Leading Peace with Information and Strategy in Afghanistan

Aref Dostyar

June, 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.


This paper will argue that the success rate of Afghan leaders will increase should they lead peace processes with information and strategy. In short, leading with information and strategy is defined as learning about the needs of people and providing evidence-based yet creative responses that are also strategic in the long-term. The paper will provide a brief assessment of the challenges Afghanistan faces today, unpack the meaning of leading with information and strategy, and discuss smart decisions, producing results, and gaining trust as benefits of the type of leadership argued for in this paper. The paper proposes that the way to move forward is to focus on state capacity, institution quality, and building economy as Afghanistan’s top three priorities.

Afghanistan Today

The challenges of a conflict-torn country such as Afghanistan are many. The long list of these challenges include, but are not limited to, weak governance, unequal distribution of resources, autocracy, economic depression, low quality education, poor health services, division among groups, human rights violations, corruption, the rise of insurgency groups, and fights over power. The Fund for Peace’s annual Index of Failed States rank Afghanistan seventh among 178 countries (Fund for Peace Online, 2014). Del los Reyes (2011) holds that Afghanistan’s public institutions’ incompetency, illegal trafficking of narcotics, corruption, and inter-ethnic tensions account for the State’s failure (p. 190). 

Despite the described challenges, a general look at Afghanistan demonstrates that there have been a number of significant achievements in the past decade. Afghans created a government which did not exist prior to October 2001, held democratic presidential elections three times since 2002, and peacefully transitioned political power from one elected president to another elected president in 2014. Afghan leadership also expanded our diplomatic relations from three countries during the Taliban regime (Saudi Arabia, The United Emirates, and Pakistan) to nearly every country, established an army of approximately 350,000 troops (NATO report, 2013), increased the number of high school students from 900,000 boys in 2001 to 8 million children with 2.5 million girls in 2013 (USAID report, 2014), and increased access to health care from virtually no access in 2001 to about 80% in 2011. Finally, the Afghan Constitution has established that a minimum of 25% of seats be held by women in order to ensure their political opportunities among many more achievements (Cortright, 2011, p. 66-67). Evidence demonstrates that Afghanistan has the potential to produce both qualitative and quantitative results as it relates to peacebuilding. To overcome its challenges, Afghanistan needs smart leadership. The following concepts and suggestions for action will not resolve all of the Afghan problems but they will certainly provide a solid foundation for peace.

Leading with Information and Strategy

Leading with Information. In this paper, leading with information signifies learning the needs and desires of the public and providing evidence-based responses to those needs and desires. Research shows that one of the fundamental tasks of the government is to provide for the essential needs of people in order to prevent conflict (Jones, 2008). Thus, peace is not simply the absence of war. Peace in Afghanistan entails providing the people equal access to essential services such as health, education, economic opportunities, political inclusion, human rights, etc.  Afghan leaders must answer two basic questions:

1) What are the needs and desires of people? (this must not be assumed but actually gathered from the people)
2) What are evidence-based yet creative approaches to responding to these needs and desires
(as opposed to mere opinions or a single individual’s thoughts)?

Leaders learn about the needs and desires of their followers by gaining information. Mujtaba (2007) emphasizes the significance of a learning culture in organizations where all employees are heard for the purposes of effective leadership. In fact, Kerfoot (2004) states that “[t]he only resource leaders have is information” (p. 208). This may be an overstatement; nonetheless, information plays a key role in leading effectively at all levels. Although it is critical to be open to receiving all types of information, Mujtaba warns leaders to test the accuracy of the information they acquire (p. 55). Some might report inaccurate information in order to influence decisions and policies toward their desired directions. Accurate information must stand the test of evidence and confirmation by other sources. One must present compelling evidence and logical reasoning to back up claims of information. It is also crucial to test the accuracy of the information gained against multiple sources. Critical information is not simply a report of events or facts, but a tool to improve leadership.

Leaders who have acquired critical information and used it effectively have also caused great change. As an example, in 1990, Jerry Sternin was assigned by the organization Save the Children to open an office in Vietnam on the invitation of the Vietnamese government. Sternin’s challenging job was to fight malnutrition, which was prevalent in Vietnam at the time. During his data gathering phase, Sternin intentionally looked for one critical piece of information – whether any extremely poor children were healthier than normal children. Through his research, he found out that, although very few, there were poor children who were bigger and healthier than typical kids. In order to test his information and build upon it, he went to visit these children and their mothers. He learned that these children ate four meals a day instead of three, ate in smaller portions to ensure better digestion and ate different food. He cloned this finding in other villages, which transformed one after another in a short period of time (Heath & Heath, 2010, p. 27-30).

