Editor’s note: Here CESS Blog is pleased to present the fourth installment of our author interview series for those shortlisted for the annual CESS book award in social sciences and humanities this year. Niamatullah Ibrahimi (La Trobe University), author of both Afghanistan: Politics and Economics in a Globalising State (Routledge 2019, with William Maley), and The Hazaras and the Afghan State: Rebellion, Exclusion, and the Struggle for Recognition (Hurst Publishers 2017) interviews Romain Malejacq (Radboud University) about his book Warlord Survival: The Delusion of State Building in Afghanistan, published by Cornell University Press.
“How do warlords survive and even thrive in contexts that are explicitly set up to undermine them? How do they rise after each fall? Warlord Survival answers these questions. Drawing on hundreds of in-depth interviews in Afghanistan between 2007 and 2018, with ministers, governors, a former vice-president, warlords and their entourages, opposition leaders, diplomats, NGO workers, and local journalists and researchers, Romain Malejacq provides a full investigation of how warlords adapt and explains why weak states like Afghanistan allow it to happen.” (from the press website)
Many congratulations on the publication of your excellent book, Warlord Survival: The Delusion of State Building in Afghanistan. Can we begin by reflecting on your personal journey that led to the writing of this book? How did you get interested in Afghanistan and the phenomenon of ‘warlordism’ in particular?
Initially, I actually had no intention of working on Afghanistan. In fact, I had absolutely no prior connection to Afghanistan. I spent a year in South Africa as an undergraduate student and that’s really when I became interested in peace and conflict studies. I had also travelled quite extensively throughout Africa before and I continued to do so during that year. It’s almost naturally that I decided to focus my research on African conflicts. I became interested in warlords long before I even thought about studying Afghanistan. I became acquainted with ideas and theories about warlordism while writing my Master’s thesis, which had nothing to do with Afghanistan, but focused exclusively on Liberia and Sierra Leone. I was specifically looking at theories that emerged to describe and explain the Mano River conflicts. Warlordism was an important topic there and I decided to continue on this topic for my PhD. I started my PhD thinking my dissertation would be a comparative study of warlords in a few African countries. It’s only then, the very first month of my doctoral studies, that I had the opportunity to work on and go to Afghanistan for a completely unrelated research project. I jumped on the occasion. I spent that month in Kabul and immediately became fascinated by the place. My PhD advisor then suggested to include Afghanistan as one of my cases, which I did. And I went back to Afghanistan, again and again, every time falling more in love with the place. The more I learned about Afghanistan, the more I realized how complicated it was, the more I realized how little I actually knew. Almost fifteen years later, I still feel this way sometimes, and that’s part of what captivates me and motivates me to go back, time after time. For me, Afghan politics are truly fascinating. Anyway, I quickly understood that there was no point in spreading myself thin and trying to understand multiple places and societies that I knew nothing, or very little, about. I quickly dropped the other cases, and focused on Afghanistan and Afghanistan only. And that’s the story of how I came to study Afghan warlords. I don’t regret a thing.
The author interviewing Ismail Khan in his palace, Herat (photograph by friend of the author)
You have conducted extensive field research over so many years to write this book. Did you encounter any challenges and major surprises during the field work?
Yes! Many challenges and at least as many surprises! First, because Afghan culture is so different from my own. It takes a while for one to get acquainted with people’s traditions and ways of life, and make sure to behave appropriately in all circumstances. I clearly made many faux pas the first times I visited Afghanistan. And I’m sure I still do. Hopefully, less and less… But that’s somehow inevitable. Second, of course, fieldwork is challenging because of the current security situation in Afghanistan. Conducting fieldwork in conflict settings is always challenging but doing research in Afghanistan is becoming increasingly difficult. Especially research on non-state armed actors, such as warlords, militias, or insurgent groups. Access, transportation, accommodation… everything becomes challenging. Last, but maybe most importantly, being confronted with civil war destruction and suffering is something Western researchers are not prepared for. It is of course incomparable with what Afghan people have to go through, and we, foreign researchers, have the ability to leave the conflict behind once we’re done with fieldwork, but experiencing civil war is always traumatizing in one way or another. It is something that needs to be better acknowledged and dealt with, along with all the ethical and moral issues, and sometimes the sense of guilt, that come with doing what we do.
Now, as far surprises go, I actually had quite a few. The first one came almost as soon as I set foot on Afghan soil. I had never been to a conflict zone. I had ideas about what to expect but I vividly remember being quite in shock and impressed by the visuals of foreign intervention. The checkpoints, the sandbags, the barbed wires, the T-walls, I had never seen anything like that before. To add to this, the streets were almost empty, apart for pick-ups filled with young men in arms. After a night of travelling, it made quite an impression on me. It was really something I had never experienced before. What I only realized later is that it was not always like that. We had landed on September 9, on the anniversary of Ahmad Shah Massoud’s death, which was the reason for the empty streets and the men in arms. And then, a couple of days later, as my friend and I were driving back from a cultural evening at the French high school, I ended up with a green dot on my chest. Nothing happened, the driver slowly reversed the car and we turned around, but that was quite the first trip.
