What does legitimacy mean to any of us? The “birthers” here in the US claim that President Obama cannot be the legitimate President of the United States. But they have not picked up arms. Most of them still pay taxes. There have been isolated outbursts, including at least one military officer who refused to deploy based upon his belief that the commander in chief is illegitimate. Other than that, the legitimacy of the United States government is not in serious question.
For most of us, the legitimacy of our government starts when we leave the door of our house and head out into the public areas of our world. For most of us, the first line of contact with our government is the police… and the tax column of our pay stubs. Both are reinforcement of the legitimacy of our government; local, state and federal. But the police that we see on our streets are not federal police. They are local police. Local elections have a greater impact on our daily lives than who occupies the Oval Office in a distant city. The point is that if we never had any contact with our government, how would it be legitimate to us?
Our government is not monolithic. Our paychecks demonstrate that the federal government can reach into our pockets to pay for the national-level services, such as defense. But it’s the local police who influence our daily behavior. When we are speeding, and we see a cop parked next to the road, we check our speed and slow down. That guy with a badge and a gun had an immediate impact on our behavior. That is, at a very basic level, legitimacy in our (American) context. Our government has the ability, whether we like it or not, to enforce its will upon us. We consider that will to be the will of the people. Our elected representatives set the speed limit that we are compelled to observe by threat of that police officer.
We have a national government, but we also have state and local government. Even our state laws are most often enforced by local government officials such as county, city or township police. When there is a question or a conflict, we find ourselves most often in local courts. Our perceptions of the local courts are overwhelmingly positive when it comes to issues such as corruption. While we believe that money does buy justice, we believe that boils down to being able to afford a decent lawyer, rather than in paying off a judge. Very few of us believe that the criminal courts can be bought through bribery.
We know that the government of Afghanistan (GIRoA) is beset by corruption. A massive and pernicious problem, it threatens the perception of legitimacy amongst the people. But, like us, Afghans decide upon the legitimacy of the government based upon their interactions with it. They are not interacting with the government in Kabul. They are interacting with the ANP, the District and perhaps Provincial governments, and the courts. Afghan legitimacy starts at the local level. This does not mean that corruption in Kabul need not be addressed. It means that more Afghans will be influenced by addressing issues at multiple local levels than by making fewer corrections at the national level.
Many military personnel who have experienced the maze of local corruption will tell tales of frustration in dealing with a governor or sub-governor who stubbornly clung to his network of corruption. Many of us experienced a lack of support from other international actors at the local level. The State Department and USAID were not often in evidence in 2007, for instance. One or two DoS representatives per province… in the provinces where they were present… just wasn’t getting it. We had very few USAID workers available in the provinces. We were working the military/security line of operation as hard as we could, but the governance and development lines were being defaulted on. The “surge” in Afghanistan didn’t just include a military surge, but a civilian surge as well. More civilians are needed, but there was still a great increase, and it has made a difference.
We see movement in Afghanistan. I saw it when I was there. GEN Petraeus’ latest reports indicate progress. I know that the official reports are taken with a grain of salt, but there is corroboration. The actions of the insurgents indicate growing weakness. Their tactics this year are aimed at making themselves appear to be larger than they actually are, focusing on areas where they are not necessarily strong, but where they would like to appear to have influence. This is an indicator that they have lost ground not only militarily but also with their ability to influence the population. My observation is that this is due to a greater balance in the application of effort across the non-military lines of operation on a number of local levels. This is the result of refocusing of efforts to the local level, a greater number of civilians present to work on the local level and a greater ability to work in some level of synchrony across the main lines of operation.
The use of consistent tool sets is becoming more widespread. Using ASCOPE/PMESII as the information framework makes it easier for units to to knowledge transfer during the Relief In Place / Transfer of Authority (RIP/TOA). This, combined with the growing use of the District Stability Framework (DSF), makes it easier for the military and civilian actors to synchronize actions across the lines of operation. Both tools are focused on the local level, and aimed at identifying, developing, increasing and protecting capacity at the local level. As indicated above, the local government makes the most difference in the lives of Americans, and it does the same in Afghanistan; only more so.
Afghanistan’s history is one of local governance loosely tied to a national government that is not very prone to micromanagement. The national government has not tended to be a strong influence in the daily lives of farmers and shop keepers in the little villages in the many valleys far from Kabul. This does not remove the pressure to fix what is wrong with the Karzai regime, often described as a kleptocracy. It does give some breathing room to the efforts to develop a national government that is capable of performing the basic functions required and as free of corruption as possible. With local governance improving incrementally, there is a cross-pollination of legitimacy that the national government benefits from. Coalition forces also benefit from progress on the local level, because they are then viewed as being supportive of a legitimate government, rather than tipping the scales in favor of one of two evils.
This year will be very challenging in Afghanistan. As described above, the insurgents are doing their level best to give the impression of being more influential than they are. There is a faint whiff of desperation in the air. There are most certainly areas where the insurgent is actually in better shape than he was two years ago; take the Korengal, for example. Whether or not the tipping point is near or has been reached will not be clear for some time. It is clear that there have been some important steps taken towards improving local governance, security and development. It is clear that the insurgents are under considerable pressure, and not just militarily. Local governance has a greater impact on the daily lives of Afghans than the national government, even a short distance from Kabul. The perception of legitimacy in Afghanistan is more predicated upon local government than the Kabul government.