Just as Sternin asked critical questions regarding malnutrition, peacebuilding leadership in Afghanistan must ask critical questions regarding conflict, such as what works and what does not, and must lead peace processes based on empirical evidence and vital information in order to anticipate change. There are various methods of gaining information. These methods may include studying similar cases in other parts of the world, surveying within Afghanistan, speaking directly with people, visiting sites, and seeking feedback in different forms. Leaders can use one or a combination of several methods to receive accurate information. It is important that leaders are open to receiving information. Inspired by Friedrich (2012), leaders must treat information as a gift. The receiver of a gift is receptive and appreciative. When leaders view information as a gift, followers will be encouraged to present gifts more openly. Furthermore, peacebuilding leaders must acquire information and learn as they work, not only after they have completed their work. They must always update their information and learn new things without waiting until their projects are fully implemented. In other words, peacebuilding leaders need both feedback and feedforward. Feedback, argues Goldsmith (2003), deals with the past, however, feedforward deals with the future. Feedforward is usually expert or technical advice on how to move ahead. Both feedback and feedforward can be used by peace builders to lead more successfully. 

Leading with Strategy. Benito-Ostolaza (2013) highlights strategic behavior as an essential component of strong performance. Similarly, Rowe (2011) reports that strategic leadership “leads to above average returns.” Leading with strategy is a combination of Lederach’s (2003) “short-term responsiveness” and Moon’s (2012) “vision-driven thinking”. This type of leadership responds to present needs in ways that will leverage future goals. Leading with strategy involves at least two elements. First, it includes systemic and creative thinking. Moon quotes Kaufman’s description of systemic thinking as “a switch from seeing the organization as a splintered conglomerate of disassociated parts competing for resources to seeing and dealing with the corporation as a holistic system that integrates each part in relationship to the whole” (p. 1699). Based on this understanding, Afghan leaders must not see themselves as merely individuals but actually as parts of a wider system that influences and is influenced by their actions. This means each and every individual within the system is important; therefore, they must cooperate. Furthermore, Moon urges leaders to think creatively. Without creativity, the information gained will not be fully utilized for the purposes of efficacy and success in peacebuilding. Creative thinking in peacebuilding is the ability to provide viable concepts that will not just resolve a given conflict, but transform it into peaceful results.  Combining systemic and creative thinking will deliver results such as improved self-image, better cooperation, and more harmonious life among conflicting parties than before the conflict. It is not about just putting an end to the conflict (conflict resolution) but also utilizing the conflict as an opportunity to create a more lasting peace (conflict transformation).

Second, leading with strategy includes a “vision-driven-thinking.” Any short-term response to a conflict must also be long-term strategic - that is it must have long-term peaceful results. In order to lead peacebuilding strategically in this sense, there must exist a long-term plan - a vision. A realistic vision for peace creates a common purpose for those concerned with it. A vision for lasting peace and creative strategies to reach it must have the support of the people. To put in context, Afghan leadership must include all willing Afghans to create a vision for peace and to develop strategies toward that end. Schirch (2011) maintains that Afghanistan needs a peace process that is both “wide and deep.” Stakeholders from all three levels - top, middle and grassroots - leadership must be included in plans leading to peace in Afghanistan.

An inclusive peacebuilding process, according to Schirch (2011), will have at least four benefits. First, it will gain public support. Schirch explains that about half of all peace agreements fail at least partially due to a lack of sufficient public support. People who contribute to forming a vision for peace and developing peacebuilding strategies will likely also own them. Ownership will make citizens take responsibility for bringing their work to fruition. In contrast, people will not work for a vision that they do not believe in. Second, it will earn legitimacy for the peace process under the government’s leadership. A legitimate peace process is more likely to succeed than one that is not. Third, an inclusive peace process is likely to be sustained longer than an exclusive one. The longer a peace process lasts, the better opportunity for leaders to transform conflicts. Finally, an inclusive peace process will lay the foundation for democratic governance.

As Kaufman (2012) calls upon all leaders, this paper specifically invites Afghan leaders to “move beyond inspirational words,” formulate a national vision, develop sustainable strategies for peace, and deliver results.

The Benefits of Leading with Information and Strategy

Thus far, the paper has argued that gaining critical information to lead change, learning about the needs of the public and responding to these needs short-term, while keeping in mind the long-term goals, are all important elements of a peacebuilding leader’s success. This type of leadership has at least three benefits that are discussed below.

Smart Decisions. Natale, Libertella and Rothschild (1995) define a decision as “a choice between alternatives” (p. 5). Schwarbar (2005) mentions objectives, alternatives, and risks as three critical components of a decision making process (p. 1087). In order to make a single decision, a leader must determine the objective s/he wants to reach, find several alternatives to choose from, assess the risks and benefits involved in each alternative, and then choose the best one. This paper contends that the “choice between alternatives” is intelligently made when critical information is obtained to develop alternatives, short-term objectives are aligned with long-term objectives, and risks are calculated in light of both present and future gains.

