During 2008-11, current Minerva SRM staff worked with the British civil-military mission in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. With several districts of the province beyond central government control for more than thirty years, their task was to enable the Afghan Government to reach and begin to function amongst communities long hostile to its presence – in effect, to gain a social licence to operate.
Before deployment, team members familiarised themselves with the British Government’s evolving strategic and operational goals in Afghanistan, besides those of allied regional and international actors. This enabled the team to understand varied perspectives on the situation, establish how they could best contribute to coalition strategy and set parameters for success.
Operating from military forward bases in the heart of the conflict zone, the stabilisation team then engaged intensively and extensively with stakeholders on all sides of the conflict – around fourteen key interest or spoiler groups – navigating their violent confrontations and steering them towards peaceful co-operation.
Operationally, the team had a relatively free hand, allowing it to adopt an innovative conflict transformation approach comprising four overlapping and iterated phases – understanding, planning, implementation and monitoring – appropriate to the time-critical nature of the intervention. This enabled short-term projects to be implemented effectively alongside a longer-term reconciliation programme, delivering both quick impacts on community attitudes and lasting shifts towards socio-political stability
Eschewing the crude ‘friend or foe’ mentality prevalent in coalition operations, the stabilisation team instead built a detailed and nuanced understanding of local political, social and economic dynamics, including well-informed insights into:
- the interests of all relevant stakeholders,
- the motivations and vulnerabilities of key influencers,
- the complex, shifting alliances and affiliations within and between communities,
- the workings of formal and informal institutions,
- the underlying drivers, catalysts and triggers of potential change in these dynamic systems.
This deep understanding led the stabilisation team to identify various peace-building paths, and guided them in conceiving a flexible intervention strategy resilient to shocks and inevitable set-backs. From this they developed an implementation plan to co-ordinate a wide range of activities designed to prompt and then consolidate re-alignments of influential stakeholders and thereafter to maintain momentum along the desired trajectory towards peace.
The team initiated and facilitated effective engagement between government officials and key stakeholders across all sectors of the community, including those traditionally considered entrenched foes of the government and its local allies. Simultaneously, they managed and delivered activities to marginalise and reduce the local power of irreconcilable parties whose interests were served only through continued violence (local drugs barons, foreign armed groups, revenge-orientated warlords), while always leaving open defined avenues for reconciliation. Moreover, generating dialogue opened up space for influential ‘neutrals’, who had been squeezed out by the polarised conflict, to resume their customary reconciliation role.
After eighteen months, the team’s bespoke approach, capacity to understand and manage complexity, and ability to turn this to client advantage through resolute face-to-face diplomacy, prompted a critical mass of key stakeholders abruptly to switch allegiance, sweeping aside Taliban power in the key district and enabling the government to extend its administration and services to communities across a large swathe of territory previously beyond its reach.
Ironically, this remarkable transformation encouraged the premature termination of the programme. Planned follow-through activities, vital to consolidating success, were foregone or mis-handled, allowing the momentum behind the reconciliation process to falter at various critical junctures. As of 2015, while the robust original approach has plainly reshaped local political dynamics, relations between the government and some stakeholders remain tense and punctuated by violence. The government, therefore, cannot yet claim a robust social licence to operate in the area.