As the U.S. military engagement in Afghanistan winds down, examining what was a significant part of the U.S. strategy during the war—the use of warlords to fight terrorist groups—is vital for understanding how best to leverage such relationships in future wars. The use of warlords was not unique to Afghanistan: Similar policies have been used in Libya, Somalia and other countries. Warlords are often necessary tools of statecraft. But they are frequently brutal and are often involved in the drug trade and other illicit activities, and support for them often comes at the expense of building a functioning central government. How can the United States and other powers avoid causing more harm in the long run or compromising on their values when they must work with these dangerous actors?
Scholar Kimberly Marten defines warlords as having four characteristics: They are armed men with control over relatively small parts of territory after central authority disintegrates, they are nonideological, they rule by charisma and patronage, and their personalistic rule fragments broader politics and economics. These individuals often hold more support in their local communities than the does central government. In some cases, these individuals are essentially running traditional governments at a more local scale and enjoy foreign financial support but lack full diplomatic recognition.
In states with weak or collapsed central governments, working with warlords is often necessary. During Somalia’s civil war, the absence of a working central government meant that international groups and foreign states had to engage with warlords who would otherwise hinder efforts to bring in food and medicine. In other cases, warlords provide law and order or social services that the state is too weak or too corrupt to offer. For example, warlords in Tajikistan in the 1990s enjoyed popular support because they helped protect locals from criminals. Because warlords often have local support and can act as effective spoilers (individuals or groups that use violence to undermine attempts at peace), it is sometimes necessary to bring them into the government in hopes that doing so helps the central government consolidate power. The Lomé Peace Agreement between the government of Sierra Leone and the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), a brutal rebel group that overthrew the Sierra Leonean government and incited an 11-year civil war, did exactly that. It allowed for and assisted the RUF in transitioning into a political party; enabled members of the RUF to hold public office; set aside certain senior and ministerial positions for RUF members; and granted Foday Sankoh, founder and leader of the RUF, the title of vice president.
Foreign powers, particularly the United States, have found reason to work with warlords when fighting terrorist and insurgent groups. For example, the United States relied on, and even created, warlords in its fight against al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. These individuals are familiar with the local terrain and population and are more easily able to identify foreign fighters, infiltrators from neighboring states and other enemies. The West’s open willingness to work with unsavory actors for the sake of counterterrorism has taught warlords, like Libya’s Khalifa Haftar, to present themslves as important in the fight against terrorism in order to gain foreign support.
Though working with warlords has its uses, supporting them often undermines the state government. These individuals hamper state-building efforts either because their constituents prefer the warlords over a strong state or because the warlords themselves resist a strong central government as a threat to their power. Given that power is a zero-sum game, when foreign powers work with warlords and offer them the legitimacy that comes with doing so, the central government loses prestige and relative power, further undermining efforts to centralize power. In 2006, it was revealed that the United States was financing Somali warlords for counterterrorism purposes, which hindered the already-struggling central government’s ability to govern.
In addition to weakening the government, warlords’ involvement in nefarious activity such as drug trafficking and regularly carrying out egregious human rights abuses also serves to devastate local communities. Like many other Afghan warlords, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar trafficked opium, even investing in laboratories to process it, in order to fund his political party and militia. He’s also accused of war crimes for his indiscriminate shelling of Kabul during the Afghan civil war in the 1990s and for abuses such as forced disappearances and the torturing of prisoners. At the same time, local communities sometimes benefit from the illicit activities of warlords because profits are used to finance local services or provide employment for members of the community.
Not only is working with warlords harmful at a local level, but support for warlords often backfires or fails to achieve the stated foreign policy goal. Warlords in Afghanistan sometimes claimed their rivals were Taliban to get the U.S. to kill or detain them. At times, warlords actually frustrated counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan. Rather than serve as a local source of law and order, they were sometimes so brutal that local communities turned to the Taliban for justice and protection. Additionally, the military capacity of many warlords is often limited, and they can easily be overrun by more powerful groups like the Taliban and the Islamic State.
Working with warlords can also violate international law, at least according to some interpretations. Article 8 of the International Law Commission’s draft articles on state responsibility, with later clarification from the International Court of Justice, finds that the actions of a nonstate actor can be attributed to a state if that nonstate actor is “acting on the instructions of, or under the direction or control of” said state and the state is in control of each operation during which violations occurred. States are also liable to Common Article 1 of the Geneva Conventions, which can be and has been interpreted as obligating states not to support parties to a conflict that are acting in violation of the Geneva Conventions or if violations are likely or foreseeable. Unlike Article 8, Common Article 1 does not require that states have effective control of their proxy or the intention to support a violent act. States can also be held accountable for aiding and abetting war crimes regardless of intention, and are encouraged to protect populations from atrocity crimes under the Responsibility to Protect, a global political commitment that aims to protect civilians from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing—or the so-called atrocity crimes.
So how do states move forward with these relationships despite the human rights costs, weakening of national governments and the other negative second-order effects they provoke? The United States relies primarily on its intelligence community and military to lead engagements with warlords, but a whole-of-government approach would be significantly more effective here. The State Department, Treasury Department and Justice Department, among others, need to play larger, more involved roles to ensure that no concern is left unaddressed in these interactions and that issues that arise are solved in a manner that satisfies U.S. policy at large, not just the requirements of a specific department.
Foreign states find it difficult to walk away from their warlord partners, and the more they engage with them, the more difficult it becomes to disengage because, by virtue of their working with warlords, they weaken alternative allies. Drawing lines in advance of engagement to compel good behavior may help blunt the abusive behavior of warlords. Mitigation measures could include actions such as vetting potential partners prior to engagement, providing training for on-the-ground partners aimed at preventing violations of international humanitarian law and minimizing civilian casualties, and agreeing on investigative mechanisms in advance should violations occur.
Perhaps most important, the United States and other powers must recognize the risks of working with warlords before engagement begins. Such partnerships offer many benefits, but these are usually short term, while the consequences for state power and legitimacy will endure far longer.