Leadership and Strategic Peacebuilding in Afghanistan

Aref Dostyar

February, 2015

This piece was written while the author was completing a Master of Arts degree in Peace Studies at the Joan B. Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.

Executive Summary

This paper will describe the need for leadership to redefine power, re-imagine the future, and build capacity in order to create lasting peace in Afghanistan. The paper argues that power need not be understood as a zero-sum game, but power can be shared; thus, it can be a useful tool for peace. The paper defines a strategic leader as someone who has a vision and a systems-thinking approach to peacebuilding.  These qualities of leadership are explained throughout the paper. In short, “vision” is described as the ability to see opportunities through the presenting challenges, and “systems thinking” is defined as the ability to see beyond individuals and understand the interconnectedness and cause and effect among all stakeholders in a conflict. This paper argues that the war in Afghanistan is complex and cannot be resolved by making peace only between two or more individuals. There are numerous stakeholders, with various and sometimes conflicting needs and ideologies, who must be understood in order to make lasting peace. 

This paper explores Afghanistan’s 2014 presidential election to provide an example of the current leadership dynamics, critique them, and propose strategies for change. The paper concludes with three concrete recommended steps for Afghan leaders to move forward: 

  1. Assign a Committee for Creating the Future to facilitate debates and dialogs on forming a national vision;
  2. Prioritize the top three challenges that need immediate attention considering the limited available resources; and
  3. Create “open systems” within the existing institutions to emphasize the inclusion of all parties in leadership roles, encourage coordination and creativity, and keep building capacity. 

Elections and Leadership Dynamics

The campaign for Afghanistan’s 2014 presidential elections began in February and the elections were held on April 5. Abdullah Abdullah acquired 45% of the votes against Mohammad Ashraf Ghani’s 31.6% (Stancati, The Wall Street Journal, June 2014). The elections were inconclusive since none of the candidates garnered more than fifty percent of the votes. According to the election laws of Afghanistan, these two leading candidates vied against each other in a runoff election on June 14. As the runoff votes were being counted, it was obvious that Mr. Ghani was winning. Afghanistan’s Elections Commission reported a seven million person turnout in the runoff, which was disputed by Mr. Abdullah. Mr. Abdullah accused Mr. Ghani of voter fraud and suspended his engagement with the commission. Disputes among the two candidates and the commission began, which led to a political deadlock. Tensions escalated, demonstrations began, and hope was taken away from Afghans. 

The US Secretary of State, John Kerry, visited Kabul two times attempting to break the crisis. In addition, the UN began mediating between the two candidates upon Mr. Abdullah’s request, which was endorsed by Hamid Karzai, the outgoing president. There were lots of ups and downs in the relationships of the candidates, which created anxiety among the people of Afghanistan. The candidates used tactics of blame, fear, and manipulation. Afghans were afraid that their country was on the brink of a civil war once again, and they began losing trust in the capacity of their leaders to sustain democracy. Although claimed by some to be a short-term solution, the two vying candidates broke the political deadlock in the fourth week of September by signing a power-sharing deal and creating a new position, the Chief Executive Director, for the losing candidate. 

Leadership in Afghanistan has dynamics that express power as a zero-sum game in which leaders cannot imagine sharing power in collaborative ways. Afghan leaders seek positions that give them total control and they are fearful of being excluded completely if they lose. The resulting outcome of the 2014 presidential elections moved toward giving the two leading candidates their own position, but did not create a mindset of shared collaborative power. Expressing power as a zero-sum game will result in manipulation of power, people, and resources in ways that will hinder peace processes in Afghanistan. On the contrary, I argue that peacebuilding in Afghanistan requires a different mindset, that is a shift from expressing power as a zero-sum game to strategic leadership. Strategic peacebuilding demands to redefine power, re-imagine the future, and build capacity to understand and shift dynamics with a system’s view in order to create lasting peace. 

