Warlords by Kimberly Marten is an academic study of warlordism in Pakistan, Iraq, Chechnya, and Georgia. Its strength derives from the fact that her approach is inductive, i.e., she offers historically-grounded case studies of the warlordism phenomenon without forcing it within a pre-cooked theory of international relations. This makes the book readable, colorful, sometimes excessively abundant in detail, but generally illuminating.
Having spent twenty-five years as a diplomat, and having worked on the Iraq issue in particular, I found Warlords useful and insightful.
Basically a warlord is an individual who can contest sovereignty within a state by means of violence that is funded by crime and sometimes fueled by religious or nationalistic passions. Within the warlord's region, he exercises a brutal, exploitative degree of control that a state often cannot subdue. At the same time, however, warlords often look for and require external patrons to hold their ground. This was true in Chechnya, Iraq, and Pakistan, and less true in Georgia, where a nationalist/populist leader took on pre-existing warlords and more or less put them in their place on his own .
Marten wisely draws the conclusion that warlordism is not a good precursor to long-term state stability; warlordism will exploit any patron and switch sides in the blink of an eye; in effect, a strong state with strong institutions is the warlord’s greatest enemy.
In the Chechen case, the Russians decided to end their long-term conflict with separatists by creating their own warlord and letting him operate independently without declaring Chechnya's independence. That's an interesting approach, but there will come a day when the warlord in question will die or be assassinated, and instability and conflict will resume.
In the case of Iraq, U.S. policy supporting the so-called Sunni Sons of Iraq as a means of crippling al-Qaeda in Iraq always had limits. Yes, al-Qaeda in Iraq was beaten down by Iraqi sheiks acting like warlords, but those sheiks quickly found themselves unloved by the ruling Shia majority despite their contribution to a temporary pacification of the country. Today we see the fundamental problems of Iraq--sectarian and ethnic--resurfacing. Al-Qaeda is back, too.
In the Pakistani case, Marten explores a fascinating alternative to warlordism in unruly areas. There was a period in the late 1970s and 80s when Pakistani migration to the Gulf States eased political pressures and spurred economic development through remittances to the Federally Administered Tribal Area and Northwest Frontier Provinces. The idea of eluding warlords’ grasp through economically-driven emigration is an interesting one. The emigrants then send back enough money to enable their families to build independent lives, or at least that is what happened for a period of some years in Pakistan. But then oil booms petered out and many jobs that once were available in the Gulf disappeared. So the conflict-prone areas of Pakistan had nowhere to send their young men and many of them had begun pursuing lives as students of Islam in madrassas. This facilitated radicalism because madrassa graduates knew nothing but the Quran. They were not equipped to do much more than become footsoldiers in decades-long fighting that led to the Taliban, who became al-Qaeda's hosts and America’s enemy. We live with the consequences to this day.
There are many other cases of warlordism in the world Marten could have explored. Africa is full of such cases. The southern tier of the former-Soviet Union has, in certain instances, been hijacked by warlords. Their perniciousness is, of course, the arbitrary use of violence and economic exploitation as a means of exercising de facto, not de jure, control of subjugated populations.
Warlords is a specialized book but not really a specialist's book. It's accessible and performs a great service in tackling a protean pox on the affairs of vast regions of the world. The ultimate answer is the rule of law, with full respect for civil and human rights. This requires a level of fair, effecgtive governance, however, that exceeds the abilities of many states around the globe.
One more point: Marten emphasizes that trying to spur economic development through assistance and development programs flowing through the hands of warlords and traditional bosses is simply doomed to failure. The money is quickly stolen, and corruption becomes the real enterprise it stimulates, not the development of useful businesses and social institutions like schools, hospitals, and transportation systems.
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