Results. Smart decisions are those that will lead to desired results. No matter how the decision is made, a peacebuilding leader is not successful if her/his decisions do not produce results. Covey (2006) compares results in the performance of a leader with fruit on a tree (p. 110). Covey writes that fruit is the measureable objective of a tree. No matter how strong the roots, trunk, or branches are, without fruit a tree is barren. Leading with information and strategy will enable peacebuilding leaders to make decisions that will produce desirable results.  

Gain Trust. Results will create trust in leaders. According to Covey (2006) “trust means confidence” (p. 5). Confidence inspired by desirable results will reinforce public support, legitimacy, and lasting effects which are crucial in peacebuilding. Covey compares a high degree of trust in leaders with the leaven in bread that elevates everything around it. Peacebuilding also entails collaboration, communication, relationships, partnership, innovation, and strategy. Trust as a consequence of tangible results will improve all of these areas among peacebuilding leaders. It is important to note that trust is not gained only by producing results. It is simultaneously inspired by integrity, good intentions, relevant capabilities, and measurable results.  Nonetheless, leading with information and strategy will ensure that peacebuilding leaders create a trust account and then deposit in their accounts through smart decisions and the results that they produce.

The Way Forward

As discussed earlier, a conflict-torn country like Afghanistan has numerous challenges. However, in order to best utilize the time and resources available, leadership concerned with peacebuilding in Afghanistan must prioritize these challenges based on their strategic leverage to other areas. This paper proposes the following top three areas that must receive immediate and simultaneous attention in Afghanistan: state capacity, institutional quality, and building of the economy.

State Capacity. Empirical research demonstrates that good governance is conducive to peace. State-level governance is crucial to the question of war and peace, although governance is not limited to government only. Cortright, Seyle and Wall (2013) identify two pathways for state governance to build peace through state capacity and institutional quality. Cortright et al. (2013) use the term “state capacity” to refer to security capacity and social capacity. They define capacity as “the ability to follow through on the collective decisions that are made, the ability to effectively provide the public goods and services that the state is tasked with delivering, and the ability to enforce the decisions made in the face of actors who choose to dissent or resist collective decisions” (p. 8). Research findings suggest that a government cannot keep peace without the capacity to provide security and enforce state decisions within its boundaries. After reviewing 125 post-1945 civil wars, the study emphasizes that a government’s level of police and military capacity and reach to rural areas are proportionately linked to the rise or decline of insurgency (p. 9). Additionally, after studying the security challenges of Afghanistan, Jones (2008) concludes that weak governance is a precondition to the rise of insurgency groups. Therefore, Afghan leadership must make state capacity one of its top three priorities.

Institutional Quality. Although it is important to build security capacity and social capacity, it is not possible to maintain effective governance over a long period of time without establishing quality institutions. Institutions (which are common to both security capacity and social capacity) are “mechanisms that embody customs, practices, and behavioral patterns to provide consistency and structure to human relations” (Cortright et al., 2013, p. 12). According to Cortright et al., good mechanisms of governance are those that are accountable, resilient, and inclusive. Several studies show that high institutional quality leads to reduced risk of armed conflict or political crisis. Therefore, this paper proposes attention to institutional quality as a top priority for Afghanistan.

Building of the Economy. In an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations (2015), President Ghani said that Afghanistan has inherited one million unemployed youth. He also mentioned that 36% of Afghans live in poverty. These numbers leave over ten million Afghans vulnerable to recruitment by insurgency groups that provide some kind of incentive. In the short-run, peacebuilding in Afghanistan must engage these vulnerable populations in projects to provide for their basic needs. In the long-run, peacebuilding in Afghanistan must build economic security both to the people of Afghanistan and government expenditures. Afghanistan’s strategic location between Central, South and East Asia, mineral resources, and human capital are unique opportunities for the country’s economic growth.  If led effectively, these opportunities will create interest among not only Afghans, but most of the surrounding countries - including those historically seen as “spoilers” (i.e Pakistan). Therefore, both Afghans and the surrounding countries will own security threats and contribute toward building and keeping peace. The cycle of more investment and more peace keeping will continue making a peaceful Afghanistan. Thus, Afghan leadership must make building of the economy one of its top three priorities.


This paper described the challenges and opportunities in current situation of Afghanistan and argued that they can be led well with information and strategy in order to build lasting peace. Peacebuilding leaders must be open to learning about the needs and desires of people and creative in providing responses not to address the current challenges only but also to impact future goals strategically with their current decisions. Leading with information and strategy will lead to better decision making, positive results, and trust across the levels of leadership. Afghan leadership must prioritize challenges in order to utilize available resources effectively. This paper suggested building state capacity, institution quality, and economy as the top three priorities for the Afghan government.


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