What Legitimate Actor?

Below is a blog post that I just wrote for the Knowledge Platform Security & Rule of Law and their online debate on “Building peace locally” and “Working with local non-state actors” (available at: http://www.kpsrl.org/online-debate/online-debate-discussion/t/what-legitimate-actor).

Building peace locally is a noble idea. Yet, finding legitimate and accountable local actors to work with is often more complicated than expected, in particular when what is meant by building peace locally in fact comes down to externally selecting and empowering the actors that are considered legitimate.

Peace-building is sometimes defined as the transition from negative peace (the absence of direct violence) to positive peace (the absence of structural and cultural violence), that is, an ambitious long-term process that aims at transforming a given society, encompasses a variety of actors (local, regional, and international), and starts after open conflict has effectively ended. Yet, in the past two decades and particularly since 9/11, as state failure has become increasingly seen as the main threat to international security, peace-building has been almost invariably associated with state-building. Creating and strengthening government institutions at central level has been considered the best way to counter and prevent the dangers of state failure (terrorism, piracy, drug smuggling, refugee flows, human trafficking, etc.). But the international community has failed to build legitimate and sustainable states in Iraq and Afghanistan and is desperately in need of a more efficient and cost effective strategy. As a result, it now faces a conundrum as to how to establish political order without engaging in state-building activities in places where warlords and militias are imposing great demands on the population and raising fears of insecurity in other states (Somalia, Syria, Iraq, etc.).

Legitimacy is key. Most observers agree that violent fundamentalist groups build on marginalized individuals and communities to expand and consolidate power (the rise of the Islamic State is a case in point). Given that the international community is ill-equipped to build legitimate states in places where non-state armed actors contest the rule of central authority, policy-makers have shown an increasing interest in recent years in identifying legitimate local actors that could provide peace and stability at sub-state level. Much of the focus of European and American country assistance has shifted to empowering local sub-state actors with the capacity to control populations and collect information (that is, provide security). The Sunni Awakening (Sons of Iraq initiative) and the creation of the Afghan Local Police (ALP) clearly show that engaging with legitimate local actors to ‘build peace locally’ has even become the crux of recent counterinsurgency strategies in Iraq and Afghanistan. For an early formulation of such an approach in Afghanistan, see for example Major Jim Gant’s very controversial One Tribe at a Time.

These strategies are based on the assumption that there are legitimate local actors to be identified, empowered and relied upon. The problem is that local does not necessarily mean legitimate. In countries that have been at war for 30 years or so, there is not always a single legitimate local power-holder to be reckoned with. In Afghanistan for example, the influence and legitimacy of community elders has considerably weakened over the years, either because they have simply been eliminated by one of the warring parties (Soviet forces, Mujahideen, Taliban, etc.), or because they have been involved in the fighting and the atrocities of war themselves. Picking and empowering non-state armed actors is a very risky strategy, in particular in places where decades of war, displacement, and ethnic tensions have destroyed any shred of social cohesion. Engaging with local actors also modifies local practices and political equilibriums and in turn impacts the construction of the central state. While it can in some cases produce more ‘indigenous’ kinds of political authority (local peace-building) and even enhance state consolidation (for example by promoting patrimonial leaders who actually address grievances and deny insurgents a support base), in others it can have destabilizing effects and create further instability (see for instance theAfghanistan Analyst Network’s report on the ALP in Kunduz province).

How then can the international community work with local non-state actors and make sure that they gain legitimacy and accountability? There is no good answer to this. Policy-makers who decide to engage in such strategies should be extremely cautious because when it comes to meddling with local politics there is no single recipe and it can easily backfire. The bottom line is that legitimacy can be enhanced but not imposed. Working with non-state armed actors is easy. The United States and the rest of the international community have done it many times in the past decade or so: with, for example, Afghan warlords, the Sons of Iraq, and the Peshmerga. Making sure that these actors turn into legitimate and accountable rulers is much harder. Perhaps building the local political order is like state-building: the essence of it is not to build institutions and empower specific decision-making bodies, but to foster a number of virtuous processes, in particular with regards to the use of non-violent dispute resolution mechanisms. The key might not only be to pressure the rulers, but to empower the populations they need to be accountable to, for instance by supporting local businesses and associations or targeting specific groups, conflict resolution bodies, human rights watchdogs, and local media.

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About Afghanopoly

I am an Assistant Professor of peace and conflict studies at Radboud University's Centre for International Conflict Analysis and Management (CICAM). I completed my PhD in Political Science at Northwestern University and Sciences Po under the supervision of Will Reno and Bertrand Badie. Among other things, I teach students about the politics of international intervention in Afghanistan and elsewhere. My research focuses on the political strategies that Afghan strongmen use to consolidate and legitimize their authority. I am particularly interested in how these actors manage to conduct their own forms of international relations. My field research brings me in contact with Afghan community leaders, politicians, diplomats and foreign military officers.
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