In Conversation with Romain Malejacq

Romain Malejacq joined Radboud University Nijmegen’s Centre for International Conflict Analysis and Management (CICAM) as an assistant professor in April 2013 after obtaining a PhD in political science from Northwestern University and Sciences Po Paris. His research focuses on why stable institutional orders and states emerge in unstable circumstances. Specifically, he engages scholarship on violence, political order, and state formation and explores the nature of alternative power structures in conflict environments. The book he is currently working on investigates the interventionist’s dilemma of trying to construct a capable central authority while depending upon warlords to provide stability. More information on Romain's research is available on his website and twitter account. Romain has also recently published on Warlords, Intervention, and State Consolidation in Security Studies.

At the end of your talk, you described how Afghanistan's warlords would not be turned into bureaucrats. Is it possible that they might be nationalised by being made officers in the armed forces, as I believe Europe's warlord aristocracy were in the Early Modern period, or is this impossible? Furthermore, would this be a sensible policy?

It is indeed a delusion to think that warlords will stop being warlords entirely and be turned into the Weberian bureaucrats the international community would like them to be. Warlords can be integrated into the state institutions, but they will still maintain their patronage networks and exert authority parallel to that of the state. This does not necessarily mean that they cannot be part of the state building effort. It just won’t be state building as it is currently conceived; it won’t be state building as a uniformization of authority and a destruction of alternative forms of governance. Dipali Mukhopadhyay for example showed how warlords-turned governors have participated in strengthening the Afghan state in the provinces, by virtue of both formal and informal sources of authority. The problem with making warlords army officers is that it gives them the opportunity to maintain their private armies by enrolling their own men and putting them on the state’s payroll. It has happened before. The soldiers have continued to pay allegiance to the warlords over the central state, and this will most likely continue as long as people do not trust the viability of the state. Breaking the links between patrons and clients is extremely challenging, particularly in times of uncertainty. Today’s warlords, unlike their West European counterparts, benefit from an environment that allows them to remain indispensable in the eyes of others.

Because multi-party systems do not necessarily create monopolies on political power, does democracy as a political system enable warlords to go dormant?

Multi-party systems are supposed to prevent the concentration of power in the hands of a single political faction. They are at least supposed to promote electoral accountability and changes in power, via the organization of free, fair, and regularly-held elections. The problem is that elections are, by nature, highly competitive. The ones who control the votes, whether it is through violence, patronage, or any other means, will always come out on top. And in post-conflict settings, the ones who control the most political resources (and hence votes) are in fact violent political actors. Warlords, in a democracy, are no longer active, in the sense that they no longer control territories; they no longer exert uncontested political authority in their fiefdoms. But they remain dormant: they transform their power, shape-shift, and exert authority in other ways (e.g. through their newly acquired positions in the state institutions). In sum, democracy, as a political system, should provide the space for the voters to exert agency and exclude warlords from the formal political process if they wished to do so; but democratization, as a process, actually tends to provide warlords with new opportunities and additional resources to maximize their authority. 

Do warlords continue to seek power for fear that, if they stopped, they would become vulnerable to assassination/prosecution?

I don’t know about that. I am not too sure. One of the main criticisms of the International Criminal Court is indeed that the fear of prosecution is an incentive for rebels to continue fighting. And it probably is. But, for those who have already stopped fighting, like Afghan warlords, I believe the situation is a little bit different. In 2007, the Afghan Parliament actually voted an amnesty law to protect those who have committed war crimes (in the name of reconciliation). So I don’t think that they are too concerned about prosecution. At least I don’t think that it is why they remain in this dangerous business. Warlords continue to seek power because they are in fact rational political animals. They obey the law according to which anyone who has a little bit of power tries to maximize it. They continue to seek power because that’s who they are. They are political leaders. Yet, because their power is also a function of their ability to project authority, they cannot afford to give an impression of weakness. They have to constantly accumulate different sources of power, because otherwise they would risk losing it all. And since weak warlords are no longer indispensable to anyone, they would in fact risk being prosecuted or assassinated.


When warlords convert their power, are there particular forms of power that are more attractive? E.g. Are warlords that become wealthy landlords or businessmen more resilient than those that try to capture state institutions?

Because power is only partially fungible, some sources of power will be more attractive than others in different environments. Ideally though, warlords want to exert what I call a fonction totale; they want to exert a quasi-monopoly over the different sources of power in their territory. In post-2001 Afghanistan, warlords benefited from a relatively permissive international environment, in which they were allowed (even at times encouraged) to maintain their own militias. In that specific context, military power was extremely attractive because it gave warlords the opportunity to accumulate a wide variety of resources: it allowed them to grab land, capture state institutions, deliver goods and services to the international community, etc. Some even managed to become active once again, exerting almost uncontested control over the territories they had lost to the Taliban in the 1990s. As the centralization pressure intensified, military power became much less attractive; warlords were no longer allowed to rule as they wished, and therefore had to exert power in other ways. I don’t think that there are clear rules in terms of what resources warlords should invest in to ensure their survival though. Different sources of power offer different opportunities: warlords have to play their cards well. But they also have to play the cards that they are dealt. And they have to be smart about it. They have agency, but they cannot always do what they want, even when it comes to the process of power conversion. For example, General Dostum invests in the promotion of the Uzbek identity because that’s what constitutes the backbone of his authority (along with his charisma and military legitimacy); it’s how and why he gets both local support and international protection. Fahim, on the contrary, probably overplayed his hand, and did not sufficiently invest in building a strong local network that would allow him to appear as the indispensable leader of a given community (through power projection for example). He mostly focused on the economic side instead, because he did not have the charisma, nor the military legitimacy that his predecessor (Ahmad Shah Massoud) had.

How do the ambitions of warlords vary, and does this affect their choice of strategy? Eg. do warlords that seek to install themselves in the central government effect power conversions differently to those who wish to be powers in the periphery?

Well, yes, the ambitions of warlords vary. Not all of them seek to install themselves in the central government. Some of them are not interested; others don’t have the capacity to do so. The ones who seek to capture the central state because they have an actual political project will be more likely to invest in ideological power. But ideologically-motivated individuals are more likely to build actual armed movements than just their own personal warlord-organization. ISIS and the Taliban are good examples of non-state armed groups who invest heavily in ideological power for the sake of capturing state institutions (whether it is for the sake of a revolutionary project, like ISIS, or of a nationalist one, like the Taliban). In the context of the Afghan state-building project, all political actors have an incentive to get access to the centre and the ressources (and leverage) that this access can provide. Even the most local of warlords would probably not deny an opportunity to control the central state. Yet, the most parochial ones tend to invest more intensely into developing their local political networks, local legitimacy, and local bases. When Vice President Dostum decided to lead anti-Taliban war operations, he did not go to Southern or Eastern Afghanistan; he went to his own fiefdom in the north.