Warlordism permeates many weak and vulnerable states. The shortsighted and frequently vicious roles of warlords deprive countries of the chance for enduring stability, economic growth, justice, and equality. This isn’t a new phenomenon; warlords have arisen through history in a variety of continents. Local warlords and their militias thrive during periods of war, conflict, and political fragility- conditions that are necessary for the alliance of power and the raising of revenues. Warlords often attempt to incite unrest and instability for their faction interests. They not only imposed taxes on the people on the regions they control but also through duties on business and, in many cases, illicit activities like drug trade and human trafficking. In return, they provide their population with protection, security, and in some areas public services to some extent.
Warlordism has four following specs in common: First, strong-armed men exploit the disintegration of central authority to take over relatively small areas. Second, their moves and calculations are based on parochial interests, not ideology. Third, the source of their authority is based on charisma and sponsorship bonds to their mercenaries and followers. This narcissistic rule leads to the dissolution of political and economic arrangements throughout the country, disrupting the free flow of trade and making business and commerce volatile.
Some countries have succeeded to eliminate warlords, paving the way for the implementation of justice and stable governance structures to emerge. In medieval Europe, warlordism as a dominant system oppressed many western European societies from the fall of the Carolingian empire until the emergence of sovereign monarchs in France in the course of the Renaissance era. The arrival and downfall of warlordism in Europe were in stages, and feudal social structures were entrenched in the dominant culture. During the Frankish empire, the warlords of medieval Europe began as an associate with the landowning nobility. This empire had created a unified system of coinage and supervision throughout much of the European continent, and as a result exercised power identical to those of a state. Sage warlords shared their wealth to preserve personal allegiance. Other warlords gathered taxes on the territory they managed by government decree. Also, they collected unofficial taxes from illegal control-points, including along railway lines. From time to time, they forced local inhabitants to grow opium to pay a “laziness tax” for not having paid the tax. Following the emergence of the newly educated class of people and affected local interest clusters in medieval Europe that had strong motivation to take revolutionary collective actions against warlords led to the eradication of warlordism. Nonetheless, in Europe, warlords were eliminated by force, and persistent states ultimately arose in the aftermath. The collapse of imperial China experienced the arrival of similar political order, relying on self-interested rule by powerbrokers that used charisma and power to control separate, local political economies.
In the case of Afghanistan, it has been argued that warlordism only emerged after the Soviet withdrawal; it can be dated back to the jihad era (1978-1992). The absence of a strong central government, with the result that power and authority have broadly vanished; powerbrokers and militia movements have long had de facto control of the country outside the capital of the country. Warlords are very much a feature of contemporary Afghanistan, with many of them have grown in strength since the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 and the civil war between the various Mujahideen factions from 1989 to 2001. During the Afghan Civil War, 1989-1995, forces allied with all of the major parties in Kabul, committed war crimes which were resulted in tens of thousands of civilian casualties, devastated much of the capital, and left a generation of residents traumatized. Their crimes were no less appalling than those committed in the former Yugoslavia or Rwanda. In the decade after the USSR incursion of Afghanistan in 1979, 1.5 million Afghans lost their life, another million were wounded, and 6.2 million immigrated to Iran, Pakistan, and the rest of the world. The infrastructure damages sustained by Afghanistan during this period were estimated at nearly $644.8 billion.
In the aftermath of the U.S.-led military intervention which led to the ousting of the Taliban regime in autumn 2001, warlordism reached new peaks in Afghanistan when CIA paid $1 billion to hundreds of warlord commanders and their militias to conduct quick impact intelligence missions, find al Qaeda leaders, and carry out classified operations against the Taliban as a response to 9/11 terror attacks. To make matters worse, the United States added more than $100 billion of poorly-supervised reconstruction aid into the Afghan economy, which fueled corruption and empowered these very same warlords. The aid allocated to warlords by the United States was an important dynamic in generating a culture of amnesty and the recognition of double-standards. At a level of principle as well as in practice this de-prioritization of human rights damaged transitional justice and peacebuilding process. The U.S.- Warlords partnership, bolstered the courage of powerbrokers in the Afghan parliament to pass a law, granting amnesty to warlords and other militia leaders implicated in severe war crimes, including murder, torture, sexual violence, detention, and extortion.
Providing economic and military assistance to warlords does not lead to long term stability is shown not merely by the recent experiences of Somalia and Afghanistan, but also by the failure of Chiang Kai-shek’s efforts to integrate warlords into the KMT to create national stability in China. History demonstrates that when warlords are given resources—including money, weapons, and free reign over territory—they will use those resources to support their narrow interests in competition against each other and in defiance of centralized authority. As a domineering group, Afghan warlords have been a major national security threat to Afghanistan since they are involved in the opium trade, illicit economy and a stable Afghanistan is not in their best interest. Accordingly, stability is challenged by the power of warlords in Afghanistan, and their existence not only undermined central state strength but has also led to ethnic polarization and damaged the country’s fragile peace process. Strengthening notorious warlords both politically and militarily and treating them and other human rights offenders as allies by Washington since the commencement of the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan, has been a strategic mistake and one of the factors of long-term instability in Afghanistan.
The failure of the Afghan state to provide security and justice together with perceptions of the government as corrupt and biased are key drivers of the insurgency besides regional factors. Injustice, caused by amnesty and the insecurity that this begets is a privilege to the Taliban and other insurgent groups. The Taliban are not admired for their uncivilized, severe, and oppressive deeds, but their tough policy to criminality and their capacity to enforce order based on their interpretation of Islam has enabled them to recapture lost territory.
Besides breaking the crime-terror-link, addressing the root causes of terrorism, halting terrorist shelters in Pakistan, and supporting democratic leadership in Afghanistan as an appropriate counter-terrorism approach, law enforcement is crucial to lasting peace in that country. Without holding perpetrators accountable and justice system reform, impunity for warlords will continue, the insurgency will grow and citizens will remain the main victims of injustice.
*M. Iqbal Dawari, MA in International Conflict and Security, University of Kent, Brussels School of International Studies