BACKGROUND: The term "warlord" recalls China in the 1920's and 1930's. More recent examples come from Africa, from the Balkans and, in the immediate region of Afghanistan, from Tajikistan. A less pejorative term might be "regional strongman," implicitly in a situation where central power is weak. The warlord uses force to control a geographic area and population for personal gain. In practice, he often has ethnic, clan or tribal ties to the region, or at least to the forces which he uses to exercise control. Warlords who control large regions pose the greatest threat to the government, but the term also fits for the leader of a band of armed men who dominate a few villages, who may in turn owe allegiance to a more powerful strongman. Warlords are assumed to act in their own interest. But what is that? What motivates them? Possibilities include money (or other economic benefit), prestige, position and power - or a mix of these which may vary from individual to individual. Strategies for coping with warlords or lessening their influence must take into account these motivations and also any alternatives that the warlords have for achieving these objectives. For example, if a warlord's prime motivation is financial reward, his support or acquiescence might be assured by direct or indirect payment. The British adopted the former approach in dealing with Pathan tribal leaders in the Northwest Frontier Province of what became Pakistan. In Tajikistan, on the other hand, some regional strongmen were given remunerative positions or, reportedly, allowed to purchase businesses at cut-rates. This approach may not work, however, if the warlord has an alternative source of profit which is as good or better than that offered by the government or its supporters. In parts of Africa, for example, governments found it difficult to offer rebel groups or strongmen financial incentives more attractive than diamond smuggling.
IMPLICATIONS: In the case of Afghanistan, the alternative sources of income are smuggling of consumer goods into Pakistan and narcotics trafficking to Pakistan, Iran and Central Asia, both of which are well-established and lucrative. The new government and its outside supporters will have to bid high to offset these alternatives. The international community will not be able to accept a solution that allows warlords to continue narcotics trafficking in return for their support for the new government. Shutting down narcotics growing will take time, particularly in the current situation, and some warlords will continue trafficking. The interim government and international community will be faced with the dangerous alternative of confronting them or the unpalatable one of overlooking their unacceptable activity. (There may be less international pressure - other than from the Government of Pakistan - to end the smuggling of consumer goods, which will become more available in Afghanistan with its reopening to the world in general.) Some or even many of the warlords may want more than money, e.g. a ministerial title or leadership of a powerful government entity. Their ties to their fighters may be such that these, too, must be accommodated before the warlord is satisfied. However, such inducements may have limited attraction for a warlord already secure in his leadership of a tribe or region. These calculations, in practice, occur at multiple levels and are repeated over time. Thus, if the major regional commander agrees to cooperate with the government, the next question is whether his sub-commanders and their sub-commanders will do likewise. If the major commander is strong, whether because of tribal ties or other reasons, the sub-commanders may follow him. However, they may also make the same calculations about financial gain, prestige and power made by their leader, with the same incentives necessary to ensure their cooperation. And a decision to cooperate initially can change later if the balance of benefits changes. If some warlords reject incentives offered by the government and its international supporters, the question is whether disincentives, in the form of military force, are then a realistic option. Only a strong government or a robust peacekeeping force is likely to be able to take on a warlord controlling a significant portion of the country. A weak government and minimal peacekeeping force would only be able to deal with minor warlords or sub-commanders, one at a time. It is not clear whether availability of overwhelming airpower on call would offset governmental or peacekeepers' weakness on the ground. The international community, in additional to helping provide financial incentives and a peacekeeping force has a further responsibility to avoid strengthening the attractiveness of recalcitrance. Specifically, neighbors and other interested countries will need to resist the temptation to provide financial assistance, military support (including air support) or prestige in the form of "recognition" to recalcitrant warlords. This may be difficult when the recalcitrant warlord has strong ethnic, religious or other ties to the outside power. It will require interested countries to remain focused on the larger objective of a unified, functioning broad-based government in Afghanistan
CONCLUSION: In Afghanistan, neither the interim government nor the international peacekeeping force is likely to have the strength necessary to subdue a major regional or tribal warlord. Major financial and other incentives will be necessary to offset the "pull" of smuggling and narcotics trafficking, thus accommodating them without actually strengthening them. In the longer term it should be possible to reduce their power, and the international community will want to work to that end.
AUTHOR BIO: R. Grant Smith is a senior visiting scholar at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute of Johns Hopkins University-SAIS. He is a former U.S. Ambassador to Tajikistan.
Copyright 2001 The Analyst. All rights reserved