“Boots on the ground” state-building: Using Action Research to improve local governance in Afghanistan

Blog post by Rich Ledet

In Boots on the Ground State-Building: Using Action Research to Improve Local Governance in Afghanistan,” we describe how Action Research was used to achieve empowerment and more effective local governance in southern Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. This article allows us to further explain some of our earlier remarks about contemporary US military operations (see Ledet, Stewart, and Turner 2012), but more importantly it adds to the work of Hardy and Rodman (2016), who provided the first published example of Action Research methodology used for non-lethal purposes in modern combat.1

After providing a review of relevant academic literature related to the counterinsurgency mission in Afghanistan, we explain that current military doctrine clearly directs commanders to engage in state-building activities intended to strengthen the rule of law and good governance. Simply stated, modern warfare is not conventional warfare. Military units are now not just responsible for finding and eliminating enemy targets, as many engaged in fighting are also required to find ways to improve the living conditions of local populations.

Apart from our own tactical proficiency and acquired knowledge about the operational environment (both authors are former soldiers), Action Research was used to help us develop and maintain an awareness of and sensitivity to the complex cultural, religious, and tribal structures in the war-torn region. We demonstrate this by describing aspects of our partnership with a District Governor assigned to a small district in Zabul Province. The description comes through a series of narratives that show how Action Research can be used as a means by which US military forces can build cooperation with local leaders to help bring stability to a region in Afghanistan.

Image description: Two pair of workboots siting on the ground in front of a bricked wall.

Above all, we show that Action Research enables effective governance systems grounded in local cultures and institutions, even if those institutions are informal and grounded in traditions. Because Afghanistan traditionally has not had a strong centralized state, stability essentially developed out of a localized version of the “rule of law” rather than formal political institutions (see Murtazashvili 2016). We reflect on this fact in the conclusion, along with other important aspects of our mission, such as working with linguists and respecting the will of the Afghans. Furthermore, we suggest that the US Department of Defense should implement Action Research into doctrine and training for all personnel involved in operations designed to bring stability to war-torn regions. Finally, we reiterate the same argument made by many other observers, which is that better governance in Afghanistan is more likely to come from bottom-up rather than top-down processes.


The Break it Down Show podcast contains numerous discussions about modern combat, but a show related to the use of social science research methods, and Action Research specifically, in US military operations is available at HERE. A show devoted to the “Boots on the Ground” article can be found HERE.


We invite you to learn more about this experience by reading our article HERE. Free 30-day access is available for this article beginning 5 December. 

After you’ve had a chance to read this piece, please share your thoughts, ideas, or experiences with our community in the comments below so we can continue this discussion!

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