There is a persistent paradox in the literature (and policy-related discourse) on warlordism that spills over into the larger scholarship on political violence and state formation: while some observers regard warlords as insurmountable spoilers, too strong and sinister to be tamed, others characterize them as paper tigers that could be easily dismissed with the right kind of political will. Romain Malejacq has broken through this paradox and unraveled it once and for all, a task that required an exceptional combination of theoretical creativity and empirical labor. Based on rich and difficult qualitative field research conducted across northern and western Afghanistan, Warlord Survival: The Delusion of State Building in Afghanistan examines the trajectories of the country’s most formidable (and notorious) strongmen to ask the question “How do warlords survive and even thrive in contexts that are explicitly set up to undermine them?”
The study of bureaucracy as an influence in the formulation and conduct of foreign and defense policy has receded in popularity since its heyday during the 1960s and 1970s. Today, the limits of bureaucratic processes, the influence of the decorum generated by organizational culture or even the constraints created by the overall structure of government itself are rarely identified as much of a contributing factor in policy success or failure. Instead, the world seems focused on a vicious partisan politics that demonizes the opposition and reduces issues of specific policy selection and implementation to little more than an afterthought, as if ideological purity can substitute for bureaucratic acumen and political savvy. Nevertheless, as Robert Art noted in his survey of the first-wave of the bureaucratic politics literature, how we make decisions influences the types of decisions we make. Organizational processes and bureaucratic culture can frame opportunities, challenges, and options in sometimes surprising ways.
For all their differences, Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama have taken remarkably similar approaches to Afghanistan. Both entered office, conducted reviews of the domestically unpopular American-led war, and ultimately decided to increase the U.S. troop numbers there while continuing to support shaky, often corrupt, Afghan government partners.
In this important study, which should be of interest to both scholars and policymakers, Paul Miller examines the practice of armed state building by both the United States and the United Nations. While acknowledging that there are some characteristics of armed state building by liberal powers that are similar to the theory and practice of traditional imperialism, Miller argues that there are important differences between the two concepts. In his definition, “Armed international liberal state building is the attempt by liberal states to use military, political, and economic power to compel weak, failed, or collapsed states to govern more effectively and accountably, as understood by Westphalian and liberal norms”(7).
In 2015 the United States faces a number of opportunities to intervene with military force in countries of secondary or even less strategic importance to U.S. policy makers. President Barack Obama’s completion of the withdrawal of American ground combat troops from Iraq, and plans to draw down U.S. troops from Afghanistan, have not reduced either the escalation of recent conflicts such as in Libya and Yemen, or the continuation of destructive ethnic and religious strife with international participation in Syria. As if that were not a sufficient number of states with contested conflict taking place, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) expanded from gradual growth after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2013, migrated into the Syrian Civil War, and in February 2014 charged into western Iraq to seize Mosul and other Sunni dominated areas. Boko Haram in Nigeria also escalated its attacks in northeastern Nigeria and engaged in the kidnapping of school girls, burning of villages, murder of residents, and attacks on Nigeria’s neighbors such as Chad. The list does not even include Russian President Vladimir Putin’s seizure of Crimea from the Ukraine in February 2014 and Putin’s continued support of Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine with weapons, so-called ‘Russian volunteers,’ and funds.
After thirteen years of war, the loss of many thousand of lives, and the expenditure of trillions of dollars, what has the United States learned? The answer depends on not only who is asking but when. The story of the Iraq war would have different endings, and morals, if told in 2003, 2006, 2011, or 2014, and it will continue to evolve. As for Afghanistan, the narrative there has also shifted over time, and the ending also remains in doubt. Neither disaster has been unmitigated. But few would argue that Washington’s approach to either has been a success worth emulating. So the most important question today is what can be learned from the failures.
Understanding the nature of insurgencies has long been an important objective for political scientists, historians, and policymakers. In Networks of Rebellion, Paul Staniland argues that scholars have paid insufficient attention to the different organizational structures of insurgent groups. In his view, understanding organizational structure is crucial because “states and their foes spend far more time and resources on organization building and institutional survival than on formulating intricate strategies of violence…Like logistics, organization consumes the attention of professional war-fighters” (220). What explains the different organizational structures of insurgent organizations? Staniland argues that a crucial determinant of the structure of insurgent groups during wartime is the nature of prewar political life. While organizational structures can and do change during wartime, he argues that the prewar ties between elites and local communities “determine the strength of central and local organizational control when rebel leaders mobilize that based for rebellion” (9).
The dangers of writing about terrorism and terrorist groups, most especially al-Qa’ida, are twofold. The first is that the field is so inundated with punditry and scholarship on the subject that new entrants easily can be lost in the noise; the second is that in order to avoid being lost in the noise the temptation is strong to exaggerate claims and to assert over-strenuously the importance of one’s conclusions.
Since the start of the twenty-first century, military contractors such as Blackwater (now named Academi), Kellogg, Brown & Root, and SNC Lavalin have become household names in many countries. The reasons for their prominence vary from case to case. One is notoriety. Particular firms hold contracts valued in the millions if not billions of dollars, and the conduct of some firms has not been beyond reproach in terms of military effectiveness or their observance of human rights. A second reason is reliance. Contractors are needed to keep state military personnel fed and supplied, to maintain their machines, and in some cases even to protect them. Developed world states especially require them for warring, training, and simply operating given the limited numbers of available national military personnel, the increasing sophistication of military technologies, and the political ramifications of applying state forces overseas. In many states, contractors have therefore become part of the total national force. Yet another reason pertains to dedication and sacrifice. Many firms suﬀffered significant levels of casualties during the long-term interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thousands of contracted personnel have provided continuity over the long haul in often austere and intemperate conditions. All of this points to the considerable depth and scope of contractor involvement, which is arguably unprecedented in recent decades if not centuries. It also stands at odds with traditional conceptions of expensive state security sectors and their capabilities and responsibilities to manage and apply violence.
The Good War: Why We Couldn’t Win the War or the Peace in Afghanistan is aptly named and sure to find its lasting place as the first full narrative of the U.S.-led intervention from 2001 through 2014. The timeframe is something of a moving target, depending on where you begin and end, and the theme is richly explored. This review will refer to several other of the more revealing books that fall into what could now be properly labeled a genre of Afghan War literature.