Posted by: hobbesonafob | June 8, 2009

Legitimacy and Nation-building

Unless the counterinsurgent is willing to employ the so-called Roman method of unrestrained violence to suppress rebellion, the only way to defeat an insurgency is to gain the loyalty of the population, thereby depriving insurgents of the support base they require to destabilize a government (1).

– John A. Nagl and Brian M. Burton

In regions where nation-building is occurring in a conflict zone, the importance of Migdal’s notion that social control is a form of “currency” that organizations compete against one another for is prominent. Striving for social control in a battlefield is one of the main tenets in counterinsurgency (2): “Successful counterinsurgency is a successful competition for the loyalty of the population; it implies the government is perceived as legitimate, and that it delivers security and other important services to the people” (130). Others have described population-centric COIN as the “the most critical, enduring maxim of classical theory: in counterinsurgency, it is the population that decides the outcome (3).

The population-centric perspective on COIN is congruent with the population-centric definition of political legitimacy. Simply put, political legitimacy can be accomplished by supporting the population. The banality of such a statement is actually imbued with subtle complexities when one takes into account culture and its dynamics. If legitimacy must be situated within the norms and values of a population, then the counterinsurgent must realize what social contract is being offered by the state, what social contract is being offered by CCNAs, and how these social contracts are regarded by the population (4) Attempting to force a social contract on an unwilling population is not only unsustainable for the counterinsurgent, but it is also counterproductive (5). Pushing a social contract that is incongruent with the norms and values of a population is a poor investment.

The importance of time and resources is reflected in one of the main tenets in nation-building in both Iraq and Afghanistan: capacity building. The “Afghanistanization” and “Iraqization” of the state and state agents (e.g. the army, police, and civil service) is the idea that Afghanis and Iraqis will be able to replace foreign nationals. Ignatieff refers to capacity building or the empowerment of local people as “the authentic vocabulary of the new imperialism,” but is quick to note that,

it isn’t as new as it sounds. The British called it ‘indirect rule.’ Local agents ran the day-to-day administration; local potentates exercised some power, while real decisions were made back in imperial capitals. Indirect rule is the pattern in Afghanistan: the illusion of self-government joined to the reality of imperial tutelage (6).

According to Ignatieff, the reason that the mission in Afghanistan and Iraq are part of a “new imperialism” is that they are part of a forced stability on these regions (7). The type of order that is supposed to prevail in these regions is a democratic system. This study has posited that political legitimacy is fostered when the legislation of a state coincides with the norms and values of a population; here, lies the rub: Western political legitimacy is not the same as Iraqi or Afghani political legitimacy.

In her study of institutions, British anthropologist, Mary Douglas utilized the work of Emile Durkheim, to describe instances in which solidarity and cooperation can work: before ideas can even be accurately communicated between groups, one must not “deny the social origins of individual thought” (8). This premise is important for the following reason:

Classifications, logical operations, and guiding metaphors are given to the individual by society. Above all, the a priori rightness of some ideas and the nonsensicality of others are handed out as part of the social environment. He [Durkheim] thought the reaction of outrage when entrenched judgments are challenged is a gut response directly due to commitment to a social group” (9)

Douglas is bringing attention to the idea that certain societies have inherently different values than other societies. This dynamic becomes apparent when one examines the Western societal values that America has attempted to introduce in Iraq and Afghanistan. The following section will highlight the discrepancies between Western perspectives of legitimacy and Afghan views on political legitimacy.

Olivier Roy points out a few fundamental differences between Western and Afghan views on political legitimacy. However, one should note that Roy’s stance is of a non-culturalist (10). That being noted, he does believe that political legitimacy differs between societies. Legitimacy must be “rooted only in the history and political culture of the country” (11). Contradicting Roy’s statement, the Bush administration’s National Security Strategy of 2002, rooted the acceptance of democracy in its own history:

America’s experience as a great multi-ethnic democracy affirms our convictions that people of many heritages and faiths can live and prosper in peace. Our own history is a long struggle to live up to our ideals. But even in our worst moments, the principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence were there to guide us. As a result, America is not just a stronger, but is a freer and most just society (12).

