Book Review: What to Do About Warlords?

A few years ago it was fashionable to describe some of the world’s badlands as “ungoverned spaces.” Yet these areas outside the control of the central government—for example, in Afghanistan or Somalia—are not lawless. They are usually controlled by de facto authorities who may be better armed and better organized than the state that they have broken away from. In her new book Warlords, Kimberly Marten introduces us to these strong-arm brokers in weak states, particularly Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), Georgia, Iraq, and Chechnya. She concludes with a number of lessons and hypotheses about warlords and sovereignty.

As the saying goes, nature abhors a vacuum. So do weak states. Where the central government is unable or unwilling to exercise its sovereignty, others will fill the void.

Marten, quoting historian David Herrmann, believes that “warlordism is the default condition of humanity.” She argues that “potential specialists in violence are always amongst us,” and, given the chance, they will take control over a specific territory using force and patronage. This is easier to do in failing states because there is less resistance. As a result, the state loses its monopoly on the use of force. 

Yet, as Marten points out, there may be times when states tolerate or even encourage warlords. In some cases (like Georgia’s relations with Abkhazia in the early 1990s), the central government made a virtue out of necessity because it could not defeat the warlord, so it struck a bargain with him. The British tried to do this with the Pashtun tribes on either side of the Durand Line between Afghanistan and Pakistan in the mid-19th century. As they discovered, the problem is that tribal leaders can be as manipulative as their patrons. In other cases, like Russia’s support for Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya or Pakistan’s relations with tribal leaders in the FATA, the state outsourced a piece of its sovereignty in a remote and/or hard to control territory to someone that it hoped it could work with. Under this Faustian bargain, she wrote, “as long as de jure sovereignty was preserved, de facto control over the territory was ceded.”

It is worth noting–although Marten does not raise the point–that international organizations operating in weak states have also made deals with warlords for the sake of short-term expediency. However, as Marten points out, such deals seldom appease warlords; rather they empower them. Furthermore, the longer warlords hold on to power, the stronger they become, and the harder it is to get rid of them. As she warns, “tolerating warlordism means accepting a future of political backwardness and illiberalism, and all of its potential economic and security consequences.”

Since warlords control unrecognized territories, they need to work with states in order to survive. Sometimes they can have a marriage of convenience with the central government. In other cases, they form alliances with third parties abroad. In such circumstances “middlemen warlords” use their relations with an external patron to strengthen their hand, while that foreign power uses the warlord to undermine the sovereignty of the state that the warlord has broken away from—think of Russia’s relations with the Transdniestrians or South Ossetians.    

The destabilizing impact of warlords is not limited to the region where they operate. Their influence may spill across borders into neighboring states where they have kinship ties or links to transnational criminal networks—think of Charles Taylor or Joseph Kony. As Marten points out, “tolerating warlordism in one location may mean dealing with the consequences of its geographical spread in the future.”

What can be done? The value of Marten’s book is that she not only presents the problem, but also offers some solutions based on examples taken from case studies described in the book. The most fascinating example is the contrast between how Presidents Shevardnadze and Saakashvili of Georgia dealt with warlords in Adjara and Upper Kodori. Whereas Shevardnadze–who was in a weak position–tried to cut deals with the local strongmen, Saakashvili confronted the warlords and, in the case of Aslan Abashidze in Adjara, was able to topple one. Marten attributes Saakashvili’s success to an astute reading of the available intelligence on the political economy of Adjara, incentives to Abashidze’s followers, and the threat of the use of force. 

Another interesting case described in the book is how the United States army tried to turn Sunni militias against al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). The Americans gambled that it was worth the risk of arming and training former adversaries if these warlords would drive out foreign terrorists. Unlike the classic counter-insurgency technique of separating the insurgents from the population and isolating them, the idea was to “flip” insurgents and cooperate with them. However, as with the case of Russian support for Kadyrov in Chechnya, this ran the risk of creating little Frankensteins who would be empowered rather than tamed, which is probably why the Shia-led Iraqi government opposed the plan. “Even as this forced an AQI retreat, it allowed these units to survive and thrive as local patronage units in a way that otherwise would not have been possible,” she wrote. In effect, when warlords become powerful enough, they can extort the host state: either provide us with sufficient funds, or we cannot guarantee your safety. As a result, a short-term tactical victory can sow the seeds for a long-term strategic defeat.

Marten stresses that intelligence is vital for dealing with warlords. The more information one has on the political economy of the environment in which they operate, as well as their methods, their networks, and the strength and motivation of their followers, the easier it will be to deal with them. Marten applies this logic in her own style of writing. Like a good counter-insurgency expert, she believes that one needs to get down into the weeds to really see what’s going on. Unfortunately, the result is that some of the case studies make for rather dense reading since they are packed with details. That said, the end result is a detailed picture of the situation on the ground.  

What should follow the strategic assessment? In some cases it may be necessary to confront the warlord, assuming that the state is strong enough. Another option is to win over the warlord’s patronage network with incentives, viable economic opportunities, or promises of immunity.

If the warlord has an external patron, one could try to cut that link. This should be done with care. As Marten cautions, “it is better to work with a powerful external actor to remove a warlord, even if this necessitates small compromises, than to take unilateral action that threatens the external actor’s security interests.” Of course, this presupposes that the external actor has an interest in abandoning its warlord client, which is seldom the case.

While warlords are usually nasty characters, the situation is not always black and white. In some cases, the ruling elite may act like a warlord–using patronage and force to acquire and hang on to power. Furthermore, someone who a government labels as a “warlord” may actually be a popular leader who is defending legitimate interests, like greater self-government for a particular region or ethnic group. Other leaders may be less benign, yet nevertheless provide security and basic needs to a population that feels neglected, or even threatened, by the central authorities. In such situations, care should be taken to separate greed from grievance and address the real needs of the affected population, otherwise, Marten writes, “the choices that state leaders make can strengthen the appeal and perceived legitimacy of warlords as the providers of security and patronage.”

In general, her advice is for peacebuilders to have modest and realistic expectations. Instead of trying to impose Western-style democracy off the shelf, they should try to support the growth of impersonal state-like structures, however imperfect and minimal they might be.

Warlords is a timely, well-written, and well-researched book. The only major weakness is a lack of case studies on Africa or Asia, like the DRC, Somalia, or Myanmar.

It’s too bad Warlords wasn’t written a decade ago. It would have assisted policy makers and governments who have had to deal with warlords in Afghanistan Iraq, Kosovo, and Somalia in recent years. Nevertheless, there are still plenty of warlords around, and fertile ground for others to emerge in fragile states like Libya, Mali, Syria, Tajikistan, and Yemen. Anyone dealing with post-conflict rehabilitation, counter-insurgency or peacebuilding should read this book and take to heart Marten’s conclusion that cooperation with warlords should be pursued only when it is the least bad alternative.

Walter Kemp is Director for Europe and Central Asia at the International Peace Institute based in Vienna.