Portrait of Ahmad Shah Massoud with inscription “national hero” (graffiti adding “of Pakistan”), Kabul (photograph by author)
The word ‘warlord’ and its Dari translation jangsalar can have strong pejorative connotations. I remember, many in Afghanistan argued against using the term as they felt it was instrumentalised by some groups to delegitimise and even demonise their rivals. How do you think the practical use and abuse of the term may affect academic research on the topic?
I would like to think that it doesn’t, that the way the term ‘warlord’ is used in the media and by people in general does not affect the analysis, but it does. Academic work on warlords tends to be overly normative. The term is used to vilify a certain category of political actors which, it is assumed, the international community should get rid of. Scholars have compared warlords to viruses and parasites, feeding or encroaching themselves on the population and the state. To hyenas even! Many use the term to evoke these individuals’ violent and criminal behavior, but eclipse anything else that they do or represent. Often with a hint of Orientalism.
There are definitely valid arguments in favor of dropping the term altogether. I personally went back and forth for while. In the end though, I kept the term because I believe that it has academic value. Not to delegitimize political rivals or designate non-state armed actors in sensationalist ways, but as a social science concept. It is often used improperly, normatively, politically even, but it describes a category of political actors that operate according to a very distinctive logic.
In the book, I define warlords as “astute political entrepreneurs with a proven ability to organize violence and control territory, who exert and transform authority across different spheres (ideological, economic, military, social, and political) and at different levels of political affairs (local, national, and international)” (p.4). I make absolutely no normative assumption about them. At least I try not to. I just try to focus on what they do rather than on what is assumed of them. It won’t prevent people from making conjectures about what I say about warlords. It goes both ways anyhow. Some will say I am pro-warlords, others that I am anti-warlords. But in fact, I’m neither. I’m just trying to understand and explain a particular phenomenon.
So, going back to your question, yes I believe that the way the term has been used (and abused) does affect academic research, and in a problematic way. It’s even more the case in Afghanistan, where political actors themselves have used it to vilify others, but it does not make the concept less relevant. We just have to be very careful not to use it normatively, and to really distinguish between the social science concept and the popular use of the term.
Soviet tank remnant, Panjshir Valley (photograph by the author)
In your book, you explore how warlords accumulate and project power to survive in highly volatile environments. Can you please explain how power projection by a warlord is different from power politics more generally?
Power projection is the mechanism through which political actors convince others that they are legitimate, and have authority. That’s how warlords remain indispensable in the eyes of those who need what they can provide, whether it is votes, security, or job opportunities. This is not necessarily unique to warlords though. Populist leaders and dictators, for example, use propaganda and other means to boost their image. Most political actors develop sophisticated communication strategies. What is unique about warlords is that have the ability to use violence, which they combine with the capacity to reach all levels of politics.
Thanks to their ability to use violence, not only can warlords supply goods and services that most other political actors cannot, but they can also create disorder. In places where state capacities are weak, like Afghanistan, this makes warlords very distinct from other political actors. It provides them with a lot of new opportunities. And, since a warlord’s power is extremely difficult to assess, it also makes them very difficult to get rid of. Those who would like to see warlords wither away have to deal with them quite conservatively, as they fear their capacity to foster instability.
What I really try to explain in the book is that there is a circular logic to how warlords perpetuate their power. The more powerful they look, the more their wishes will be accommodated, and the more powerful they will become. And the more powerful they are, the more powerful they look. In fact, they remain powerful as long as long as others believe they are. This brings us to the warlords’ second distinctive feature. They have the ability to exert power and make themselves indispensable at all levels of political affairs, from local communities, to political elites in the capital, to foreign state representatives, which, combined with their ability to use violence, allows them to perpetuate their power.
Some have argued that the so-called warlords may find it in their interest to work through state institutions and thus potentially become state builders. You argue that this is a delusion. Can you please explain why you think this is a delusion?
Well, I don’t necessarily argue that warlord cannot become state builders, or that they cannot be integrated into some sort of state-building process. On the contrary, I conclude the book by saying that state building can only be successful if it involves the incorporation and absorption of the warlords’ social capital and networks on terms that are useful to the state. The delusion is to think that external state building aimed at centralizing and monopolizing political authority will work. Warlords are integral to the way states like Afghanistan actually work and they won’t go anywhere. There is also no reason to believe that they will turn into benevolent civil servants and just abandon their other sources of authority. This is not to say that there can be no state and that warlords cannot play their part in building it. They will if it serves their interests indeed. But they will maintain their ability to harness different sources of power outside of the state. So, yes, warlords can help the state extent its reach, but their power will endure no matter what, whether we like it or not. In fact, they use the state’s authority to increase their own and use their own to increase the state’s. What I’m truly saying in the book is that external state building in Afghanistan and other similar environments is impossible without significant concessions to these warlords. They will not be eliminated and replaced by the state. So yes, external interventions that aim at building centralized, bureaucratic states are doomed to fail and, in these conditions, lead to what I call the delusion of state building.
 Malejacq, Romain and Dipali Mukhopadhyay. 2016. “The ‘Tribal Politics’ of Field Research: A Reflection on Power and Partiality in 21st-Century Warzones. Perspectives on Politics 14(4): 1011-1028.