Special Forces ‘Know-How’ and British Indirect Rule: Operationalizing Institutional Change

26 Pages Posted: 20 May 2015

See all articles by Mathew Golsteyn

Mathew Golsteyn

Fayetteville State University

Steven Phelan

Kennesaw State University

Date Written: March 12, 2015


In the early 1900’s, the British military in India was spending approximately 3 billion per year (in current U.S. dollars) on an army consisting of roughly 60,000 British military personnel and 120,000 native soldiers for an average of 17,000 USD per man ("Digital South Asia Library," 2013). In 2012, the U.S. military spent 117 billion (in current U.S. dollars) on 90,000 U.S. troops and 390,000 local security forces in Afghanistan for an average of 240,000 USD per man (Cordesman, 2012; NATO, 2012). By 1893, the English ruled a continent with ten times the population of Afghanistan and accomplished this with less than 900 British civil servants (Easterly, 2006). These resources and capabilities extended British hegemony from India through Afghanistan to reach Iraq and Africa (Onley, 2009). When comparing performance at the macro-level, the British did far more with far less while the American effort produced the opposite. For U.S. nation-building, more resources meant less production. The on-going tragedy in Iraq is a current, but not isolated example of what happens when developed nations quit paying the bills of their well-intended expeditions.

In dealing with the Pashtun tribes which span the Afghan and Pakistani border, the British Raj and the U.S. government faced similar challenges yet have organized differently. The British took a bottom-up approach to institutional change organized about the Political Officer. The Political Officer’s ‘know-how’ of institutional change employed a combination of cultural acumen, vested social capital, and the accumulation of relational currency to ‘earn’ indigenous cooperation through intrinsic incentives. This ‘know-how’ for institutional change also exists within U.S. Army Special Forces Regiment (USSF or SF) and has found similar success in Afghanistan. These ‘Green Berets’ develop influence without presence throughout their area of operations by employing the bottom-up approach of Unconventional Warfare to institutional change. The Special Forces bottom-up approach to tribal engagement has found success in Afghanistan, but has been unable to break through an organizational glass-ceiling to pursue strategic opportunities. In Afghanistan, the U.S. has taken a top-down approach in which impersonal bureaucracies ‘rent’ indigenous compliance through bribery and coercion. The problem facing a theory of exogenous institutional change exists between our ‘know-what’ and ‘know-how’.

Our main argument is that British organization around the Political Officer and the capabilities of the Green Berets present a new combination for an organizational form that can successfully guide institutional change. We need a civil-military element that is solely responsible for exogenous interventions aimed at institutional change. This element must have two essential features. First, the team must be vested with the autonomy and authority of the frontier British Political Officer. The second feature of this civil-military element requires an Unconventional Warfare-like organizational paradigm and the retention of a SFODA’s military attributes.

Keywords: institutional change, nation building, colonialism

JEL Classification: B15, B25, O17

Suggested Citation

Golsteyn, Mathew and Phelan, Steven, Special Forces ‘Know-How’ and British Indirect Rule: Operationalizing Institutional Change (March 12, 2015). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2608160 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2608160

Mathew Golsteyn

Fayetteville State University ( email )

1200 Murchison Road
Fayetteville, NC 28301
United States

Steven Phelan (Contact Author)

Kennesaw State University ( email )

1000 Chastain Road
Kennesaw, GA 30144
United States

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