Don’t Call That Warlord a Warlord
In Afghanistan, the term is no longer useful -- though it should be.
Afghanistan has been at war for much of the past 32 years — hence the proliferation of warlords. Everyone from international pundits to local governors uses the term to discredit certain political factions or insult the "bad guys." Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, for example, is often described as a "warlord," but bad armed behavior does not a warlord make.
In reality, the term has a specific and more useful meaning in the historical literature. It describes a charismatic military leader who, because of the weakness or absence of a state, ends up playing a political role, though he lacks political legitimacy. In Afghanistan, the two characters who best fit this definition are Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum and Mohammed Ismail Khan. The former dominated northern Afghanistan between 1992 and 1997, re-emerging as a regional power after the collapse of the Taliban regime in 2001. The latter ran much of western Afghanistan from 1992 until 1995, similarly returning to prominence after the 2001 invasion.
In the Hobbesian world of war-torn Afghanistan, warlords are "service providers" to a much larger "military class" of petty local military commanders. Those local commanders network to secure supplies, political representation, and — most importantly — military backup. Warlords often command the networks, especially in western and northern Afghanistan. The most powerful, influential, and charismatic leaders (such as Dostum and Ismail Khan) even develop "networks of networks," becoming national players and formulating alliances with political actors struggling for control in Kabul.
Dostum and Ismail Khan differed from each other in their approach to power. The former ran a decentralized operation, leaving much space to his regional and provincial-level subordinates. Organizations accusing him of human rights abuses often forget that he made few orders, or even authorizations, from the top; it is often difficult, if not impossible, to determine which commanders made which decisions. Indeed, this was a key strength and key weakness of his governing system. Unable to mobilize and direct his considerable military resources at will, Dostum’s performance in the civil wars of the 1990s was mediocre at best. Faced with a weaker but more determined adversary in the Taliban, his forces were eventually overwhelmed. Yet, the decentralization of his military also provided resilience. The "military class," Dostum’s key constituency, saw him as a patron who did not demand too much from them.
In contrast, Ismail Khan was a centralizer and micromanager who attempted to enforce strict discipline on his subordinates and organize them into a state-like system. Instead of appeasing and negotiating, he used disciplined units under his direct control to conscript military commanders into a regimented force, modeled after an early-modern state. (He called this system the Emirate.) From 1992 on, he was more able than Dostum to direct the forces under his control, crushing revolts against his rule in 1992 and 1993, for instance. But Dostum was popular — and Ismail Khan was not. Ultimately, the latter’s own constituency of petty military leaders rejected him. They resented their lack of autonomy, and the Emirate collapsed in 1995 after a major battlefield defeat.
Still, Dostum and Ismail Khan had much in common as well. Both devoted considerable energy to managing the unruly mass of small-time warlords and petty military leaders, using a mix of persuasion and coercion. In this sense, like the warlords of the early Middle Ages in Europe, who evolved into kings and feudal lords, the warlords of Afghanistan were part of a process of state formation from the grassroots. By gradually claiming some control over a fragmented and localized military class, they monopolized control over violence: a key process of early state formation.
The skills required to control a fragmented military class like Afghanistan’s are always in short supply. Despite many opportunities and attempts to replace figures like Dostum and Ismail Khan, no viable alternative emerged during the nearly 20 years of their presence on Afghanistan’s political scene. That is in part because their tasks were not for the fainthearted. Even a regular, disciplined army trained by a foreign mission (like the Afghan National Army today) would find it difficult to crush the thousands of small armed groups loyal to petty military commanders spread around Afghanistan. Of course, there was no such army to rely on in 2002. Even in 2004, when Afghan President Hamid Karzai started increasing the pressure on the warlords, trying to sever them from their constituencies, the Afghan National Army did little and was soon recommitted primarily to fighting the growing Taliban insurgency in the south.
Although Karzai was effective in reducing the power and influence of both Dostum and Ismail Khan, it did little good to help state formation in Afghanistan. Unable to control the myriad petty local commanders or offer them alternative employment, the renascent Afghan state set itself up for trouble. By 2007, petty commanders, left without a political patron and without a charismatic (and ruthless) figure to restrain them, were starting to look for alternatives. Even in western and northern Afghanistan, once hotbeds of resistance against the Taliban, a number started negotiating with the re-emergent movement of Mullah Omar. By 2008, some had fully allied with the Taliban as it expanded beyond its traditional Pashtun base.
It is true that warlords are not good state-building material because their power is based largely on coercion and their political legitimacy is weak. However, there is a common misunderstanding about Afghanistan: What has been going on since 2001 is not yet state-building anyway, just tentative state formation. Ultimately, marginalizing characters such as Dostum and Ismail Khan does not remove the need for dealing with the increasingly politically fluid military class.