Small Wars Journal

Civil Society and Counterinsurgency-- II

Wed, 11/24/2010 - 10:35am

Civil Society and Counterinsurgency-- II:

Recruiting Citizen Armies for COIN

by A. Lawrence Chickering

Download the Full Article: Civil Society and CounterInsurgency II

In their recent SWJ article, "Stabilization and Reconstruction of Nations", Carol E. H. Choksy and Jamsheed K. Choksy implicitly highlight why a strong civil society strategy is important not only in current theaters of conflict, Iraq and Afghanistan, but in many other countries threatened by potential insurgencies. In reminding us that we cannot intervene everywhere, they highlight the unpleasant reality that we may face insurgency threats in more countries than we can possibly handle. This makes it important that we need to be clear about the subtitle of their article: where, when, and why should the U.S. intervene.

They leave out "how"—a critical omission. The authors assume that current COIN strategy will continue unaltered. They assume, as most people do, that there are no underutilized resources that could be brought into play, expanding our capacity to intervene.

This paper will argue that expanding our capacity is an important reason for developing a powerful civil society strategy—empowering citizens, who are a greatly underutilized resource, to become active participants in COIN. A common statement of this objective would be to say this will greatly increase "our capacity" to resist insurgencies, but the real point is to increase "the societies' capacity" to resist.

The idea is to empower the people of a country to take much greater, active responsibility for security, empowering them to play an active role in COIN much more quickly than is happening now in response to current programs aimed at recruiting them. We have, right now, the knowledge and resources to activate them to play this role. Although research and experimentation are needed to refine the strategy, there are good reasons for believing we could recruit armies of citizens to play this active role—and we could do it at very, very low costs. (The strategy for activation has been developed for purposes other than security; it will need to be refined to add security as an objective.)

Download the Full Article: Civil Society and CounterInsurgency II

A. Lawrence Chickering is a social entrepreneur and writer who designs and implements civil society strategies in public policy. He is founder and President of Educate Girls Globally (EGG), which has developed a powerful program for promoting girls' education and empowering traditional communities by reforming government schools, partnering with the government of the very tribal state of Rajasthan in India. Before that, he founded the International Center for Economic Growth, which was headquartered in Panama and played a major role in promoting economic reform in the more than fifty countries over ten years. He is coauthor of Strategic Foreign Assistance: Civil Society in International Security (2006).

About the Author(s)

A. Lawrence Chickering is a social entrepreneur and writer who designs and implements civil society strategies in public policy.  He is founder and President of Educate Girls Globally (EGG), which has developed a powerful program for promoting girls’ education and empowering traditional communities by reforming government schools, partnering with the government of the very tribal state of Rajasthan in India.  He has concentrated his recent writing on the uses of civil society in foreign policy and, more specifically, in counterinsurgency warfare.  He is coauthor of Strategic Foreign Assistance: Civil Society in International Security (2006).  His other, great interest is conflict management and the search for a transpartisan politics.  He has written two books on that subject: Beyond Left and Right (1993) and (with James S. Turner) Voice of the People: The Transpartisan Imperative in American Life (2008).  He is a regular contributor to the SWJ.


Lawrence Chickering

Sun, 12/05/2010 - 3:20am


A major reason it is so difficult to make progress in Afghanistan is that mainstream opinion, as represented by The New York Times and by Amb. Eikenberry, understand so little about the special challenges of working in a tribal society. The challenge of connecting the Afghan people to the government is much larger than the problem of corruption. It is the challenge of low social trust that is evident throughout the society at every level of social interaction -- even between different groups in the same village. The cause of low trust is lack of communication and engagement across loyalties. The solution, correspondingly, is to institutionalize communication and engagement.

In the program I founded, Educate Girls Globally (EGG), which is working in the very tribal society of Rajasthan in India, before the program there was little trust or connection between local communities and government bureaucrats because there was almost no contact between them. Because of our program, the whole relationship has been transformed. We now work closely with the ministry staff, and our local heads even have dinner once a month together, with their families.

The real energy in a tribal society is in local communities, and it is there that efforts to connect people and connect people and the government need to begin. With increasing trust will come reduced dependence on corruption to get things done. While some corruption can be reduced by exposing it and pressuring the government, increasing trust from the grass roots up will address the problem much more systematically than any pressure put on the government.

RH (not verified)

Fri, 12/03/2010 - 9:05am



Consider for a moment a mother, father, wife, son or daughter who lost their loved one in Afghanistan...."for what they may ask?"

The American dilemma is perhaps best summed up in an October 2009 cable sent by Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry, written after he met with Ahmed Wali Karzai, the presidents half brother, the most powerful man in Kandahar and someone many American officials believe prospers from the drug trade.

