Warlords: Strong-Arm Brokers in Weak States

  • Published

Warlords: Strong-Arm Brokers in Weak States by Kimberly Marten. Cornell Press, 2012, 262 pp.


Over the last 16 years, the United States has relied on warlords to help provide security in lawless regions of Iraq and Afghanistan. Thousands of American service members spent countless hours drinking chai, smoking cigarettes, and bridging cultural divides with powerful men who provided muscle and acted as a cultural compass in a foreign land. However, these partners delivered a Faustian bargain that offered short-term security at the expense of long-term stability. Dr. Kimberly Marten’s book, Warlords: Strong-Arm Brokers in Weak States, examines the benefits and pitfalls that warlords provide governments and foreign actors. Marten’s book is the rare academic treatise that is both academic and easily approachable to a broader audience.

She uses four case studies to argue that warlords not only control territory through force and patronage but also are parasitic creatures, which governments tacitly accept to provide security in historically ungovernable areas. The Columbia University professor argues that Charles Tilly’s theory on state formation is outdated in regards to modern day warlords. According to Tilly, European state formation was caused by rulers who incorporated other feudal lords by offering more robust protection against other competitors (i.e., a better protection racket). However, in today’s universal state system, warlords thrive in weak states by either siphoning off resources from cash-strapped states or acting as agents for foreign powers. Marten uses case studies of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA), Georgia’s use of warlords after the end of the Cold War, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s tinkering with Chechnya, and the recent Sons of Iraq program to underscore this argument.

There are also other valuable lessons in these case studies. For example, Pakistan and the United Kingdom were able to reap the benefits of a stable FATA by empowering warlords; however, they also had to endure a lawless region where there is a dearth of security. Furthermore, empowering certain actors can destabilize the political ecosystem of an area. For example, by empowering mullahs over khans, the Pakistani government not only uprooted tradition but also paved the way for the rise of radical groups and attacked not only the infidels but also the Pakistani government. In the case study of Georgia, Marten shows that former Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili evicted entrenched warlords by less than scrupulous means, underscoring the difficulty liberal democracies will have using such methods.

         Marten’s chapter on the Sons of Iraq is by far her best. She sidesteps the worn-out arguments over Gen David Petraeus’ role in the Anbar Awakening and Iraq’s security revival in 2007 to focus on why both the Anbar Awakening and Sons of Iraq programs succeeded. The professor begins by chronicling former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s use of paramilitary and regionally armed units that fell outside the Ministry of Defense’s purview. These groups acted as a check against the Iraqi Army for a paranoid leader who always had one eye focused on internal enemies. These empowered leaders, along with unemployed Iraqi Army officers, made up the bulk of the Sunni-led insurgency. Despite years of agony, the insurgency’s lack of cohesion aided the United States during the vaunted “surge.” Military commanders were able to flip individual commanders with the lure of the Sons of Iraq program. Marten conclusively shows that the United States was the linchpin that ensured the successful Sons of Iraq cascade. She focuses not only on Anbar, where the program began, but also on Baghdad and the Diyala province, to prove that this was not a tribal revolt. Instead, it was the rational decision of former Sunni insurgent commanders, who often acted out of a desire to increase their power and prestige, not out of a blood feud against Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Marten wisely concludes this case study not by criticizing the operational necessity of the Sons of Iraq program, but, more astutely, by questioning the idea that this could lead to strategic reconciliation between a Shia-dominated Iraqi government and a Sunni populace accustomed to controlling all the levers of power.

         Despite the overall value of the book, there are some minor problems. First, Marten’s case studies should have been more geographically diverse. Instead of having two cases studies in Eastern Europe and two in predominantly Muslim countries, the professor could have focused on case studies in Africa or Latin America. This would have provided her thesis with more breadth and a diversity of actors. Second, she contends that most Iraqi Sunni insurgents had no interests in AQI’s extreme version of Islam. However, this misses the point. AQI had a broad swath of support throughout the Sunni heartland, especially in places like Anbar. If AQI’s version of Islam repulsed Sunnis, then why did the Islamic State find such fertile recruiting ground in these areas? Insurgent groups like Jayh Rijal Tariq al-Naqshabandi and other legacy Sunni insurgent groups existed in post-2010 Iraq and did not advocate the Islamic State’s Wahhabist vision. However, ISIS’ vision appealed to many Sunnis who had grown wary of a Shia-dominated Iraqi government.

         Despite these minor issues, this book is outstanding. Marten shows that warlords have no interest in governance. Instead, they are interested in extracting resources from whomever is paying so they can sit atop their small fiefdom. Her book will be of interest to all national security professionals, especially those focusing on weak states. Moreover, her theory on warlords should be used as a lens when examining America’s latest, longest war in Afghanistan.

                                                                        Maj William Selber, USAF


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."