If understood correctly, power is a useful tool. Peter Northouse defines power as “the capacity or potential to influence. People have power when they have the ability to affect others’ beliefs, attitudes, and courses of action” (1997: 6). Power in this sense is an important tool for change. Aside from tactics of blame, manipulation, and fear-which can increase power, but can also perpetuate violence that shortens the life of this power- Afghan leaders can gain legitimate power which is given to them by their followers, the people, by choice. In this scenario, they would emerge as leaders rather than use force to gain or maintain power. Today, power is abused in Afghanistan. Most leaders use it for personal gains. It is evident from the bulletproof cars they drive in, the number of body guards they travel with, and the big sums of money they make. To build peace, personal gain must be reframed as power to work for the common good. What strikes me, however, is that some people praise leaders who use their power for personal gains. To people who object to this practice, friends and relatives of power abusers and in some cases even the general public say things like “He’s done well. If you can, go do the same.” Or “He’s done well. He won’t be needy now.” And they rhetorically ask, “Why are you so jealous? Would you not do the same if you were him/her?”  

Reframing the Leader’s Mindset

Robert Ricigliano lists a number of theories for peacebuilding. Some of these theories suggest individual change, healthy relationships and connections, justice, grassroots mobilization, shift in public attitude, reduction of violence, diversion of resources from making war to making peace, and establishing social institutions for values that promote peace (2012: 27). In order for any of this to happen, peacebuilders need to be able to lead well, that is with an effective leadership strategy. John Paul Lederach and Scott Appleby define strategic peacebuilding as a “flowing together of people and processes who would not normally come together or head in the same direction … to reduce violence and advance justice” (Philpot and Powers, 2010: 36). 

The responsibility of bringing all levels of society and, more importantly, those who would not normally agree on a direction to move, lies in the hands of peacebuilding leaders. We have seen that it is not an easy task. Seth Jones in his paper, “The Rise of Afghanistan’s Insurgency: State Failure and Jihad” (2008) writes that “[t]he leadership of al Qaeda has great influence in Afghanistan and supports the Taliban regime in controlling most of that country. In Afghanistan, we see al Qaeda’s vision for the world” (8). Jones finds out that between 2002 and 2006 the number of attacks by insurgency groups in Afghanistan increased by 400% and the number deaths by 800% (2008: 7). These incidents have created an unsafe country both for Afghans and for the internationals who live there. A 2013 Asia Foundation survey shows that 75% of Afghans have a fear of safety while traveling from one place to another place in the country (31). In a situation as hostile as this, we need to lead and be led with the strategic mind of a leader in order to create lasting peace. 

There is no one way to build and sustain peace in Afghanistan. In the midst of diversity of approaches, there can exist a wholeness. Lederach and Appleby hold and I agree that “the greater potential can be realized by envisioning peacebuilding as a holistic enterprise, a comprehensive and coherent set of actions and operations, that can be improved by greater levels of collaboration, complementarity, coordination, and, where possible, integration across levels of society” (Philpot and Powers, 2010: 24). I believe that individuals or organizations will coordinate and collaborate with peacebuilders if we have 1) a vision and a design of change; and 2) a systems thinking approach to reach our vision. These two concepts are explained below.

Vision and the Design of Change

In his book, The Little Book of Conflict Transformation (2003), Lederach writes that peacebuilders need to “develop a capacity to see the immediate situation without being captivated, overwhelmed, or driven by the demands of presenting issues” (Lederach, 2003: 48). Although we need to be responsive to the immediate needs, Lederach suggests we see them as a window. Windows are important to have and once they are in place, we do not see at the window but through the window. Events that happen also create leadership opportunities for peacebuilders. Strategic peacebuilders can see beyond the present. They see what the current situation could look like in later decades. Lerdarach calls this “short-term responsiveness and long-term strategic” (50). Strategic leaders deal with the present while at the same time painting a picture of the future. In July 2012, Afghanistan presented its vision to the International Community in the Tokyo Conference II. 

“The government of Afghanistan is committed to improve the lives of its people. Afghanistan is a poor country, but need not remain so. If properly developed and carefully managed, its strategic location, productive agricultural zones, and bountiful mineral resources can provide the basis for a vibrant, sustainable economy. Foundational investments in these and other sectors will establish an environment where the private sector will lead growth, creating jobs and a diversified economy. Access to education and health and well-being of the Afghan people will continue to improve. These along with the improvements in governance will establish a platform for self-reliance, prosperity, stability, and peace in our country” (4).

