The Future of Violence in Afghanistan

The Future of Violence in Afghanistan

COIN is nation building at the point of a gun. It's time for a new doctrine.


The failure of the American effort in Afghanistan should force a rethinking of the counterinsurgency (COIN) doctrine that has become canonical in Washington. This doctrine emphasizes building strong central states, attracting popular support through services and development and using military forces to control local populations. It is state building at the point of a gun: the government, as monopolizer of violence and focal point of politics, stands at the center of these efforts. Vast sums of American money and huge numbers of U.S. troops have been invested in trying to create a violence-monopolizing central state in Afghanistan.

The assumptions embedded in this policy are flawed. Historical and contemporary experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq show that militarized state building is only one of several strategies through which governments can “manage violence” and deal with armed actors. States and armed groups can negotiate live-and-let-live spheres of influence, collude over smuggling resources and targeting common enemies, share control of territory or tacitly agree not to escalate violence. States may contain insurgencies rather than trying to eliminate them, accepting the continued existence of insurgency as part of governance. Bargains and deals often develop between states and violent nonstate actors that allow workable politics even without a government monopoly on legitimate violence. These strategies and the wartime political orders that emerge from them can create forms of stability that do not require huge commitments of blood and treasure.


There are four strategies of violence management that governments use: monopolization, political favoritism, containment, and divide and rule. Monopolization involves building state institutions, providing social services, and either destroying or formally co-opting nonstate armed groups. This model of militarized state building is explicit in the FM3-24 Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, and it guided the 2009 “surge” in Afghanistan. It is a costly and protracted strategy that aims to push the state to the local level and turn it into a society’s dominant specialist in violence.

In practice, successful monopolization tends to be a long and often brutal process of repression, co-optation and social control. The history of state formation in the United States and Western Europe shows that international war, internal violence and extraordinary degrees of resource extraction are intertwined with violence monopolization. Resistance must be overcome, citizens must be homogenized, key elites must be bought off and incorporated, and society must be penetrated and dominated by state institutions. The people in the state’s crosshairs may rebel or defy this project.

Unfortunately, this strategy has become conflated with counterinsurgency writ large. Many regimes have avoided thoroughgoing monopolization in the face of social violence because of its economic and political costs. Monopolization is difficult enough on a state’s own territory but becomes prohibitively challenging for overseas interveners. The problems of COIN in Afghanistan show what happens when a third-party counterinsurgent commits to this ambitious strategy. American policy makers embraced monopolization as COIN because it promised that all good things go together: states can be built, security created, legitimacy instilled, services provided and insurgents marginalized. Winning wars while doing good, under the auspices of an ostensibly benevolent Leviathan, seems an attractive combination, even if the historical record is far more ambiguous. In reality, the many goals of monopolization often conflict with one another in an incredibly complex political environment, generating increasingly high costs and entangling commitments.

Monopolization is not the only way to manage violence. Less ambitious strategies can create stability without imposing full state domination by accepting the existence of violent nonstate actors and doing business with them. Important examples abound of deal making, accommodation and collusion between states and armed groups. In Iraq, the “Anbar Awakening” emerged through cooperation between American forces and Sunni nationalist insurgents. In Burma, a series of ceasefires has reduced the human toll of the Burmese military’s counterinsurgency campaigns. In India’s Northeast, ceasefires and tacit bargains have provided a degree of stability rather than the crushing imposition of state power or a breakdown into total war.

When pursuing political favoritism, states repress clearly antistate insurgents but tolerate or actively sponsor paramilitaries and militias, armed wings of political parties that support the regime, politically connected criminal networks, and pro-state militants. Nonstate violence is directed to the advantage of the state: some groups are cracked down on, others are treated with benign neglect and others are supported. This is much less costly than monopolization because it does not require forcing all nonstate actors to either disband or become a formal part of the government. In Pakistan, armed groups in Karachi have a central role in electoral politics that provides incentives for controlling their violence. Political favoritism’s direct costs are lower than those of monopolization, but this strategy does create a risk that armed groups will escape the control of the state and start to act against its interests.

Containment is a common strategy of violence management, especially in large states with turbulent peripheries. This strategy seeks to hold social violence below a certain threshold but does not commit the massive resources necessary to destroy all nonstate armed groups, whether insurgents or pro-state forces. Some violence is accepted as a given cost of political rule; it is “priced in” to expectations about what governing coercion requires. State forces cut deals with insurgents to limit conflict, including ceasefires, collusive bargains and the communication of red lines above which nonstate violence will trigger retaliation. Pro-state armed groups and criminal networks are loosely controlled but have significant latitude. The threat that regimes face is violence escalating in ways that embarrass political leaders and security forces, threaten territorial integrity or disrupt the economy. When these escalations occur, the state must deploy its coercive capacity to bring violence down to an acceptable level.

India has employed this strategy in its Northeast, while Pakistan has done so in its Northwest. Their aim has been to cap violence and wait it out en route to making deals and incorporating armed actors into new forms of political order. Sending massive forces into areas of unrest to impose the full writ of the state is technically possible but is politically unnecessary and undesirable. Instead, these governments use security forces to keep violence broadly under control, rely on alliances with local strongmen and armed groups to maintain a form of “ugly stability” on the periphery, and focus on more pressing political challenges. This is a messy form of order, but it enables local social actors to carve out a degree of autonomy without incurring the resistance that comes with aggressive state building.

Monopolization, favoritism and containment all assume a coherent state structure that can—when directed—try to repress other actors and control society. But some leaders must manage violence without having this capacity. They may sit atop fractured regimes, divided or unreliable militaries and ineffective police forces, and they face a broad set of warlords, insurgents and other armed groups. This is a dangerous world. Rulers can respond with a divide-and-rule strategy by playing off different forces against one another. Leaders act as brokers trying to build and maintain coalitions of control. Warlords, insurgents, criminal actors and many other specialists in violence become wrapped up in building new orders.

Afghanistan between 1988 and the Taliban’s seizure of Kabul in 1996 fit this strategy in a swirling series of alliances and deals. Divide and rule is an important strategy of counterinsurgency despite looking nothing like contemporary COIN doctrine. Yet the survival of the Najibullah regime in Kabul between 1988 and 1992 (when it used Soviet and Russian aid to create patronage networks) shows that this strategy can open space for creativity and innovation that creates politics somewhere between a fully developed state and a failed state. In some contexts, this may be the best option for forging something like stability despite its bloody and morally tenuous nature. Over time, the divide-and-rule strategy may create possibilities for co-option and incorporation that can slowly create more established political structures.

These strategies reveal that “counterinsurgency” is not in fact synonymous with militarized state building. There are less expensive and less intrusive ways of managing violence that can create political space for bargains, mutual accommodation and forms of stability on the ground. The implications of this basic insight for American strategy are important. Rather than committing to projects of nation building and violence monopolization, the United States can work with allies to contain violence at acceptable levels and lay the basis for sustainable local arrangements that do not require violently pushing state power into areas of unrest.

The coercive power of Afghanistan’s state cannot be built fast enough to establish social control and a monopoly of state violence in the near future. America’s policy choice is not between massive and endless counterinsurgency, on the one hand, and a breakdown into total war, on the other. The history of Afghanistan’s wars suggests that pragmatism can be found even among enemies. Alliances and bargains with armed groups may provide the basis for longer-term processes of state incorporation and consolidation, just as they did in the development of many European states. With Osama Bin Laden dead and Al Qaeda marginalized, core American interests can be satisfied without an expansive state-building agenda.