Editor's Note: Too often, we evaluate situations, problems, and people through lenses of our own culture and norms. This mirror-imaging leads to tragic misunderstanding and dramatic miscalculations. Brad Fultz argues for a qualitative matrix that tries to see actors through an Afghan lens.
Executive Summary: Executing COIN through altruistic lenses leads to failed policies at all levels of warfare in Afghanistan, from the tactical environment, to decisions made vis-à-vis President Karzai. Ignoring local definitions of legitimacy and failing to measure why and how legitimate actors intermix in Afghan society both isolates western forces and is counterproductive to our efforts to reinforce the current government in Kabul. The Legitimacy Matrix is an effort to develop a qualitative tool that will assist leaders in understanding the environment in which they are operating, and simplify the challenges of understanding the often mystical ‘human terrain.’
The practice of Counterinsurgency (COIN) theory in execution leads intelligence analysts to track updated activities along so-called Lines of Operation (LOOs). Unprepared staffs and shops scurry about measuring abstract and ill-defined concepts such as governance, development, rule of law, and counter-narcotics with no local, historical, baseline to compare to. The Obama administration has even established 45 metrics of progress in building Afghan Governance and Security. Although the efforts (and costs) are notable the results are unsurprisingly limited. The underlying cause for this failure is the inability to track the vital variable in state development, and one could effectively argue, the only important variable, which is legitimacy. The fundamental question that should be asked is if the Afghan government figures we are partnering with are legitimate power brokers in the areas we are operating in? While Intelligence shops and SOICs (Stability Operations Information Cells) are busily analyzing governmental structures and whether full ‘tashkeels’ (governmental staff at the district and provincial levels) exist or not, these organizations and others should be focusing on the legitimacy of various actors within a given area of operations. Ultimate success equates to having the most legitimate actor within an area loyal to GIRoA (Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan) and the Afghan Constitution. If the legitimate actor is not a supporter of GIRoA than a plan needs to be developed to how to change that reality, either through kinetic actions, or more diplomatic coercion.
Both Intel and Civil Affairs Units have used the ASCOPE (Areas, Structures, Capabilities, Organizations, People, and Events) and PMESSII (Political, Military, Economic, Social, Infrastructure, and Information) matrices to better explain and identify human terrain. Both are fine products that can assist a commander frame the environment more completely. Such products however, only provide information of peripheral importance. This article purports that another matrix should be adopted and used by units from the Company to the Regional Command level as well as Special Operations Command (SOCOM) units executing Village Stability Operations (VSO) to best identify the most legitimate local actors in various districts and provinces of Afghanistan. This spreadsheet is simply called the legitimacy matrix. For the purposes of this article we will simplify the definition of legitimacy as it pertains to Afghanistan as the ability of an individual or group of individuals to coerce, co-opt or manipulate a population to fulfill a leader’s or group of leaders’ desires.
It is overstated that Afghanistan is a complex environment that requires a deeper understanding of “wicked problems” in order to best shape and execute operations on the battlefield. Although there are many moving parts and conflicting interests in Afghanistan, grasping the human terrain of any given AO is not as difficult as it may seem to be. It is simply a matter of getting the inputs right. The key input in Afghanistan is asking the questions surrounding legitimacy of actors. Who has it? Why do they have it? How do they maintain it? What are they doing with it? Based on an individual’s use of coercive power is their relative power versus other competing legitimate actors increasing or decreasing? How are foreign forces affecting their legitimacy? The legitimacy matrix assists the analysts and the command in better understanding the roots of legitimacy in an AO, and ultimately could lead to assisting in reintegration of fighters by understanding why they are resisting GIRoA. In Afghanistan much to the chagrin of NGOs and USAID partners building girls schools, and promoting equality amongst various ethnicities is not a measure of legitimacy. However military prowess, creation of stable environments and execution of justice certainly are.
Dynamics in Afghanistan between provinces, districts, and even sub-districts (naheeas) can vary drastically. Because of this unique dynamic what is considered legitimate in Kunduz Province in the north is different from legitimacy in Helmand and why someone is legitimate in northern Helmand, will also differ greatly from central and southern Helmand Province. The legitimacy matrix identifies the key tenets of legitimacy in Afghanistan based on historical norms of behavior and not on western ideology or altruistic goodwill that has little if any local precedence. The tenets of legitimacy are crosschecked against the variables, which are the historically powerful actors in Afghan society. Some groups will be strong in some measures of legitimacy, while weak in others. Identifying legitimate actors that do not have a voice in GIRoA is likely a starting point to understanding reintegration and reconciliation.