However, imagination in and of itself isn’t enough. Vision must be communicated effectively to others, or it will never become a reality. I intentionally use the word “effectively”. This means we need to speak in the language of the people in order to communicate well. How this vision is communicated to a farmer in the remote village of Dar-e Zhowandoon of Samangan will be different than communicating it to a school teacher in the city of Aibak. The language of business differs from the language of science. To each group, we need to show what life will look like for them. Communication is fundamental, especially when strategic peacebuilding requires collaboration across the levels of a society. 

Developing the vision and communicating it to others is still an incomplete process. Strategic leaders need to set specific, measurable, and time-framed milestones. Progression toward the vision is understood by these milestones. If they are met successfully, it will create energy and trust among people and peacebuilders. Some of Afghanistan’s milestones mentioned in the Tokyo Conference II include the following:

“By 2025, Afghanistan will have taken over full operational responsibility for its own security and will be leading development initiatives to build on foundational investments and good governance that will pave the way to economic growth, fiscal sustainability, and sustainable human development.”

“By 2030, achievements in development and governance will allow Afghanistan to emerge as a model of a democratic developing Islamic nation” (5).

The cited vision focuses more on the economy of Afghanistan. We need to develop visions and milestones for all sectors. Milestones must be further broken down to annual and quarterly plans. This will create a spirit of accountability which will call for serious work. Serious work will lead to achievements. Achieving these milestones will motivate peacebuilders and the International Community to invest even more in Afghanistan. Then, we will move faster toward peace. 

Systems Thinking Mindset

In addition to developing and communicating a strong vision, I believe strategic leadership in Afghanistan needs to acquire a systems-thinking mindset. This mindset realizes that there is a systemic nature in Afghanistan despite the existence of complexity, and perhaps even sometimes chaos. Pamela Buckle Henning and Wan-Ching Chen in their research paper, “Systems Thinking: Common Ground or Untapped Territory?” (2012), write that “[t]he belief that a system exists amidst disparate people, behavior, and events spread over time and space is indeed a mental leap, one regularly taken once one becomes a systems thinker” (477). Henning and Ching write that systems arise from interconnections among its members. Peacebuilders do not work in isolation. They influence and are influenced by the members of the systems within which they operate. There are a variety of peacebuilding activities in Afghanistan. Peacebuilding is done through medicine, road construction, human rights, development of infrastructure, state building, promoting democratic values, etc. As each activity takes place, Afghan leaders must be able to see both the parts (members of the system) as well as the whole (collective identity of members) in order to understand how the Afghan system works. 

Ricigliano argues that systems thinking helps us move from only focusing on the parts to seeing the whole. Lisa Schirch (2013) defines systems thinking as a meta-theory for analysis that sees the whole (22). Systems thinking understands that each part is related to other parts. Thus, there is interconnectedness, feedback, and dynamic causality between the various activities as well as actors of peacebuilding (Ricigliano, 2012: 22). 

The reason war in Afghanistan has lasted so long is because it is a complex situation. To think that creating a new position in the government for the opposing party leader will calm tensions is linear thinking, as opposed to dynamic thinking. Within the system of Afghanistan, there are not only two people who have conflict. George Richardson, a systems thinker at the State University of New York, defines a “systems view” as that which “stands back just far enough to deliberately blur discrete events into patterns of behavior.” Richardson uses the words “stepping in” and “stepping out” to view systems. In the case of Afghanistan’s elections, when we step in we see two rival candidates. In contrast, when we step out, there are numerous players who are interconnected within the system. We have the people of Afghanistan, the civil society, the International Community, government officials, warlords, insurgency groups, and so on. They are all interconnected. Any action by one part can cause predictable and unpredictable responses by other parts, which can in turn affect the part that initiated the action, as well as the rest of the system. The reason some believe the solution of the election deadlock is short-term is because the conflict is not only between the two candidates, but exists between many players within the system. 

I believe that Afghan leaders must step out and look at the whole system, the interconnectedness of its parts, and ask questions fundamental to long-term solutions and collaboration across the levels of society, and only then make decisions. Some questions to deal with the election problem may include: “Why does candidate A contest the result?”, “Who is he connected to?”, “What do those people believe?”, “Who are those people connected to?”, “What are their motives?”, “How is candidate A connected to the society?”, “What do the masses think?”, “How will the mid-level leaders respond?”, “What about the top-leaders?”   “Will the solution last and why?”, etc. 


