Small Wars Journal

Improving the Understanding of Political Legitimacy in COIN Doctrine

Tue, 02/18/2020 - 9:45am

Improving the Understanding of Political Legitimacy in COIN Doctrine

Jonathan Bradley


The primary method given for counterinsurgency in FM 3-24 is “Shape, Clear, Hold, Build, Transition” which is designed to serve as a framework for commanders at the tactical and operational levels (Department of Army, 2016).  In short, it is a method designed to identity an area where the method may work by collecting information and beginning initial messaging campaigns (shape), clear insurgents out of the area, hold the area to prevent their return, build the necessary institutions and organizations for stability, and finally transition control to the host nation. This method is systematic approach to counterinsurgency, it is ultimately a step-by-step process to guide commanders to develop metrics and met condition-based goals to move from one phase to the next. It seeks to separate insurgent elements from the population through offensive operations then keep them separated to allow for the host nation institutions that enable stability to be created, thus rendering the area secure from insurgent activity. The assumption that a population can have its physical and communicative connections to an insurgency separated is often erroneous, insurgencies are by their nature an out-spring of popular disconnect and seeking to divide a population is a fool’s errand. Since the doctrine assumes that such a separation can be made it does not place as much value on combating the insurgent’s message or the perceived legitimacy of their goals among the population.  This leaves the clear, hold, build strategy vulnerable to insurgent movements with an ideological or historical justification for their goals that strengthen the appeal of their message in ways the U.S. COIN doctrine cannot match.

Defining Political Legitimacy

Timothy Lomperis offers three levels to political legitimacy listed from the highest (most important) to the lowest (least important), these are: belief, opportunity, and interest.  Belief represents the people’s perspective on the government’s reason for being in relation to a society’s “fundamental constitutional arrangements and historical traditions.” Opportunity represents whether or not a government performs the functions expected of it. Lastly, interest represents the competence of the government in exercising its duties and policies (Lomperis, 1996). 

Muthiah Alagappa offers another useful approach by breaking down legitimacy into four separate but closely intertwined elements.  His elements are as followers: “Normative (shared norms and values), procedural (conformity to established rules), performance (proper and effective use of state power), and consent.” Consent is considered to be more than passive acceptance of a government, instead it represents the commitment one makes to the government based on allegiance. It is a conscious choice to accept or reject the government’s actions and roles in a society. These elements may be placed in a hierarchy though the specific order will be unique for every situation, and the nature and importance of each element may change as time goes on (Alagappa, 1995).

FM 3-24 defines legitimacy as “the willing acceptance of an authority by a society” and the struggle to achieve legitimacy with the population as “typically the central issue of an insurgency.” This is an entirely accurate and useful definition of legitimacy for counterinsurgents and correctly defines it as the most important issue of a conflict involving an insurgency. However, the manual lacks enough explanation for the different possible bases of political legitimacy that can link a population with an actor competing for legitimacy. The manual briefly mentions that norms and values are an important factor in whether a popular sees a government as legitimate.  Nevertheless, it primarily advocates Soldiers and Marines support a strategy that develops a transactional basis for legitimacy through the Shape, Clear, Hold, Build, Transition formula. That is, a basis for legitimacy where a government is seen a legitimate because it provides basic services such a security, development, rule of law, etc and the people assent to its authority in order to reap these benefits.

Following Lomperis’s line of thinking, this is analogous to only the interest level of legitimacy and therefore the weakest source of legitimacy.  In Alagappa’s four elements of legitimacy the transactional basis relates closest to performance. Transactional legitimacy is strictly interest based and presumes that the people desire the services being offered and will accept the host nation government as the means to achieve them.  It fails to offer society an ideological or historical basis to justify the government’s existence or characteristics, nor does it consider the functions of government expected by society.  This is a major weakness and is apparent when U.S. counterinsurgency strategy is compared to the strategy of insurgent groups attempting to achieve legitimacy in the minds of the population.