"The meeting with AWK highlights one of our major challenges in Afghanistan: how to fight corruption and connect the people to their government, when the key government officials are themselves corrupt," Ambassador Eikenberry wrote.


Lawrence Chickering

Wed, 12/01/2010 - 9:01am


When you say "government is the people", you are speaking about the U.S. not about the tribal society of Afghanistan. The government wants to "control" the people, but only in the sense of staying in power and maintaining fragile national authority. In a tribal society, as I have written before, people feel antagonism toward "outsiders", and outsiders include both the government and the other tribe in the same village. To start on the path toward trust and connection beyond family and tribe, one has to start with relationships close by: in community institutions such as schools, working positively across groups that have a common interest in the school, but also with local bureaucrats representing the government. Trust builds through personal engagement. And as it spreads, you get increasing cooperation, less "control", and fewer guns.

In this vision, the challenge is not to "give up power" to locals because the government's "control" does not reach local communities. In a tribal society, the government has very limited contact with them. Tribal elders or religious leaders or warlords are the ones with power at the local level, with different ways of exercising control. "Bad" forms of control occur because traditional cultures are marked by low social trust. With increasing engagement and trust, people can work together and start to experience citizenship. As that happens, legitimate authority increasingly replaces brute force as the instrument of control. As that happens, people gain capacity to govern themselves even as they gain capacity to resist forces that are trying to bring the system down.

kdog101 (not verified)

Tue, 11/30/2010 - 12:52am

How can trust be developed if one side seeks to control the other. You frame your arguments as government vs the people, but there is the other idea that government is the people. You talk about fear, and lack of trust; these are the same traits that cause government to increase control over people.

If the government has all the weapons, and the community has very little, how is that trust? It seems more like feudalism.

If you can get government to give up power to the locals through engagement I support that effort, but if moral people want to be empowered now, and we have the power to aid and protect that effort, I think we should.

Lawrence Chickering

Mon, 11/29/2010 - 2:15pm

You share the very common belief that governments behave as they do because they are run by "bad" people and that COIN is well served by CSOs that push them to reform. This view is held so widely that one may wonder what other position is possible.

I have a different view of the problem -- hence, a different solution to it. One way of characterizing your view versus mine is to say yours in moral, while mine is therapeutic. I think there is room for both. Yours is well known. Let me share mine, which is not.

I think an important part of governments' "bad" behavior comes from the low social trust in tribal societies and a largely preconscious concept of self. Corruption is an important way that governments in tribal societies "buy" loyalty and get things done. Your view is that CSOs should fight the government and demand reform. While this sometimes works, it often only threatens the government, which then often puts the CSOs down (examples may be found in many places, but especially in Egypt and Russia).

I think in many cases it may be more effective to promote governmental reform by engagement of local civil society with government, increasing trust and increasing opportunities to get things done without corruption. An organic process, built on trust, will often accomplish change without threatening people -- and without provoking retaliation, responding to fear. This approach should be supplemented by publishing information of various kinds that will shine lights on cases of corruption while concealing the identity of people leaking the information.


Sun, 11/28/2010 - 10:06pm

"Indigenous civil society" would be all organized non-government groups that represent and are organized and constituted by the citizens of whatever nation is under discussion. If it's organized and not government, it's civil society. Technically the insurgents could be called a component of civil society.

What's not being considered here, I think, is that while foreign NGOs have to at least pretend to be apolitical, indigenous civil society groups can be and often are explicitly political. Some on our side may be uncomfortable with this: we prefer to fund NGOs working with health, livelihood, agriculture, education, etc., and these groups often oppose or criticize governments that we support. This kind of organization is a very good thing for COIN, though: it provides a way for citizens to organize and express their (often very justified) resentment toward government without resorting to insurgency.

The effectiveness of citizen opposition to government is more a function of organization than armament. Disorganized armed resistance is generally suppressed quickly and effectively; unarmed but organized resistance has chased more than a few dictators into exile.

Not saying that NGOs working in more traditional "development/empowerment" niches have no place, just suggesting that an NGO-driven strategy is not and should not be confused with a civil society strategy. It's difficult for us to actively assist indigenous political organizations without co-opting and discrediting them, but we can play an important role in influencing government to avoid suppressing them and accept peaceful criticism.

kdog101 (not verified)

Sun, 11/28/2010 - 1:03pm

What is an "indigenous civil society"? Is that different than a local elected government?

I do not see how you can have true empowerment without the locals having weapons.

I also don't see how you can have true empowerment if the government being formed is not based on a balance of power between individuals, local government, and federal government.

