News | Oct. 19, 2017

Facilitator's Guide: Criminal Patronage Networks and the Struggle to Rebuild the Afghan State

By David Gordon and Michelle Hughes Facilitator's Guide


Impunity: Countering Illicit Power in War and Transition 

Chapter 1

“Criminal Patronage Networks and the Struggle to Rebuild the Afghan State” 

By Carl Forsberg and Tim Sullivan 

Facilitator’s Guide 

“The commoditization of political power in Afghanistan” 


The year 2014 was supposed to have signaled a full return to sovereignty in Afghanistan and an end to the twelve-year-long NATO security mission. Instead, while Afghanistan in 2014 was stronger than it had been in decades -- possessing a sizable and increasingly capable set of Afghan National Security institutions -- factionalism, corruption, and the criminal subversion of state institutions left its politics fragile and its long-term security uncertain. The “Criminal Patronage Networks and the Struggle to Rebuild the Afghan State” case study explores how strategic failure occurred, and offers insights that enable readers to identify risks and possible remedies in current and future conflicts. 


This case study is designed so that students will, after readings and facilitated discussion: 

  1. Be able to define “criminal patronage networks” (CPN) generally, identify the types of conditions that allow CPNs to emerge and strengthen, and the risks CPNs pose to durable peace. 
  2. Understand the importance of political settlements and peace agreements to the containment of illicit power, and the risks such agreements can pose to tactical, operational, and strategic success if illicit power is not addressed. 
  3. Identify ways in which CPNs can undercut security assistance, reconstruction, stabilization, institution building and economic growth. 
  4. Appreciate the importance of accountability, oversight, and anti-corruption when conducting campaign design. 
  5. Understand the limits of sustainability when CPNs are allowed to act with impunity. 
  6. Have a greater appreciation of the following factors in understanding the operational environment when trying to anticipate the risk from CPNs: historical affiliation; business relationships; cultural characteristics; religious networks; political factions; social networks; ethnic and familial affiliations; the diaspora and local attitudes toward them; and levels of national commitment and political will. 
  7. More effectively plan and design to mitigate risk and overcome the threat of illicit power from CPNs. 


  • Podcast: “Impunity: Countering Illicit Power in War and Transition – A Conversation with the Authors” 
  • Webcast: “‘Sacred Documents’ and the Enemies of Peace: Why Agreements Matter” featuring Michelle Hughes 
  • Webcast: “Traffickers and Truckers” featuring Gretchen Peters 
  • Facilitator’s Guide: “Traffickers and Truckers: Illicit Afghan and Pakistani Power Structures with a Shadowy but Influential Role” 
  • Lecture Notes: “Leviathan Redux: Toward a Community of Effective States” 


According to Forsberg and Sullivan, systematic corruption and organized crime in Afghanistan are stemmed from the country's 2001 political settlement, which created a set of risks that were underestimated by the international community and the NATO military coalition. This settlement, which came to be known, as the “Bonn Agreement,” resulted in the granting of impunity to warlords, who increased their illicit power by penetrating the institutions of the Afghan government and corrupting them for their own purposes. This was done by means of what the authors call criminal patronage networks (CPNs). 

From the view of Western leaders and diplomats, the Bonn Agreement created a process to build a democratic, sovereign Afghanistan. From the Afghan view of view, the Bonn settlement was part of an ever-evolving grand bargain for the distribution of power between Afghanistan's ethnic and mujahedeen factions. Significant constituencies (principally the Pashtuns) were not present at the negotiations, and were therefore, largely left out. By co-opting the leaders of the most powerful Afghan factions, the Bonn settlement provided a basic framework for competition between the different factions, but left the underlying divisions and conflicts intact. The competition then became one of lobbying for positions in the government and larger shares of international assistance, rather than armed conflict. 

International assistance initially viewed the warlords as allies in the fight against terrorists, and supported them at the expense of building independent and accountable state institutions. In 2003, US policy began to shift toward strengthening central government institutions, which empowered President Karzai to be able to act in opposition to the regional leaders. With US and international resources, the central government acquired tremendous powers of patronage and became the center of gravity for Afghan politics. 

President Karzai, a Pashtun, had no political allies or support within the framework of the Bonn Agreement. Therefore, he adopted a strategy of balancing, dividing, and co-opting Afghanistan's strongmen rather than confronting them. Karzai and the warlords developed a symbiotic relationship in which they used each other to obtain their goals, largely unchecked by international authority or force. Later policies adopted by the Obama administration in 2009 made Karzai deeply insecure about US support, thus making him more reliant on the strongmen and more inclined to accommodate them. Karzai's dependency on the strongmen and their criminal patronage networks for political power ensured that impunity for their illicit activities would continue. 