Political Legitimacy in Practice

The Taliban has made a consistent argument for its legitimacy through appeals to Islam, both as fellow Muslims and as providers of an Islamic government, and through appeals to tribal and national identity in Afghan communities (Johnson, 2018). The Taliban, being an indigenous political movement, has a commonality with large segments of the country that the U.S. and the host-nation governments do not.  In a country like Afghanistan, which has endured decades of conflict involving foreign forces, the religious and cultural commonality between the Taliban and the population is a strong basis for legitimacy.  This commonality makes appeals to Lomperis’ belief level of legitimacy (the strongest in his opinion) and Alagappa’s normative and procedural elements of legitimacy much stronger than an American appeal targeting the same elements or the interest basis of legitimacy.

The Taliban also has another advantage in what Alagappa refers to as a goal-rational ideology.  This an ideology which defines the character of the movement and envisions a specific end-state as the purpose and justification for the organization.  While the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) incorporates many of the same rhetorical themes as the Taliban regarding the importance of Islam in government, the Taliban’s message is more refined and points to a specific objective.  The Taliban’s messaging specifically declares the end of foreign intervention and the establishment of a truly Islamic state (as opposed to what they consider watered-down or false Islamism of GIRoA).  By comparison, GIRoA lacks an ideological basis for its existence and is compelled to make arguments for its legitimacy on the basis of performance objectives such as economic development, establishing democratic government, and providing security.  Again, this is not only a weaker basis for legitimacy in Lomperis’ view but many of the performance objectives of GIRoA are contradictory to the normative goals one may expect to find in a deeply religious and socially conservative country.  GIRoA’s appeals to Afghans’ beliefs and normative values also suffer from its link to U.S. messaging which has been largely effective, inconsistent, and damaging on many occasions (Munoz, 2012). As if that were not bad enough, GIRoA’s performance in providing these services has been extremely poor with rampant corruption, misuse of funds, and abuses by security services (Mahsal, 2018; Whitlock, 2019).

This places GIRoA in a difficult situation where its poor performance undermines its claims to legitimacy among the entire population. However, even if its performance is acceptable it is delivering services that are not aligned with the norms and values of many Afghans.  For example, democratic elections are a source of legitimacy for western countries that have established rules on how the composition of government is determined. In Afghanistan this is not the case, meaning poor performance in conducting democratic elections undermines GIRoA’s legitimacy but even if elections were conducted fairly it would confer little legitimacy to the government in a country that does equate elections with legitimate government.  On other issues like women’s education and women’s rights, performance is again a double edged sword.  Poor performance in using funds for education shows the government is ineffective and corrupt, which undermines their legitimacy, but good performance likewise undermines legitimacy since educated and empowered women go against the norms and values of many Afghans.

GIRoA lacks a strong ideological basis for its legitimacy, it has no goal that justifies its actions or its place as the national government of Afghanistan.  There is no appeal to something greater or more important than itself.  This makes its performance basis for legitimacy, even when it performs its functions well, extremely weak as it communicates to Afghans that a government which is not in line with their beliefs, normative values, and procedural expectations is strengthening its position.  By comparison one can imagine how Americans would feel if a government came to power by means other than those expressed in the Constitution, which represents the normative and procedural basis for legitimacy for most Americans.  Would it truly matter the perception of legitimacy if that government made sound investments in public infrastructure and education if it was not constituted in a way that respected American beliefs, normative, and procedural values?  In countries like Afghanistan and other states which lack institutionalized beliefs, normative, and procedural values for a potential government to appeal to for legitimacy, a goal-rational ideological basis for legitimacy is extremely important.  The goal-based ideology provides society with a new normative and procedural values to base their perceptions of legitimacy on.  This can best be observed in the post-colonial world with the use of communism as a goal-based ideological basis for legitimacy used by numerous revolutionary movements.  In places like Vietnam and China, which had seen much their traditional social framework changed or destroyed by colonialism and warfare, a goal-based ideology like communism mixed with traditional norms and values was able to provide people with new beliefs and new norms and values through which to judge the legitimacy of a political movement. This proved far more effective at fostering perceptions of legitimacy than the alternative movements in the same countries which lacked a clear ideological basis as their raison d'être.

This example shows the value of what a deeper look into the nature of legitimacy as both an abstract concept and as specifically applied to real world situations can reveal for counterinsurgents.  For Afghanistan the character of its government is not in line with traditional normative values for the role of government in society nor does it make an appeal to an ideological goal.  In essence one can imagine asking the simple question, “What are you fighting for” to Taliban or GIRoA soldiers, would there be any doubt that the Taliban soldiers would answer with more fervently, consistency, and simplicity?

