Afghanistan’s weak central government and limited resources make the informal networks employed by local warlords a viable option for governance. The country’s former warlords, made powerful governors by President Hamid Karzai, use both formal and informal powers to achieve security objectives and deliver development in their provinces.

Based on substantial in-country research and interviews, Dipali Mukhopadhyay examines the performance of two such governors, Atta Mohammed Noor and Gul Agha Sherzai, who govern the northern province of Balkh, and the eastern province of Nangarhar, respectively.

Key points:

  • Karzai’s reliance on warlord-governors can be attributed in part to the country’s security vacuum and the competing priorities of counterterrorism and state building, but is also part of a longer tradition of accommodation between the center and periphery in Afghanistan.
  • The international community should acknowledge that the informal networks employed by warlord-governors have a productive, if less than desirable, role to play in Afghanistan. But, where practicable, they should check the warlords’ power and encourage formal institution building.
  • Over time, informal actors like warlord-governors will be influenced by the slow but palpable emergence of effective formal institutions.

Mukhopadhyay concludes:

“A ‘good enough’ governor, who can demonstrate success in counternarcotics, security, and economic and infrastructural development, becomes a valuable asset in the absence of unlimited resources, troops, and political will,” writes Mukhopadhyay. “Acknowledgment of hybrid governance need not mean the abandonment of formal institutional capacity building on the part of international, intervening organizations. Rather, they must adopt more realistic expectations of formal institutions.”

For a longer version of the arguments put forward in this paper, see Warlords, Strongman Governors, and the State in Afghanistan by Dipali Mukhopadhyay, available at