Both of these are fundamental to what the United States government was founded on. How can we go around the world, and promote something contrary to this?

I understand many in our military and many on this forum are uncomfortable with really empowering people because they are afraid of the outcome (i.e. mass chaos, civil war). I think certainly chaos and civil war are a real possibility, but can there really be a good government without risking these possibilities?

Lawrence Chickering

Sun, 11/28/2010 - 4:00am


You and I have gone around these issues several times. As I have said before, I am for indigenous NGOs, and I am for international NGOs that empower indigenous NGOs. Greg Mortenson's organization is a good example. He promotes local ownership of his schools, and that is why communities where he works protect the schools against radical extremism

This comment:
empowering citizens, who are a greatly underutilized resource, to become active participants in COIN. A common statement of this objective would be to say this will greatly increase "our capacity" to resist insurgencies, but the real point is to increase "the societies capacity" to resist. </i>

is a bit disconcerting to me. How can we "empower citizens... to become active participants in COIN"? The essence of empowerment is enabling citizens to do what they want to do. Empowerment may enable citizens to oppose insurgents, or it may enable them to support insurgents, if that's what they want to do. If we propose to "empower" citizens to do what we want them to do, that's not empowerment at all.

People don't fight a government, or support those who do, without some reason. If the people in question see government as a threat to their lives or interests, if they have real reasons to be suspicious and hostile toward government, or if they simply do not want to be governed, empowerment is not likely to reduce their tendency to insurge. It may exacerbate that tendency. We have to face reality: in most places threatened by insurgency, the citizens have excellent reasons to dislike their government, and NGOs aren't likely to change that.

There is a common illusion that poverty, neglect, or lack of government services spawns insurgency. All of these factors may be present, but they are rarely sufficient: people in these places generally have very low to nonexistent expectations of government. They fight because they see government as an actual threat.

Not to sound like a broken record, but it seems to me that these pieces consistently neglect the essential difference between indigenous civil society and foreign NGOs. The development of an indigenous civil society is an extremely important factor: civil society organizations provide a third level of organization between government and insurgent, and give citizens a capacity to influence government without resorting to insurgency. It is important to note, though, that this role cannot be assumed by foreign NGOs. If it isn't indigenous, it's foreign intervention.

The danger of mislabeling an NGO-focused strategy as a civil society strategy is that the labels allow government to pretend that they have a civil society strategy when in fact they are using an NGO-focused strategy. All too often that allows foreign NGOs, more media savvy and with better donor connections, to crowd indigenous civil society out, crippling a potentially very valuable resource for the society.

Lawrence Chickering

Sat, 11/27/2010 - 1:39am


You ask a key question: why do the people of Afghanistan care less about their own security than the people who want to take it away? This is a very large question. Part of the answer, I think, is that most people have no stake in the society, therefore feel little reason to defend the system against people trying to bring it down. With a stake created by ownership -- of property or a school -- they become interested in security. Insurgents have a stake, forged by the "narrative" that drives their commitment to radical Islam. I believe they are motivated by something very like a trance. (See my SWJ article "Humanizing 'The Man': Strengthening Psychological and Information Operations in Afghanistan", published Oct 11, for thoughts on how to create a counter-narrative that might weaken or even break this trance.)

Billy Bob Jones,

There are different forms of ownership. I cited Hernando de Soto's experience with getting property rights for the poor in Peru, which played an important role in putting the violent Maoist terrorist group, Sendero Luminoso, out of business. I mentioned Greg Mortenson, and while money does come from the U.S. for his schools, it is very clear when a community feels ownership and when it does not; when it does, it will defend the schools. My program, Educate Girls Globally (EGG) only empowers people; it gives no money at all for anything. At the
end of two years, working in 500 schools, 178 schools had clean water that did not have it before. We don't know where the money came from, but we know the people felt a strong sense of ownership of the improvements they built.

These are the kinds of things we ought to be researching, but all real experiences I know about validate the point I am making about ownership.

I am sorry for your friend who could not get community approval to build a school. Creating community ownership is not just about providing money. Giving people ownership is about giving them as big a role as possible in a variety of tasks -- but *starting with the decision to build a school*. I think his real problem is that he does not know about how to drink tea with the elders. (I am not just making a joke about that.)

Programs that are successful in this kind of work -- even in violent places like central Punjab in Pakistan and Upper Egypt -- are initiated by indigenous people, working in the local language. Even if American money is involved, "Americans" (whatever that means) are nowhere to be seen. I think the source of money is much less important than the organization of the program: if it all comes from "outside", the tribal antagonism to outsiders will get in the way. If the program is structured to empower communities to decide what they want, why should the Taliban want to disturb their self-assertion? Why would the community let them? I know many programs that operate in Afghanistan by this principle and they have little trouble with the Taliban.

