Local power-holders crucial in counterinsurgency

3 December 2016

Co-option of local power-holders is an essential tool for enhancing security and stability in a fragmented country such as Afghanistan. Therefore, intervening western nations like the Netherlands should never ignore such agents who typically dominate the grass roots level. This is the conclusion of PhD research conducted by Martijn Kitzen, who has analysed co-option of local power-holders during the Dutch mission in Uruzgan and the colonial Aceh War. Kitzen will obtain his PhD from the University of Amsterdam (UvA) on 14 December.

Whereas western armies traditionally are optimized for combat against armed forces of rival countries, many contemporary conflicts occur in a more complex setting in which soldiers find themselves fighting elusive irregular opponents among the local population. The recent counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, for example, aimed at defeating insurgencies by ensuring a safe and stable environment. To better understand the complexity of these missions, Kitzen, a former military officer, studied the Dutch campaign in Uruzgan between 2006 and 2010 and the colonial Aceh War at the end of the nineteenth century.

Kitzen concludes that durable stability can only be achieved when the intervening party is willing to exploit the local pattern of legitimacy. This is especially important in so-called weblike societies like Afghanistan, where a wide range of village elders, warlords and tribal leaders command the human terrain at the local level. The Dutch failure to curtail the power of former Uruzgan governor Jan Mohammed Khan illustrates what happens when intervening forces do not fully embrace local power structures. 'By removing him from office, the Netherlands took away his formal power but underestimated his informal power: money from drug trafficking and his relationship with, among others, president Karzai’, says Kitzen. ‘Moreover, Karzai brought his friend Jan Mohammed to Kabul as an advisor on tribal affairs.’ This position enabled him to continue influencing Uruzgan’s political market place. This culminated in the sacking of the new governor and the subsequent return to dominance of Jan Mohammed’s Popalzai tribe when the fall of the Dutch cabinet triggered the withdrawal of the Dutch task force in 2010.


The Netherlands tried to act ethically right and therefore decided not to cooperate with this predatory warlord known for alienating a significant part of the local population. Yet, at the same time this policy inadvertently undermined long-term stability, says Kitzen. The PhD researcher believes future missions should be tailored to the specific local circumstances by use of a comprehensive analysis of the local balance of power including identification of key players and their (mutual) interests. ‘You then need to decide who to empower in order to enhance the position of marginalized societal segments, and to foster an inclusive local government that enjoys broad popular support. The other side of the coin is that you should also determine how you want to weaken malign dominant actors in order to reconcile local factions. In Khan’s case, for instance, one could have targeted his wrongfully acquired funds in order to diminish his power and influence.'

In order to obtain an insight into the long-term consequences of interventions in highly fragmented societies, Kitzen also scrutinised the dynamics of the Aceh War. ‘Such a colonial war is comparable to counterinsurgency campaigns. In both cases, the military is deployed to establish a stable government that prevents insurgents from gaining a foothold and exploiting factional feuding. Collaboration with local power-holders is instrumental in this process.’ The Aceh case illustrates the potentially far-reaching consequences of such interference. In this conflict, pepper entrepreneurs gained an unequally strong position as a result of military support from the Netherlands. These leaders subsequently started to abuse their newly gained power and imposed hardship on the local population. This planted the seeds of a renewed uprising on the eve of the Japanese invasion in 1942 and later against the Indonesian government.

Wars of choice

Although in both cases the result of intervention did not prove durable , it doesn’t necessarily mean that counterinsurgency campaigns should be avoided, says Kitzen. ‘On the contrary, this actually is the traditional mistake. Instead we must start to learn from earlier campaigns. We need to incorporate skills for understanding local societies and influencing local power-holders in military training. It is even more important to increase political awareness on the importance of acknowledging the role of local power-holders in the mandate as well as the fact that such interventions require long-term commitment. Only then counterinsurgency campaigns can be improved. That is crucial in the contemporary security environment: from an European perspective Iraq and Afghanistan might be considered "Wars of Choice", but with the current instability closer to home, "Wars of Necessity" in for instance Syria or Libya might emerge as very real possibilities. Such wars directly affect our national interests, and therefore the time has come to learn from the past.'

PhD details

M.W.M. Kitzen, The Course of Co-option. Supervisor: Prof. H. Amersfoort. Co-supervisor: Dr M.A. Fumerton (UU)

Time and location

The PhD conferral will take place on Wednesday, 14 December at 13:00. Location: Aula, Singel 411, Amsterdam.

Published by  University of Amsterdam