Shape, Clear, Hold, Build, Transition

The primary framework given in FM 3-24 is Shape, Clear, Hold, Build, Transition, as discussed earlier. This methodology views legitimacy as the natural result of the process and not something that must be actively worked at each stage or as a variable to be considered during operational planning.  By incorporating concern for the political legitimacy of the host nation and U.S. forces at every stage using the legitimacy concepts mentioned earlier the process may be improved.

Shaping is the first and most important stage of counterinsurgency operations, it should begin immediately on the outset of any operation where there is a chance for an insurgency to develop.  Like in a maneuver operation, seizing the initiative is critical for information operations. A strong information operation may produce enough consent, the conscious decision to accept a government’s actions and place in society, to avoid an insurgency entirely.  Information operations during the shaping phase need to be as universally applicable to the whole of the target audience as possible and address societal beliefs, norms and values, and procedural elements. Messaging focusing on a performance basis for legitimacy should only be used when there is an established government that has legitimacy on the basis of the normative and procedural elements, otherwise promises of good performance may backfire as people do not want a government they view as illegitimate to perform well. Without a strong ideological basis, the idea that tells people what they are fighting and working towards, that has the consent or “buy-in” from society a successful counterinsurgency operation will be far more difficult to achieve.       

Clear and hold are both based on the idea that a population can be largely if not entirely segregated from an insurgency.  This includes both physical separation and the breaking of any lines of communication and supply between the population and the insurgency.  This will be extremely difficult for any commander to fullly achieve, especially when an insurgency is a reflection of popular will in all or a significant segment of society. It also runs the risk of undermining the legitimacy of the host nation and U.S. forces if controls on population movement become too burdensome.  When the insurgency is a clear outspringing of the popular discontent of a population it will extremely difficult if not impossible to segregate the population from the insurgency.  In cases like this the best course of action may be instead to co-opt the insurgency, if a way can be found to achieve mutual goals, rather than attempting to fight it directly. 

Co-opting forgoes the step of clearing an area and instead assigns primary responsibility for holding it to the insurgent group, which becomes a partnered force. In essence, U.S. Forces and the host-nation government make peace with the insurgent group and legitimize its actions in return for its support of the political process of the host-nation government. This improves the legitimacy of the host-nation government by giving it the consent of the population supporting the former insurgent group and validates the norms, values, and concerns of that of that population. During the Iraq was this strategy was used to co-opt the coalition of Sunni tribes of Al-Anbar province that became known as the Sunni Awakening.  The leaders of this movement legitimized the Iraqi government as evident by their security cooperation with the Iraqi Government and American forces, reduced levels of violence throughout the province, and participated in Iraqi elections after initially boycotting the process (Wong, 2005)  In return, their security forces were given official sanction, and they received a degree of local political autonomy, thus legitimizing their political concerns and normative values (Rabasa et al, 2011). While the effort was ultimately unsuccessful due to the Iraqi governments failure to continue strengthening its relationship with the Awakening Movement, there was an undeniable window of opportunity to build stability and the efforts of these Sunni groups are a clear example of the importance of consent as described by Alagappa.

Build and Transition are the final two steps of this process, they describe building lasting legitimate institutions and transiting their functions to host nation government control.  It is the final stage of COIN and ideally ends with the host-nation in full control of its public institutions which are seen as legitimate enough by the population that they do not use violence to address their grievances.  Competition for legitimacy should be largely resolved by this point with the most important parties having given their consent for what is to be built.  Consent is vital before building lasting institutions since building institutions that do not have broad legitimacy is only building an obstacle that must be overcome later. In cases where institutions must be built as a necessity of the operational environment, or to take advantage of an opportunity, they should made explicitly temporary in nature. This is in order to not establish institutions prematurely that significant portions of the population may view as illegitimate but nevertheless become entrenched in the host-nation government.     