You doubt that people want to be empowered if it smells like a USG operation. No question about it. But if the structure of the program is about them and not about us, we have not found a single community that does not want to be empowered and to have a stake in the system.


Fri, 11/26/2010 - 3:51pm

Lawrence Chickering,

I understand your point and I think it would be wonderful if we could understand the tribal dynamic better like RH stated but I am just not sold on our ability to give them that ownership or create a motivation in people to take ownership if they do not have a desire themselves. I would ask the question of whether or not it matters very much to ownership if something is built by Americans or has some seal on it if the money to construct that project came from the US government. I think anyone would agree that the more Afghan's do the more ownership they will have and the better things will be, but if they build it but didn't supply the money/materials do they gain or lose legitimacy with the people of that community? This relates to the Afghan government running the project and not the community itself. It also is important to state that whether or not the money did in fact come from the US, if the perception is there that it did, there is little legitimacy of the project beyond the Afghans that are doing the work being puppets of the US or an illegitimate government in Kabul.

Money coming from any outsider in general can be a road block in Afghanistan. An afghan I know who has made some money with his translator and security business there wanted to go back to his home village in the Panjshir Valley and give some of that money back to his community. He wanted to build a school, guess he liked three cups of tea too?, he talked with the elders and they would not give him permission to build the school and would not take his money because they were afraid they would owe him something later or he would come back and expect something from them even though he had explained they wouldn't. So now he is frustrated and the kids from his village still have to walk 4 miles to school every day.

In relation to individual communities taking ownership for themselves and Greg Mortensons work, not sure if this relates to the EGG or the work you do, most of the areas he worked in were extremely tribal and remote, similar to the areas that the APPF has been suggested to work and has been successful. Along with the areas being remote, the wartime environment is incredibly different from people to take ownership for a project in peace time. If an Afghan village is going to build a school with US help (reality or perception, lots of involvement or just money/supplies), you better believe your friendly neighborhood Taliban are going to have a 3 A.M. one way discussion with the elders of that village. It takes a lot more in that type of situation than it does in a poor town in Rajasthan. Also I think it is important to note that Mr. Mortenson, when the DOD wanted to give him money and the congresswoman that was helping him out, forget the name right now, wanted to get him funding he turned it all down because he knew that any association with the US government would destroy his program because of the perceptions in the region. His separation from any US agency and the generosity his donors, along with him being an amazing human being, is what allowed him to be so successful and why so many people came to him and took ownership for the projects. I am not sure anyone from the US government can do something like that and I dont think we could organize such an effort today without some US government bureaucracy.

Even if you had thousands of incredibly skilled and honorable/selfless Afghans and you just flew money and supplies into Afghanistan and turned it over to them, it is still going to smell like the US and I am not sure people over there would go for it. I absolutely appreciate your point and think it is wonderful what you do for the world and the children there but all I am saying is if people don't want to do something and they don't necessarily like or trust you (much different perspective being an NGO compared to a US government entity) it is going to be hard to change their minds.

RH (not verified)

Fri, 11/26/2010 - 1:16pm

The word "tribalism" was mentioned in the remarks to the author's paper.

Tribalism is truly the "great impediment" to a vision of a unified state, be it in Afghanistan or other countries with cultural bounds cultivated by years of territorial it language, culture, religion, religious sects or family oriented clans.

Having work Paktia, Khwost and Ghazni provinces in the early days, it was so evident we did not understand the depth of this obstacle to a unified vision of a state/country. As such, Karzai is an has been termed the "mayor of Kabul" from both locals and those of us passing through Afghanistan..then, today and no doubt tomorrow.

Coupled with the war in Iraq, Afghanistan simply "sled" off the priority of the Bush Administration "deep thinkers" (or so called). Now we are playing an end game which so far has been less than what any of us expected or wanted.

The sooner the depth of "tribalism" is truly understood in the context of Afghanistan, the sooner we can motivate the locals to take full and un-conditional responsibility for themselves.

How is it that the people of Afghanistan have less interest in their personal security than those who wish to take it away? This is the question..and until we find the metric to the answer, strategic strategy laying a foundation for ex-fil from Afghanistan will be only a "wish".

SE Afghanistan/2003

Lawrence Chickering

Fri, 11/26/2010 - 8:49am

:Billy Bob Jones,

Your focus on my point about empowerment as an instrument of our agenda misses the essential issue I have emphasized in every article I have published in the SWJ -- although I know your concern has significant merit in relation to what we are actually doing there. My emphasis on empowerment is precisely meant to de-emphasize our role and increase theirs. In my vision, there will be no development projects stamped with an American seal because focusing on our role rather than theirs disempowers them. Of *course* many of them don't want anything to do with that.

