What An Afghan Warlord-Turned Vice President Tells Us About Military Intervention and State Building

A billboard on a wall of the Vice Presidential Palace in Kabul featuring General Dostum and his troops, November 7, 2015. Photo by Romain Malejacq.

Guest post by Romain Malejacq.

Last month, American officials denied Afghan warlord-turned Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum a visa to the United States. In doing so, they did not simply refuse entry to the second-ranking official of a regime the United States helped put in place. They also turned down a man who was instrumental in recapturing the Northern city of Mazar-e Sharif from the Taliban in 2001; a man who worked hand in hand with US Special Forces as part of the “Global War on Terror.” Fifteen years later, the same man is barred from entering the United States.

The decision to reject Dostum’s visa application is indicative of the US government’s lack of coherence when it comes to working with non-state armed actors. Western policymakers value indigenous allies. In fact, working with militias has clear advantages, which have been well identified in recent scholarship (deniability, intelligence, access, etc.). Most importantly, using “proxy warriors” allows the United States and others to intervene militarily in far away places without the burden of having to send ground forces (for example when fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria).

Yet arming militias is often a short-term military solution to long-term political problems. The international community still struggles to stabilize failed states and to establish political order in places like South Sudan and Somalia, where alternative forms of governance endure. Foreign officials often lack a coherent plan when it comes to dealing with the violent political actors that they previously empowered.

As the US administration continues to arm and finance local militias in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere, what does the story of General Dostum actually tell us about externally-led state building?

Over the past three decades, Dostum has gone through several transformations but has always played a major role in Afghan politics: a pro-communist militia leader during the Soviet Afghan war of the 1980s, a warlord controlling most of northern Afghanistan in the early 1990s, an ally of the United States in the aftermath of 9/11, and now the first vice president of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. The gruff and burly General Dostum has become a living symbol of the Western failure to build bureaucratic states and understand the nature of political authority in the places in which the international community intervenes.

Scholars provide a number of important explanations to account for the failure of state building: commitment problems, moral hazards, security dilemmas, spoilers, inadequate values, the routine practices of peacebuilders, etc. Few, however, look at the nature of political authority in the countries where these interventions take place, in particular once active conflict has stopped.

In a recent article published in Security Studies, I show why and how men like Vice President Dostum switch their power bases to ensure their political survival during and after war, thus sustaining alternative realms of authority alongside the illusion of homogenizing state building. My findings, which are based on extensive fieldwork conducted from 2007 to 2015, suggest that external intervention often leads to political instability and in most cases fails to foster state consolidation, instead empowering and creating ties with the ones it aims to weaken, such as General Abdul Rashid Dostum. These findings help us explain why states like Afghanistan, where political authority remains deeply fragmented, fail to establish sustainable bureaucratic institutions.

Most international actors involved in war-torn countries (foreign militaries and governments, aid agencies, international organizations, etc.) prefer that violent political actors recede into insignificance as central states assert their authority. Yet in Afghanistan and elsewhere – from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Yemen and Iraq – warlords continue to play an important role in the political landscape and to exert authority in parallel to that of the state. Their exercise of power is not unchallenged, either by rival actors or the central state, but many of them survive from one regime to another.

Not only do warlords remain influential in the political system, but they also hold greater power than their institutional positions would suggest. They manage to rise again after each fall, in spite of the multiple shocks and deadly challenges that they continually face. They persist by virtue of their ability to adapt to structural changes, navigate across political orders, and harness different sources of power (ideological, military, economic, social, and political) in ways that escape state domination.

Warlords persist because there is an actual demand for what their leadership can provide. People like General Dostum possess authority in communities subjected to state neglect and predation. They can deliver goods and services that can be of use to central elites and foreign governments. At times, it means providing political and military stability (something that the US government has taken large advantage of in Afghanistan). At other times, it means providing coercive political muscle, thuggish leadership, and a larger electoral base to a presidential candidate.

The decision to deny Vice President Dostum a visa to the United States is evidence of the West’s double standards and “organized hypocrisy” when it comes to non-state armed actors. Maybe most importantly, Dostum’s survival throughout the past three decades is the acknowledgement that state building in a classical Weberian model, which consists of monopolizing means of violence and building centralized bureaucratic institutions, has not worked in places like Afghanistan. Political orders change; regimes come and go; but the warlords remain.

Romain Malejacq is an Assistant Professor at the Centre for International Conflict Analysis & Management (CICAM), Institute for Management Research, Radboud University Nijmegen.

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