slight but significant change in the rules of the power games according to Münch. It prevented open, large-scale violence, both among Afghan factions and between individual factions and the local civilian population, which was widespread from the 1990s until the international intervention in 2001. The international presence forced Afghan power brokers to seek ways to achieve their aims by largely non-violent means, at least in public. Clandestinely they “still applied violence or threatened to do so” and “access to weapons and fighters remained decisive in power games”.  Some local commanders, particularly in Kunduz, engaged in “the reconstruction business”, profiting thereby from the influx of external resources. Indeed, especially in Kunduz, some of these commanders-turned-businessmen made their living from “quasi-protection money”.

At the same time, the government of President Hamed Karzai has not acted in a unified manner, reflecting its composition of a number of competing factions with patronage ties to the provincial level. To be able to exert control over the provinces, the president has mainly used local proxies in a ‘divide and rule’ manner. For control over Kunduz and Badakhshan, Karzai was in competition with Jamiat-e Islami-ye Afghanistan. Therefore he aligned with their local rivals in both provinces – mainly connected to Hezb-e-Islami-ye Afghanistan. Jamiat, however, is part of the governing coalition in Kabul. As a result it has successfully retained key positions even though Karzai “succeeded in preventing his Jamiat opponents from monopolising political power” in Badakhshan and Kunduz. At the same time Karzai was unable to bring the two provinces completely under his control.

Münch finally draws a number of interesting conclusions that are important beyond Afghanistan. He underlines that “in Afghanistan, too, international state-builders tried to solve fundamental questions of power and rule by simply creating formal processes … as well as institutions”, but that “existing power structures transcended or withstood the various formal arrangements of the interveners”. He argues that policy-makers should “stop conceptualising ‘the state’ as an apolitical entity and ‘state-building’ as a technical process. … For external interveners to take a neutral stance in these fights seems hardly possible since ‘the state’ as a neutral legal entity does not exist, but is rather constituted by actors with specific interests.” Assuming a “neutral stance” on an uneven playing field can make the interveners unwitting accomplices in the consolidation of pre-existing inequitable power structures.

Münch’s report builds upon and further extends the analysis of two earlier main AAN publications, “The Networks of Kunduz” by Nils Wörmer (2012)  and “The Insurgents of the Afghan North” by Antonio Giustozzi and Christoph Reuter (2011).

AAN Thematic Report 03/2013, published on 12 November 2013.

For Podcast click here

The full report can be downloaded here.

Read the executive summary here.