On your point that Afghans don't want to join the Afghan national army and have no interest in any empowerment or ownership that relates to the "great cause of Afghanistan", I have repeatedly argued that one of the great challenges in a tribal society is encouraging people to see beyond their own family and tribe. The question here is: even if they have no interest in empowerment and ownership to any large entity called "Afghanistan", would they be interested in empowerment and ownership of things *in their own communities*? Every place I have looked says, emphatically, yes. When they have "ownership" of a school or well, they will protect and maintain it. That is the point Kristof makes about Greg Mortenson's experience working in northern Afghanistan; it is true in nearly 2,500 schools that EGG is working in in the very tribal state of Rajasthan in India, and it is what people working throughout Afghanistan report about their experiences there.

What I am advocating is based on the experience of every single community where we are working and of every single community I have studied of groups that are genuinely empowering people.


Wed, 11/24/2010 - 3:48pm

The idea of empowering civilians is incredibly important and something that helps a COIN campaign in a lot of ways and I do not doubt that fact. I also agree 100% about the disconnect of senior civilians and "objective" oriented groups from the reality on the situation on the ground. The idea of measuring empowerment (how you measure that effectively topic for another paper) to explain progress is interesting. I also agree with how the USAID resources are wasted and constantly reinvested in the US rather than the mission it is supposed to be accomplishing. A lot of this however is just the time old problem of the guys in the field not being able to relate to the guys in A/C soft rock offices trying figuring out if they ship a million pounds of ammo to a facility in the middle of nowhere, it will save the government $5 annually that can be spent on studying mating habits of red jungle ants in Brazil...I really dont think there is any hope to change this, you are talking about a lot of people that are living and always have lived in a completely different world.

However I think there is a major limitation this paper fails to mention and that is the issue of the peoples' motivation to be empowered. A lot of Afghans could care less about the current conflict and have no intention of taking ownership of something they dont believe is theirs. The Afghan Government has been against the APPF since its development. Yes the argument about strategic impact can be a matter of our focus, but every afghan I have talked with has explained that if they wanted to fight in the war they would have joined the army and that the areas that such a program would be successful would only be in limited Pashtun areas that are remote where the strategic significance of such populations to the big picture is in question itself (you show up and people think you are Russian). Places like Afghanistan that have been at war for decades and people have seen foreign powers come in and out (look at the next development project you are working on over there, original will be stamped with British seal, next Soviet union, and here we are paying for the next addition/renovation) and a lot of them only see us as the next "business of extortion", get us to pay for as many of their problems and they make as much money as they can before we leave and they need to befriend the next invader. I dont want to give the impression that there are good intentioned Afghans out there but the idea that a majority of these people want to be empowered, with us still there, is not reality on the ground or at least my experiences. A lot of what happened in Iraq happened on its own and we just jumped on the band wagon when the tribes started rebelling against AQI. Our ability to reall alter civil society as outsiders is limited. Everything we do over there needs to have the mindset that we are preparing them for when we leave and getting them to take ownership, but I really dont see how this can be extensively improved this late in the game. I understand COIN campaigns are long but you got to remember lot of people didnt like us when we were going in there initially and we have been there disrupting their lives which would be fine if we weren't there (perception much more important than reality as all of you know) and an entire generation is being raised knowing that alone. A lot of these people are in a mode of survival and they are going to get whatever they can from all sides while limiting their suffering. It isnt just empowering people but having some type of check on them upholding their side of the agreement and not to mention that method shouldnt be something that pushes them further and further away from us. Good luck right? Also need to be aware that people taking ownership doesnt always lead to a good thing, not every person on earth is out there to help the community and you really need to be prepared to accept those situations and try to prevent them when you can but understanding it will be very difficult with the family allegiance that tangle the political framework. Getting actual buy in from people to put their lives and their familys safety at risk takes a lot more than building them a school and handing them some weapons when they have been fighting and seen others fight and die for decades.

Yes we need to work as hard as we can to mentor and professionally develop afghans to take on the challenges that face their country and yes they need to have ownership of what they are doing and run the show as their capabilities allow (definitely not expecting US competence in tasks but good enough), but the idea that everyone over there is just yearning for ownership and to serve the "great cause of Afghanistan" (so much nationalism over there I just dont understand why they arent all jumping and screaming to volunteer! ) is just not reality. Maybe next time we get into one of these things we react faster in the first year or so to get the ownership and mentorship aspect rolling faster. Afghanistan, I don't know...