CPNs used violence to manipulate international donors and Afghan officials to direct a greater share of resources to their affiliates. CPN's competed to capture critical revenue streams; they depended on the continuous flow of money to co-opt officials and to retain their supporters' loyalty. CPN's diverted customs revenues, stole international security and development assistance, facilitated the narcotics trade, and abused public and private financial institutions to the detriment of economic development. CPN's were able to operate with impunity, because they were allowed to exert almost unchecked influence on law-enforcement, investigations, and judicial institutions throughout the Afghan government. Law enforcement efforts to counter CPNs were nearly non-existent. Karzai’s refusal to apply the rule of law to his coalition partners gave former elites free rein to extract as many resources as their positions or institutions afforded. Karzai stated that justice was a “luxury” that Afghanistan could not afford until greater security had been achieved. 

The international community developed programs to build capacity and provide technical assistance to Afghan governmental institutions, but did not effectively address the political and factional causes of the corrupt political economy. International efforts attempted to reduce the opportunities for corruption and to strengthen the institutions against the effects of corruption, but were stymied by lack of political will on the part of the international community out of fear enforcement would put the ongoing military operations at risk, and the absence of any meaningful Afghan capacity. From the beginning, the international community underfunded and under emphasized the rebuilding of Afghanistan's rule of law institutions, especially the police judiciary and prisons. These institutions were subject to influence and capture by CPNs. The authors contend that the international community's failure to acknowledge the inherently political nature of institutional reform created a fundamental barrier to their success. Because the international community failed to prioritize the disruption of CPNs, the CPNs were able to thwart structural and administrative reforms. 

From 2007 on, the US and other international donors recognized the limitations on capacity building, and did attempt to turn some of their attention to developing accountability mechanisms. These included efforts to encourage the Afghan government to investigate prosecute, and convicted officials who committed serious crimes, such as the Department of Justice-mentored Major Crimes Task force (MCTF), and the ISAF-US Forces Afghanistan CJIATF Shafafiyat ("Transparency"). Neither had enough international support or determination to be successful. Efforts were also made within the Ministry of Defense and the Ministry of Interior to establish internal accountability mechanisms that would insulate investigative, oversight, and adjudicative bodies within the ministries so that they could enforce internal accountability without political interference. There were some successes, but the political elites often were able to protect their supporting CPN's. 

With transition imminent, ISAF and the US mission made increased efforts to strengthen the rule of law, and tried to develop programs that insured investigators, prosecutors, and judges were free from bribery, intimidation, and political interference. But their efforts never to enough to reduce the power of CPN's. There were some prosecutions undertaken to mollify Western donors, but Karzai and other senior Afghan leaders continued to protect significant supporters by obstructing investigations or voiding them altogether. 

One of the most important activities was to attempt to control the borders and airports of Afghanistan to interdict the flow of insurgents, weapons, IED components, narcotics, and other illicit activities into and out of the country. ISAF, the US, and the UK integrated operations to support the Afghan law-enforcement ability to reduce the flow of insurgents and insurgency-related material. They were much less successful in dismantling CPNs in police and customs offices at the borders. Because activities relating to the narcotics trade were considered to be a transnational threat, international law enforcement and financial tracking by international actors became a way to degrade Afghan CPN's once it was clear that the Afghan legal system was unable or unwilling to act. 

By means of inspectors general and other accountability mechanisms, the US was able to significantly reduce the ability of CPNs to exploit US-funded contracting, largely because they could act unilaterally, rather than having to go through the Afghan government. This level of improved accountability and progress, however, only lasted as long as the international effort. 

An important part of the authors’ analysis is their description of the crisis of legitimacy that existed with respect to the Afghan government. They attribute this to the two decades of civil war (1978 – 2001) that destroyed pre-existing foundations of national unity and civil order and left behind weak governance, non-existent rule of law, fractured social structures, and deep, conflict-generated divisions between Afghanistan’s solidarity groups. After elaborating further on the impact this had by 2001, they ask a key question of the reader: How well did we understand this when we went in? This question should be re-emphasized throughout facilitated discussions, because it goes to the heart of the problem of understanding the operational environment in which illicit power structures arise and thrive. 