Returning to the example of the Sunni Awakening, there was consent among the Iraqi government, Sunni tribes, and American forces that Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) should be resisted through a collective effort.  However, there was not consent regarding what would happen to the Awakening Forces once AQI was defeated.  The Iraqi government sough to disband the groups while the U.S. wanted the Awakening Forces to integrate with Iraqi Security Forces, which the Iraqi government opposed due to issues of power-sharing and distrust.  The Sunni Awakening Forces were similarly distrustful but nevertheless made the attempt to integrate because the effort ultimately failed (Rabasa et al, 2011). If the Iraqi government were not so entrenched, having received years of investment from the United States and already holding two elections, then greater pressure could have been made against it to integrate the Awakening Forces.  By rushing to establish a sovereign Iraqi government without the broad consent of the people, the United States all but ensured that government would become just as factional as the other elements of Iraqi society it was trying to bring together.  In Afghanistan the US made a similar mistake of quickly establishing a national government and then seeking to impose its rule across the country where it lacked consent to govern, did not represent the norms and blues of the population, and did not offer a belief or goal-orientated ideology to motivate the people to support it. In countries with a history of weak central governments, or of strong central governments that lacked broad legitimacy, the bottom-up approach to counterinsurgency is most likely to be more successful (Eckert, 2009). Before transitions are made, whether to local institutions, or a sovereign government at the national level there must be broad consent about the nature and character of that government.


Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Doctrine was initially developed in the midst of the Iraq War as the military struggled to accept the situation it found itself in and struggled to create a strategy to address it.  Initially published in 2004 as an interim doctrine, and then in 2006 as a completed publication, the Army and Marine Corps’ primary counterinsurgency doctrine has only been updated once since then.  The 2014 edition makes several refinements to the 2006 edition but there is still much more room for improvement.  Legitimacy has from the very beginning been identified in this doctrine as the central issue to insurgents and counterinsurgents, but the level of analysis given to the nature of political legitimacy is only the broadest strokes. In order to improve US counterinsurgency strategy, as the U.S. continues to be engaged in COIN operations in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Philippines, and other areas, this document must be updated again to provide further information and guidance for how to address the issues of political legitimacy that are present in every insurgency.


Alagappa, Muthiah. (1995) Political Legitimacy in Southeast Asia: The Quest for Moral Authority. Stanford University Press.

Department of the Army. (2014) Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies (FM 3-24).

 Lomperis, Timothy J. (1996). From People’s War to People’s Rule: Insurgency, Intervention, and the Lessons of Vietnam. University of North Carolina Press.

Eckbert, Paul (2009, February 16). Bottom-up approach needed in Afghanistan: report. Reuters.

Johnson, Thomas H. (2018) Taliban Narratives: The Use and Power of Stories in the Afghanistan Conflict. Oxford University Press.

Mahsal, Mujib (2018, December 31). C.I.A.’s Afghan Forces Leave a Trail of Abuse and Anger. The New York Times.

Munoz, Artuno (2012) U.S. Military Information Operations in Afghanistan: Effectiveness of Psychological Operations 2001-2010. (Report No. MG-1060-MCIA) RAND.

Rabasa, A., Gordon IV, J., Chalk, P., Grant, A., McMahon, S., Pezard, S., Milne, C., Ucko, D., Zimmerman, R.(2011) From Insurgency to Stability Volume II: Insights from Selected Case Studies. (Report No.  MG-1111/2-OSD) RAND. 

Whitlock, Craig (2019, December 9). The Afghanistan Papers. Washington Post.

Wong, Edward (2005, December 22). Turnout in Iraqi Elections Is Reported at 70 Percent. The New York Times.

About the Author(s)

Jonathan Bradley is a Civil Affairs Captain in the U.S. Army Reserve.  He served on active duty from 2010 to 2015 including an overseas assignment to Korea and a combat deployment to Afghanistan in 2013-2014 as a Transportation Officer where he primarily served as an adviser/trainer to the Afghan Army and police forces. In 2017 he joined the 440th Civil Affairs Battalion of the Army Reserves and completed his training to become a Civil Affairs Officer in July 2019.  CPT Bradley completed his Masters in International Security from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver, in 2017.



Wed, 04/05/2023 - 9:30pm

I usually watch them for more important facts, then play run 3 for fun, because the info presented is so fascinating. Playing this endless runner game is a blast.


Fri, 09/24/2021 - 6:50am

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