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Noah Coburn’s “Connecting with Kabul”

By Mac McCallister | Published: May 27, 2010

Read Noah Coburn’s Connecting with Kabul.  The information contained in this report is invaluable for the practitioner of population-centric COIN looking for insights into the importance of local patronage networks in Afghanistan. While Coburn’s work focuses strictly on Afghanistan, similarities in patterns of social networking behavior can be found in other traditional societies.

I personally witnessed many of the same characteristics highlighted by Coburn in the patronage networks of the Anbar tribal awakening movement while serving as the Tribal Advisor to the Multi-National Forces-West in 2005-2007.

Coburn explains:

  • Afghan parliamentarians are first and foremost members of local patronage networks, which include formal and informal leaders.
  • Patronage networks in rural Afghanistan are not strictly resource or service providers. They are also about social relationships and religious obligations and reinforced through marriage, business, friendship and other social and economic ties. The emphasis in patronage networks is on personal relationships rather than on legal-rational, bureaucratic authority.
  • The local patronage network judges its representatives on their ability to provide for resources from the national government and the international community.
  • The local patronage network is a countervailing force to the central government. Community leaders tie into leaders of national-level patronage networks while national-level leaders rely on community leaders to rally local support.
  • Struggles between competing social networks within and between communities shape and determine the power of a given patronage network.
  • How can strategists, policy-makers and practitioners of population-centric COIN use this information?

Back in 1965, Andrew R. Molnar, in “Human Factors Considerations of Undergrounds in Insurgencies” described the challenges inherent in changing individual and group behavior.

Molnar explained that there exist basically three strategies to induce behavioral change.

  • The easiest strategy is to demand a particular behavior toward which the population is already predisposed.
  • The more difficult strategy is to demand that the population change its behavior and adopt an alternative behavior. This demand requires a clearly declared alternative and should entail a demonstrated consequence for refusing.
  • The most difficult strategy is to demand that individuals or groups refrain from a particular behavior they are already pursuing and to act in a manner that sharply conflicts with the current behavior.

Here is how Coburn’s information might help us figure out appropriate population-centric strategies in Afghanistan if we first:

  • Admit to ourselves that a strong central state is not the only remedy to Afghanistan’s challenges.
  • Acknowledge the challenge of creating appropriate power-sharing agreements among the various ethnic groups in Afghanistan clashes with the reality of a strong-central government.
  • Work within the patronage network paradigm.
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