  • Anticipate and respond swiftly to criminal patronage networks. 
  • Acknowledge the centrality of politics. 
  • Prioritize disrupting criminal capture of institutions over capacity building. 
  • Understand the impact of international spending. 
  • Promote transparency and accountability in security force development. 
  • Integrate law-enforcement, military, and information operations. 
  • Identify and operate against the transnational dimensions of the problem. 
  • Develop a counter corruption narrative that emphasizes long term commitment. 
  • Promote civil society as a force for anticorruption advocacy and reform. 
  • Establish employee incentives for accountable performance and disincentives for ignoring the rule of law. 


  1. What is a “criminal patronage network?” [A form of organized illicit power structure made particularly intractable by its integration into government and by its access to international money] 
  2. Describe the political-criminal nexus. What does that mean? Can you identify other places you’ve deployed where the political-criminal nexus was a factor in restoring or strengthening security, or meeting the objectives of your deployment? [A mutually-beneficial relationship of protection and profit between corrupt government official and criminal networks. Left unchecked, this can lead to the criminal capture of critical state functions. The supported government’s institutions become directed toward serving the interests of a narrow, political elite, and their criminal associates, rather than advancing and protecting national interests.”] 
  3. What are the illicit activities of the criminal patronage networks in this chapter? Do the authors make these clear? Where is the boundary between licit and illicit? 
  4. What were some of the operational risks that the presence of CPN’s created in Afghanistan? How well did we understand them at the various stages of our security operations? 
  5. The authors state: “While Afghanistan [in 2014] was stronger than it had been in decades – possessing a sizeable and increasingly capable ANSF – factionalism, corruption, and criminal subversion of state institutions left its politics fragile and security uncertain.” To what extent did the actions of international intervenors – both military and civilian – contribute to these conditions? 
  6. Was it any point possible, politically or otherwise, to attempt to stabilize Afghanistan without co-opting at least some, if not all of the warlords? Could any state institutions have been developed without their participation, or in opposition to them? Which ones, and how could this have been accomplished? 
  7. Describe President Karzai’s political position when he first assumed power as head of the President Karzai initially adopted a strategy of What other strategy could Karzai have adopted to confront the regional strongman and their criminal patronage networks? 
  8. How do we deal with the tacit assumption that we know what good government looks like? 
  9. How do we determine if a government or part thereof is dysfunctional, or if it is merely going through “growing pains?” 
  10. Describe the limits of the capacity building approach. Why did it fail? Why isn’t technical assistance enough? 
  11. The authors recommend ranking disrupting criminal capture of institutions above capacity building. What is the operational impact when we do this? 11. In what ways did the international community contribute to the problem of corruption and patronage in Afghanistan? 
  12. How did the combined efforts to combat corruption between 2009 and 2012represent a shift in international strategy? To what extent was this shift dependent on a strong, NATO military presence and NATO military leadership? What conclusions should we draw from that for future operations? 
  13. What are the big lessons? How do they translate to the operations conducted by military commanders on the ground? Intelligence agencies? Aid organizations? 
  14. If you were to redesign the stabilization strategy for Afghanistan now, with the benefit of hindsight, what would you have done differently? What activities would you have prioritized? Who would you have tried to partner with and why? What would your priority information and intelligence requirements have been? 


Agreement on Provisional Arrangements in Afghanistan Pending the Re-establishment of Permanent Government Institutions (Bonn Agreement), 

  • Beyond Convergence: World Without Order, Edited by Michael Miklaucic and Jacqueline Brewer. Washington, DC: The Center for Complex Operations (2016) 
    • Chapter 14, “Leviathan Redux: Toward and Community of Effective States” by Claire Lockhart and Michael Miklaucic 
  • Impunity: Confronting Illicit Power in War and Transition, Edited by Michelle A. Hughes and Michael Miklaucic. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office (2016). 
    • Chapter 5, “Traffickers and Truckers: Illicit Afghan and Pakistani Power Structures with a Shadowy but Influential Role” by Gretchen Peters 
    • Chapter 14, “Make It Matter: Ten Rules for Institutional Development That Works” by Mark Kroeker 
    • Chapter 16, “Security Sector Reconstruction in Post Conflict: Lessons from Timor Leste” by Deniz Kozak 
    • Chapter 17, “A Granular Approach to Combatting Corruption and Illicit Power Structures” by Scott Carlson 

Works Cited in Chapter 

Barnett Rubin, The Fragmentation of Afghanistan: State Formation and Collapse in the International System, 2nd ed. (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 2002). 

Antonio Giustozzi, Empires of Mud: Wars and Warlords in Afghanistan (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2009). 

Ahmed Rashid, Decent into Chaos (New York: Penguin, 2008). 

Robert Perito, “Afghanistan’s Police: The Weak Link in Security Sector Reform,” U.S. Institute of Peace Special Report No. 227, Aug. 2009.