The legitimacy matrix is not intended to produce a final legitimacy score where groups can be matched and compared, but instead provides a word picture of each individual or group that is an influencer in local dynamics and describes why they are important. The word picture created further develops the situation for the commander as to how to best engage, counter, or co-opt each individual actor or group of actors ultimately attempting to shift local dynamics making GIRoA the primary legitimate force in each area. Below is a generic example of a sample matrix that could be applicable in many areas in Afghanistan:
How the Matrix Works: In the Vertical column the various variables of legitimacy are identified. The horizontal list on top identifies the groupings of Afghan society. Again the list provided for the purposes of this article is a generic one and can be expanded or reduced according to the specific district, province or region. Sticking with the basic tentents of Afghan society, which are tribal leadership, religious leadership and government representation is a good launch point. This list can be expanded to include various leaders of local former Mujahedeen groups, current leaders of social networks, and leaders of the various ethnicities. Additionally there will be political opponents to the current Karzai regime, as well as the Taliban shadow government. Dependent on the location of the operating unit, there will be and very well should be great flexibility in the creation of the matrix. The analyst cannot rule out Taliban leadership, narcotics traffickers and other nefarious characters as well. The truth is that many of these undesirables hold a certain degree of local popularity and support for one reason or another. The analyst must consider why, and how this has occurred.
Below is an example of how the legitimacy matrix could be filled out. Understanding that dynamics and leadership between districts and provinces varies greatly, this simplified example matrix is designed based purely on my own personal experiences in Helmand Province.
Using the Product: Each cell provides its own word picture regarding the various groups of a given area and why they are important in society and what they represent. If the above matrix was being filled out completely it would include other actors and broken down to greater detail to include leadership of individual tribes, Mullahs in specific geographic locations, those resolving disputes, trusted community leaders such as Mirabs (control irrigation) and key shopkeepers operating in the bazaar. All of these dynamics intermix with one another to paint a fuller picture allowing for the command to make informed decisions regarding CERP (Commanders Emergency Response Program) projects, ALP (Afghan Local Police) appointments, and individuals they should be coordinating through for sustainable progress. The above matrix does not provide any definitive answers, but it shows that in January of 2009 GIRoA lacked legitimacy in Marjah for understandable reasons. The Tribal elders had been weakened, religious leadership had been usurped, and the Taliban had ultimate legitimate use of force and ability to establish a secure environment. It also displays certain tribal support for the Taliban for justifiable reasons. The ultimate purpose of the matrix though should not be lost, and that is to identify legitimacy, and find ways to link powerful local actors to GIRoA. This is not a one step process, and the matrix is designed to display the complexities of an Afghan village and the competing political dynamics at work. It is not with brute force that GIRoA will gain monopoly of force and legitimacy throughout its borders; it is through the coercion of other legitimate actors and an understanding of the population. Only in this way will GIRoA be able to expand its influence into the districts peacefully.
The legitimacy matrix certainly does not tell a commander what to do, but it frames the environment more completely and intermixes history, culture, current events, and current realities together in a concise and understandable manner that is locally focused. The legitimacy matrix is an additional tool that can be used by operators conducting VSO, intelligence shops, and civil affairs units in rural areas throughout Afghanistan.
 Katzman, Kenneth. “Afghanistan: Politics, Elections, and Government Performance.” Congressional Research Service Report. 12 Dec. 2011. p. 33
 A Tashkeel translated from Arabic as to “give shape of form” it is the term used for a staff of government employees at both the Provincial and District level in Afghanistan. A Tashkeel will include a District Governor, Deputy, Police Chief and other representatives of the central government at the local level.
 Giustozzi, Antonio. Empires of Mud. Columbia Press. 2009. Although this definition is not directly given, throughout his book the role of legitimacy and rulership is referred to frequently. This is simply a quick definition taken from a study of Giustozzi’s work. This article is heavily influenced from the ideas presented in this book. Specific pages of interest include pp.12-14, pp 187-203, pp 267-278. This definition can be expanded and/or challenged, but for the purpose of this article, I find it sufficient and welcome differences of opinion.