I conclude this paper by suggesting three concrete steps for Afghan leaders to take in order to progress toward building lasting peace in Afghanistan:

Committee for Creating the Future: Afghan leaders at all levels must debate and agree on a common vision for the future of Afghanistan. Vision forming must be encouraged at all levels of society, from the presidential palace to individual households. I propose the Afghan president set up a Committee for Creating the Future which is assigned the task of designing a system and gathering people’s ideas about the common future, analyze the data, and present the common themes to the president and the cabinet, who should finalize the vision. Three questions that I suggest the Afghan people and Afghan leaders must answer to craft this vision include: “What is our current reality?”, “What is our desired reality?”, and “What resources do we need to get there?” Also, Afghan leaders must set a system of accountability to measure progress toward the common vision. This will allow the Afghan leadership to move toward the future rather than allowing the future to move toward them (Mishe 2009: 701). This is creating the future. 

Prioritize the Challenges: There is no doubt that a post-conflict country such as Afghanistan faces numerous challenges. Although I believe that these challenges need to be addressed simultaneously, I suggest that Afghan leaders prioritize them to best expend the limited resources available at a given time. Leaders may begin prioritizing challenges by asking these questions. What are the top three challenges in Afghanistan? Will addressing these challenges also leverage positive changes in other areas and create a solid foundation for lasting peace?  And, do we have the necessary resources to address these challenges?

Open Institutions: I propose that the Afghan leaders, both governmental and nongovernmental, create open systems within the existing institutions in Afghanistan. This means our leaders need to intentionally include people of all tribes and languages at all levels of leadership and hear their opinions on building a peaceful Afghanistan. Fourteen leading authors on systems thinking agree that “open systems have a better chance of staying alive and vibrant in the world” (Henning and Chen, 2012: 474). Open systems will encourage creativity and keep the cycle of critiquing the current realities, re-imagining the future, and building capacity going. 

Academic Books, Articles, and Surveys:

Lederach, John Paul, Building Peace: Sustainable Reconciliation in Divided Societies (United States Institute of Peace, 1997) 

Lederach, John Paul, The Little Book of Conflict Transformation (Good Books, 2003)

Northouse, Peter, Leadership Theory and Practice (Sage Publications, Inc. 1997) 

Ricigliano, Robert, Making Peace Last: A Toolbox for Sustainable Peacebuilding (Paradigm Publishers, 2012) 

Philpott, Daniel and Powers Gerard, Strategies of Peace, Transforming Conflict in a Violent World (Oxford University Press, Inc. 2010) 

Jones, Seth, The Rise of Afghanistan’s Insurgency: State Failure and Jihad, International Security, (Vol. 32, No. 4, pp. 7-40, The MIT Press, 2008) 

Henning, Pamela Buckle and Chen, Wan-Ching, Systems Thinking: Common Ground or Untapped Territory? (Published online in Wiley Online Library, 2012) p473

Schirch, Lisa, Conflict Assessment and Peacebuilding Planning: Toward a Participatory Approach to Human Security (Kumarian Press, 2013) p22

Mische, Ann, Projects and Possibilities: Researching Futures in Action (Sociological Forum, 2009)

Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Towards Self-Reliance: Strategic Vision for the Transformation Decade (http://mof.gov.af/Content/Media/Documents/Towards-Self-Reliance-27-6-201...)

Afghanistan in 2013: A Survey of the Afghan People (Asia Foundation, 2014: http://asiafoundation.org/country/afghanistan/2013-poll.php)

News Sources:

Stancati, Margherita, Afghan Candidate Boycotts Count of Votes (The Wall Street Journal, June 19, 2014: http://search.proquest.com.proxy.library.nd.edu/docview/1537143924?accou...

Ashraf Ghani Races to Make His Mark on Presidency in Afghanistan (New York Times, October 21, 2014: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/10/22/world/asia/afghanistan-ashraf-ghani.ht...

President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan Is Sworn In, Even as He Shares the Stage (New York Times, September 29, 2014: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/30/international-home/ashraf-ghani-sworn-...

Afghan Constitution to Be Amended Within Two Years (Tolo News, http://elections2014.tolonews.com/afghan-constitution-be-amended-within-...

Incoming Afghan Government Faces Internal Challenges (DW, September 21, 2014: http://www.dw.de/incoming-afghan-government-faces-internal-challenges/a-...

Afghanistan Profile (BBC, October 26, 2014: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-south-asia-12024253