Crafting Peace: Strategies to Deal with Warlords in Collapsing States (Case Studies: Tajikistan and Sierra Leone)

By
F. Joseph Dresen

"This is the world of the warlord: ‘if you are educated you are nothing; if armed, you are superior. Anarchy rules here. If you are many and you have no guns, you are nothing.'" said Sasha Lezhnev, Senior Program Officer, Northern Uganda Peace Initiative, quoting a Somali aid official's remarks. Speaking at a 5 January 2006 book launch cosponsored the Woodrow Wilson Center's Africa Program and Kennan Institute, Lezhnev presented case studies of warlordism in Sierra Leone and Tajikistan. William Zartman, Director of Conflict Management at School of Advanced International Studies, Johns' Hopkins University, commented on Lezhnev's findings.

It is more important than ever to learn how to identify warlords and how to deal with them, said Lezhnev. Warlords no longer endanger only local populations; they now pose transnational threats through trade in drugs, arms, and more recently, as Liberia's Charles Taylor's links to al Qaeda through the diamond trade demonstrates, through potential links to terrorism.

Lezhnev proposed a five-part definition for warlords. First, their motive is personal power and glory, as opposed to ideological revolutionaries. Second, warlords typically come to power in "states in a coma," where law and order are very weak. This enables them to outmaneuver politicians with a critical mass of armed commanders. Third, warlords are brutal. They almost always attack soft civilian targets and employ terror to secure power. Fourth, they are able to field organized forces to mobilize and control resources. Finally, warlords have a similar social make-up. They typically have military backgrounds, are disgruntled, and have low levels of education.

Yet not all warlords are alike, continued Lezhnev. There is a spectrum ranging from ‘absolute warlords' focused entirely on attaining personal power (as in Sierra Leone), to more legitimate, localized warlords who are tied into ethnic, tribal, or spiritual identities (as in Tajikistan).

Sierra Leone suffered a civil war that lasted from 1991–2000 in which three million people were displaced, tens of thousands of people were killed, and thousands more were mutilated by machete. The three main factions in the war were the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), the army, and the Civil Defense Force (CDF). Each of the three factions descended into warlordism on occasion, reported Lezhnev, but the RUF, backed by Charles Taylor, was the most consistently brutal group throughout the war. Now, fifteen years later, Sierra Leone is at peace and the warlords are dead or facing a war crimes tribunal.

Early peace efforts in Sierra Leone were unsuccessful, noted Lezhnev. A limited military operation in the early 1990s against warlords temporarily liberated the capital and a few towns, but the warlords returned soon afterwards. An attempt at peace accords in 1999 that brought members of the RUF into the government only served to entrench the warlords and increase their power.

Lezhnev contended that a combination of short-term force and long-term reconstruction of state capacity were responsible for defeating the warlords in Sierra Leone. In 2000 the United Kingdom intervened militarily in the conflict, signaling that both the Sierra Leone government and the international community were serious about combating warlords. The United Kingdom also contributed to state reconstruction with aid packages and training. A UN peacekeeping force and targeted international sanctions against RUF supporter Charles Taylor further reduced the power of the warlords. Finally, social movements in Sierra Leone, ranging from local chiefs to mass demonstrations, changed the political security environment and helped secure the peace in Sierra Leone.

At about the same time, a civil war also broke out in Tajikistan. The conflict lasted from 1992–97, and left sixty thousand people dead and almost a million displaced. As in Sierra Leone, the country was rife with warlords during the conflict, but, according to Lezhnev, the warlords in Tajikistan were more tied into regional ethnic and religious groups.

The Tajik government eventually succeeded in crafting a state that was initially entirely dependant on warlord support but slowly grew less dependent on it. The government brought some warlords into the government, exiled others with ambassadorships, and fought the rest. Lezhnev contended that "today in Tajikistan the central government is stronger, the warlords somewhat less powerful…the same people are around, but understand the game differently. There are fewer clashes and more of an agreement about protecting business assets."

"There are two main approaches to dealing with warlords: forcefully dealing with them in the short-run, and reconstructing their political security environment around them over the long-term," concluded Lezhnev. "These strategies are not mutually exclusive, and in fact I argue they have to be used in combination."

In his commentary, Zartman noted that the book raises new questions about warlords. How does one determine whether a warlord must be eliminated, or integrated into a political solution? Will eliminating a warlord open the door for an even worse successor? "The book gets us thinking," concluded Zartman. "It provides us with a number of good answers, definitions, and concepts on this problem, and it leaves us with a number of questions to keep chewing on."

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