Applying one’s own experience in their own social environment to another population that is in a completely different social environment is problematic especially when one applies Douglas’ notion that shared experiences is what creates cooperation and solidarity; expectations of political legitimacy between America and Afghanistan are different. Political legitimacy comes from the population’s norms and values. Instructions from the state will only be followed “to the extent that these instructions correspond to the identity of the community” (13). Roy notes that Afghanis expect their state to meet three requirements:

1. it embodies the central concept of Afghanistan as a Muslim and always independent territory, historically built to withstand the Iranian Shi’a influence, the Russian-Soviet empire and the British one, whose legacy has been taken over by Pakistan, Muslim solidarity notwithstanding;

2. it appears as a (relatively) honest and distant broker between local factions, clans, tribes and ethnic groups, even if some are more favoured than others;

3. it channels funds and international help and provides some minimum services (schools, roads) (14).

It is important to note that the concept of democracy did not make Roy’s list; however, he does realize that the problem for the West is that, “current development theory…discards the notion that there are other legitimate cultural models of political power, not based on democratic and free elections” (15).  Again, political legitimacy must be situated in the norms and values of the population.

If control and stability are the objectives of a state, then the incongruence between Western governance and Iraqi/Afghan governance should be addressed by accepting the local form of governance. This does not mean that local systems of governance should be used without evaluating them. This is not an exercise in cultural sensitivity, instead, it is an evaluation of what structures have CCNAs already active within them and what steps must be taken to neutralize or co-opt them.

Works Cited

1. John A. Nagl and Brian M. Burton, “Dirty Windows and Burning Houses: Setting the Record Straight on Irregular Warfare,” in The Washington Quarterly April 2009, 3.129 Population-centric COIN can be considered nation-building while engaging in kinetic operations against an enemy — nation-building while under fire.

2. Adam Shilling, “Toward an Effective and Humane Counterinsurgency,” (Ph.D. diss., University of Louisiana, 2008), 10.

3. Major Mark Grdovic, “Understanding Counterinsurgency,” Special Warfare, December 2004.

4. This does not imply that the population itself should be characterized as a static and monolithic body. This distinction is needed because the term “population” can be dehumanizing and gloss over all of the psychological, social, and even spiritual motivations behind the choices individuals make.

5. Counter-productivity is the combination of losing gains and regarding an absence of a negative as success.

6. Michael Ignatieff, Empire Lite (Toronto: Penguin Group, 2006), 83.

7. Ibid., 93

8. Mary Douglas, How Institutions Think (New York: Syracuse University Press, 1986), 10. 

9. Ibid.

10. “I am not defending here a culturalist approach, asserting that Muslim societies are not prone to democratisation because they are more holistic (discarding heterogeneity in the name of a common belonging to Islam, ignoring secularism and relying on charismatic leaders), or because sharia is incompatible with modern law, or because their social fabric is based on kinship and personal loyalties. The issue is not one of competing models of governance based on different religious and cultural legacies. The issue is the rooting of a Western model in societies that did not choose this model for themselves…” Olivier Roy, “Development and political legitimacy: the case of Iraq and Afghanistan,” in Conflict, Security and Development, 4:2, August 2004: 169.

11. Ibid.

12. George Bush, “National Security Strategy,” The White House September 2002, 3.

13. Jean-Marc Coicaud, Legitimacy and Politics, trans and ed. by David Ames Curtis (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 17.

14. Roy, 173.

15. Ibid., 168.




  1. Nice post. Contemporary COIN is so revered that it is hard to find a good critique of the model. I think your point about, “Attempting to force a social contract on an unwilling population is not only unsustainable for the counterinsurgent, but it is also counterproductive” is a great and more need to take note of it.

  2. Thanks for the feedback. I’ve been enjoying researching different aspects of COIN/nation-building and its relationship with political legitimacy. I still question whether or not a “social contract” is a limited way to look at these dynamics, but it seems to be pretty universal. Ultimately, I think new forms of governance/COIN/nation-building will be needed in the future – maybe models that are more culturally/socially more acceptable to the population?

  3. […] first is this well-written post by Todd MacDonald.  In it, MacDonald compares “nation-building” and “population-centric” […]

  4. No problem. I hope it’s ok but I linked your post to one of my own. I think we share similar research interests. I may write my graduate thesis on the potential pitfalls of COIN, to include the seemingly patron-client type of relationship it promotes.

  5. After going through your blog for a bit, I also believe we have similar research interests (interest in illicit economies is always appreciated!). I’m also about to begin my graduate thesis, although I’ve yet committed to a detailed topic. I imagine it will be based on an aspect involved with COIN or nation-building. Will be in touch when things slow down here.

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